One day after our chocolate class let out, I was, unsurprisingly, craving chocolate. I happened to be traveling in the direction of the Market in the Square on Brattle Street, so I decided to stop inside and check out their chocolate selection. The market had wide range of chocolate from many parts of the world, but one bar stood out to me. The Divine Milk Chocolate with hazelnuts bar was colorfully and uniquely decorated; I had never seen anything like it before. When I looked a little closer, it seemed it could have a potentially problematic design. After close analysis of the bar’s wrapper, I found that the design, due to the history of Ghanaian chocolate, attempts to make purchasing the bar a charitable act that closes the gap between farmers and chocolate lovers. Sadly, it only increases the divide between the consumer and the producer of cacao.
When I first picked up the bar, I was attracted to the shiny Divine logo and the many blue and tan symbols that graced the packaging. I have to admit, I did not know anything about the Divine chocolate company before encountering this chocolate bar. I decided to analyze the bar as an inexperienced consumer in order to best understand how Divine was marketing their products. As I walk through my experience as a first time consumer of Divine, I will show how the bar is marketed toward closing the gap between the consumer and the producer, and in reality how it does the opposite.
Here is the outside of the Divine Milk Chocolate wrapper:
As I mentioned before, one of the first things I noticed about the milk chocolate bar’s packaging was its being covered in many tribal-esque symbols. I thought at first that these symbols were an homage to cacao’s Mesoamerican origins. However, when I opened the bar and looked on the inside of the wrapper, I found an explanation on the bottom. In order “to celebrate [their] Ghanaian ownership” Divine decorated the bar with Adinkra symbols which are “traditional West African motifs”. This bar emphasized the symbol “Kokrobotie which represents co-operation and teamwork”.
At first I thought “oh that’s nice, they are celebrating the culture of the farmers.” And then I considered the wording of “West African motifs”. The rest of the wrapping all contained very specific references to the Kuapa Kokoo co-op from which they get their cacao, even the home regions of farmers in Ghana. The vagueness of the symbols’ origins indicates that they are most likely not from Kuapa Kokoo or Ghana. This is problematic, as it is careless to claim that Divine’s image is specifically in the co-op, then use images that are not from there but “close enough” for the Western consumer. It indicates that the company is going for a look rather than sincere representation of culture and leads to their exotification.
We can guess that the symbols exist to create a sense of understanding between the cacao farmers and the consumers. The specific symbol Kokrobotie meaning co-operation and teamwork is ambiguous as well. Perhaps the ambiguity is meant to make the consumer feel as if they are co-operating with the farmers.The connection between farmer and shopper is one that is not often made, and the connection is quite appealing to consumers (Doherty and Tranchell).
Scholar Lucia Hulsether in her work on Tom’s shoes, a company with a mission to help those in developing countries just as Divine does, identifies the appeal of this connection as part of the spiritual politics of neoliberalism. Essentially, the consumer today feels disconnected with those who produce their goods. They feel more ethically satisfied when purchasing goods that close the gap between consumer and producer, especially ones that create a sense of all people buying into global community (Hulsether). The symbols create the sense that the buyer better understands the culture of those producing her food, so she feels more connected, more a part of a global community.
After I noticed he symbols that grace the Divine milk chocolate bar’s packaging, I moved on to the treatment of the farmers of the Kuapa Kokoo co-op.
The backside of the bar contains a few sentences mentioning that their beans are of high quality from the Kuapa Kokoo co-op. I found on the inside of the bar, though, paragraphs of information about the co-op and its farmers. There was a specific section called “Meet Gladys” introducing consumers to Gladys Okai, one of the community members of the co-op (it is unclear whether she is a farmer herself). The profile is similar to this video from Divine’s YouTube channel:
The main difference between the wording on the bar and the video is that Gladys has a voice in the video. On the bar, she is referenced in the third person and some of what she says is the video is translated into abbreviated quotes. The wrapper mentions how the co-op has provided water for her community and what a difference that makes. Her photo is included next to her information.
I’ll admit, at first I was touched by the story. I was glad to have found a chocolate bar that was making such a change in the lives of others. I felt that I was voting, so to speak, with my purchase for more companies with such a mission. And that is exactly how the consumer is supposed to feel.
