One of Life’s Guilty Pleasures

Most of us are aware of the terrible history of the Atlantic slave trade, which lasted for four hundred years until the 1860s, and saw an estimated 12 million black Africans transported by Europeans to the Americas to work as slaves in plantations and mines.

Numerous films and books such as Amistad, Amazing Grace, and Roots, portrayed the lives of slaves, slave owners and slave traders alike. Powerful and shocking though these depictions are, they mostly ignored another key party to the slave trade – indeed the party without which it is unlikely to have existed . . . the consumer.

The sugar, cotton, coffee, tobacco, rice and metals produced by slave labour was destined for transport to the markets first of Europe, then later across the Americas, and sold in order to provide the profits to sustain the system. Customers were happy to buy sugar and cotton, seemingly oblivious or uncaring regarding its production through slavery.

I’m sure we would never imagine ourselves as potential slave owners or traders – but if we were somehow magically transported back in time, would we also deliberately avoid sugar and cotton, or would we too become an uncaring consumer ?

It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.

It’s a depressing fact that although illegal in all countries, there are now more slaves around the world today than at any time in history. As has always been the case they are exploited by the unscrupulous and greedy in order to generate a profit from their labour, which includes the harvesting of cocoa for chocolate.

An estimated 1.8 million children work in cocoa plantations in West Africa. Many are trafficked from rural areas with false promises of paid work and are forced to work long hours in poor conditions, prevented from leaving, denied education and beaten if they don’t work hard enough or try to escape.

Despite global awareness of the problem, the international chocolate trade has so far been unable to implement guarantees or certification regarding slavery or child labour. Of course, no one is suggesting that all chocolate is tainted and it’s neither helpful or healthy just to feel somehow guilty that things are not as we would wish them to be in other parts of the world.

But the fact remains that our world is interconnected, we, the consumer, are part of the system and our actions and choices do collectively impact the lives of those far away. Ultimately if we want to change things then we must act . . . and the good news is we don’t have to stop eating chocolate !

Fairtrade is an increasingly well known organised social movement that aims to help producers of commodities in developing countries make better trading decisions and promote sustainable practices and ethics. Consumers pay a small Fairtrade price premium, which is then re-invested in improving local producer communities.

Increasing awareness and public concern about poor practices and exploitation in the cocoa industry has led to a recent rise in the number of companies producing Fairtrade chocolate – why not give them a try ? Even if you don’t buy Fairtrade 100% of the time, the more we switch, the bigger a positive influence we’ll have.

I imagine William Wilberforce would have approved !


Photo by Amrufm via Flickr

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  1. I find the labelling of Fairtrade products a little….strange. Laudable, of course. Strange nonetheless. Can we assume that those not displaying the Fairtrade logo are expoliting workers? Well, I guess we have to question why they haven’t signed up or passed the qualification objectives.

    I think that we should continue to operate the scheme in exactly the same way. But we should REMOVE the Fairtrade logo from use and every company not signed up or found to fail the Fairtrade qualifying standard should bear the logo saying ‘Produced by exploitation.’

    It’s peverse that not exploiting someone is an aspirational high, and not a minumum level. If the same ethos was followed in other walks of life, all medical students, whether they passed their exams or not would pass out to be doctors, but those who actually passed their exams and are fit to practice would just be labelled ‘Competent’. Or any adult could be a child minder, but only those who don’t have a previous history of child abuse would be labbelled ‘Fit to be around childern.’

    Let’s make Fairtrade a legal standard to be able to trade internationally.

    • I like the idea as a kind of thought experiment – label everything that doesn’t meet strict criteria as ‘exploitation food’ – somehow don’t see it being a popular choice though :)

      The key thing, it seems to me anyway, is AWARENESS – if the consumer knew the full facts about what they were buying, including its environmental and social footprint, then they could exercise their free choice whether to purchase or not.

      But in reality we know very little about where the stuff in our shops comes from – what does Made in China mean ? How about 100% Indian cotton ? Globalization has made it even harder to hold producers to account . . . ‘out of sight out of mind’.

      My favourite Slovenian Neo-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek makes another fairly strong point in the video below – by incorporating an ethical element into our consumption, we risk convincing ourselves that we’re doing enough to combat poverty and injustice.

      We chose to buy Fairtrade chocolate because the company gives a bit more back to the farmers, but the reality remains that their standard of life is far far inferior to ours, and many of them are unlikely to have even actually tasted the chocolate they work to produce.

      As Slavoj says – of course we should buy Fairtrade, it’s better than nothing – but let’s not pretend by doing so we’re really doing all we can for the desperate poor of the world.

      He can be a bit ‘mad’ and I’m certainly not on the same page with him much of the time, but I think he’s got this one just about right. Food for thought in every sense . . .

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