I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chocolate Ethics 101

So, these days, everybody professes the desire to be an ethical consumer (well, everybody I know, but I live in Seattle). The way to put this into action, they believe, is to buy fair trade. And while I am not opposed to fair trade, it seems to me that in the case of chocolate, we have forgotten that it is only the most recent attempt in a long history of industrial ethics. For chocolate makers - the big ones, anyway - have always been concerned with making life good for people, beyond selling them a candy bar.

The big news this week is that US food giant Kraft made a bid to take over Cadbury company in Britain. Kraft’s $16.7 billion offer was rejected by Cadbury’s board; now it seems that US-based Hershey has the money to bid for its British rival as well.

Now, frankly, if I were the British consuming public, my biggest fear at this potential takeover would be of a dystopic future world in which all Cadbury chocolate tasted like a Hershey bar. (Look, I don’t hate Hershey. But, as everybody knows, all non-Americans think it tastes like puke.) So far, however, no one has expressed this fear.

Rather, the most compelling story I have seen is a video about what will happen to Bournville, the model town built by Cadbury’s Quaker founders, when scary, unethical foreigners come to take over. For the Cadbury family were an ethically minded, god-fearing lot who wanted to spread the love of not only chocolate, but of a healthier, happier, moral life.

This is the part of industry history that has been forgotten. The Cadburys were no doubt in business to make money; the profit motive was there, and this meant the usual ethical degradation when it came to certain safety and sourcing standards.

But there was also the explicit intention to bring the good life to people when most lived in squalor. In the 19th century, when the big chocolate makers were getting started, the industrial revolution was at its height. The British factory world was not an especially nice place: sickness and disease were rampant, streets were lined with raw sewage, air choked with the smoke of industrial stacks. Plumbing, lights, and running water were not the norm, for anybody.

In the middle of all this, Cadbury established Bournville Village, a place where its factory workers could live in tidy homes, surrounded by green grass and clean air. The town had sports fields, a school, parks, a lake, and swimming pools in an era when everyone else lived in filth. Today, Bournville remains a vibrant community, where residents live quiet, suburban lives, there is no public house to buy alcohol, and there is not a single take-out restaurant.

Cadbury did other ethical things, too. While it resisted for many years, the company eventually became the most significant chocolate maker to boycott cocoa produced in São Tomé, at the time the world’s biggest supplier, when it became clear that its plantations were run by slave labor. More recently, when I was in Ghana doing my PhD fieldwork, I saw signs dotting the rural areas, announcing water wells and pumps and other development projects to benefit cocoa farmers, all supported by Cadbury.

Today, the residents of Bournville are worried that if a foreign company takes over, particularly Kraft, the ethics of their beloved company and town will erode. Perhaps this is not unfounded. But should it be Hershey who makes the successful bid, however, I think they might have less to fear.

For Hershey built a model town, too. It’s called Hershey, and it’s in Pennsylvania, and the founding mission was much the same as for Bournville: build a place where factory workers could live in comfort and health, enjoying modern amenities and a community that adhered to strict rules of moral self-governance. Milton Hershey himself used to stroll through town, checking that there weren’t any riff-raff disturbing the tranquility with bad behavior, like public drunkenness.

When Hershey died, he left the majority shares of his company to Hershey Trust, guardian of the Milton Hershey School for orphans and under-privileged boys (today girls attend too). This means that the huge, billion-dollar Hershey company exists primarily to serve the interests of poor children; and indeed, their school lavishes more resources on each child than any other in the country.

All this is not to say that these ego-maniacal efforts to control worker morality is the ideal route to a better world for us all. My point is not that Cadbury and Hershey got it right in their attempts at making life good; far from it. I mean, I personally would not want to live in either Bourneville or Hershey. If I’m going to live in a place where I can never drink or order in, I want at the very least an unlimited supply of chocolate delivered to my doorstep every day. And I don’t think that’s part of the program.

Rather, my goal is to make it clear that the chocolate industry has had a significant history of ethical practice. Its giants did what they believed right at the time: in the squalor of industrialization, a clean and healthy home mattered. Beyond that, they tried to extend good self-governance and an ethics of care into their communities, farmer regions, and beyond.

Today’s attempts at ethical consumerism are not the trailblazing revolution that we like to believe. Rather, they are the most recent articulation of what should count as good practice, in what is at heart an exploitative industry. There is no black-and-white when it comes to ethics in chocolate. Even the big baddies have tried - and succeeded - to do some good.

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