This is all part of the connection that Hulsether identifies in her work. I can purchase a good, but I am really purchasing the ethical satisfaction that I am not contributing to the exploitation of unknown farmers. I see a face, I hear the story of someone who makes my food, and by making my food her life is improving. I feel like part of a global community working for social change.
I found I had a couple of lingering questions for Divine. The first was whether or not their mission is effective. Scholars have questioned how much the fair trade and alternative trade can make a difference in the communities they claim to help. In one instance, an investigation of a coffee producer in Nigeria found that fair trade impact was limited by the debt from paying the licensing fee, lack of government support and other factors (Utting-Chamorro). The owners of Divine wrote a case study article on whether by going mainstream their mission became “clean-washed”. Clean-washing occurs when a company benefits from the increased sales from being fair trade, but does little to bring about the changes they promise by being fair trade (Doherty and Tranchell). While their report concludes that they have not been clean-washed, we have to consider that this report was written by the owners of the company. While the article is peer reviewed, there’s definitely a conflict of interest here.
We can take with a grain of salt Divine’s claims that they are bringing about change in the Kuapa Kokoo co-op, but my last, most concerning question for Divine was the nature of their leadership and how they market it.
I went back to Gladys’ story on the inside of the wrapper, and I made a key observation after a close reading of the bar. Gladys is referred to in the third person, supposedly by whomever owns Divine. However, right above her profile is a seal claiming “owned by chocolate farmers, made for chocolate lovers”. A large part of Divine, is in fact owned by the farmers of the Kuapa Kokoo co-op (Divine). Why then, are Gladys and other farmers on Divine’s materials referred to as an other? Instead of using language that reads as “this is our co-op, and through our business we have made this change for our community” the language reads as “this company, one that helps this co-op, is what is changing the community”. The marketing of Divine’s products has created a middle man that does not need to exist.
Why then, does this middle man exist? I would argue that is has to do with how Ghanaian chocolate is perceived in Western society. West Africa primarily grows lower quality bulk cacao, but Ghana is the exception. Government regulations have kept the quality of bulk cacao high on many farms in Ghana, and this is well known in the chocolate world (Leisse). Western artisans, though, are hesitant to source Ghanaian beans because of tight purchasing regulations, but also because of perceptions that exotify West African and remind them of slavery (Leisse). Another factor to consider is the perception Americans have of West African labor practices. An American 2005 case study of cacao workers in West Africa found many counts of child labor that resulted in harmful lacerations and/or pesticide exposure (Kirkhorn and Mull). It is worth noting that the researchers did not use a nonrandom population of workers, which casts a shadow of doubt over their finding. Regardless of the strength of their findings, when Western society considers Ghanaian chocolate, they are reminded of poor labor practices both in the past and present.
Here lies the appeal of the middle man. Western consumers can trust a Western third party to go in and make a social change. The chocolate wrapper still emphasizes the changes they bring about so that the consumers feels like they are connected to those who produce their food from across the globe.
And here’s the problem: by using a third party Divine is exotifying, speaking for the farmers and widening the divide between consumer and producer. The Milk Chocolate with Hazelnut bar’s package is condescending in nature, which makes the chocolate buyer feel they are connecting with chocolate farmers, but on a shallow level. The consumer does not consider the innovation, hard work, or humanity necessarily of the farmer. They see a face they are saving. Thus, the divide between consumer and producer on increases.
“About Us.” Divine Chocolate. Web. 6 May 2015.
Doherty, Bob, and Sophi Tranchell. ““Radical mainstreaming” of fairtrade: the case of The Day Chocolate Company.” Equal Opportunities International 26.7 (2007): 693-711.
Hulsether, Lucia. “TOMS Shoes and the Spiritual Politics of Neoliberalism.” Religion and Politics: Fit for Polite Company. John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 6 May 2015.
Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.”Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 13.3 (2013): 22-31.
Mull, L. Diane, and Steven R. Kirkhorn. “Child labor in Ghana cocoa production: focus upon agricultural tasks, ergonomic exposures, and associated injuries and illnesses.” Public Health Reports 120.6 (2005): 649.
Utting-Chamorro, Karla. “Does fair trade make a difference? The case of small coffee producers in Nicaragua.” Development in Practice 15.3-4 (2005): 584-599.