the dance of the ink riddled fingers

is chocolate ever guilt-free?

Posted in handfuls of ambition, thought spills by enisea on 16/04/2011

“Fairtrade”. This word originated in about the 1940s, and its recent concept evokes an impressive response.  It seems to sigh relief and pump the fist of Social Justice, as if to cry ‘this product is justified’.  I suppose it provokes the gentle nod that we all agree is a good reason to pay a little bit more for – for those who can afford such indulgent spending.  The rest of us shyly shrink back into the limited 5cm of our open wallets and purchase the most attractive yet most affordable ‘sale’ item.  Thing is, we know so little about this emerging label – and it is now an extended brand, a new sticker to boast superiority in product and process – because it doesn’t advocate the oppression of our Third World suppliers.

I went to a Fairtrade chocolate tasting gathering, organised by a friend who’s at beginning stages of starting a business in supplying “Divine” chocolate to Melbournians. It looks like this and costs $5.50 per 100g block.

Which is all lovely and brilliant, and I tried every flavour here.  Then I watched a series of 4 youtube clips which gave a very brief and shallow investigation into the chocolate industry – totalling about an hour, titled Chocolate – The Bitter Truth, parts A, B, C, D.  I think I was puzzled by how little publicity it had received on youtube and its clearly diminished interest: part A (10,557 views), part B (4,886), part C (3,458), part D (3,269).  I know acquaintances with youtube channels who’ve received more publicity on one video than all of these combined, and all they’re doing is singing songs – hardly an effort to rival the country hopping and secret footage of this controversial investigation!  Hahaha, gee, aren’t I just a saint for having devoted one hour to this shallow interest? 

I must admit it has stirred a little unrest in me.  There is the understanding that the incredibly hiked price is because farmers get a prettier penny for their labour (which may or may not still involve children, and which may or may not be distributed fairly amongst every worker), a greater accountability and transparency is expected and eventually enforced.  However, after the exporting/importing, marketing, packaging and supplying, the considerable amount demanding of the First World Consumer may not be completely assuring, regarding the percentages of distributed profit.  Don’t get me wrong, Fairtrade is an incredible step in the stamping out of slave and child labour – but it is not flawless (…and I am such a cynic).  What scares me is that the expectation that Fairtrade is expected to cost considerably more, seems to seed in us a naive assumption that the majority of this new price is awarded to the harvesters… when by the time it has made it through all 8 hands, and each have made 50c profit off each bar, the double pay awarded to the farmers was really only 40c compared with their previous 20c (these numbers and figures are fictional only to illustrate my point of the lack of specifics).  I don’t know.  Again, I am such a cynic.  It just seems like even the good measures we are told about are not sufficiently detailed because the process to purge corruption is much more gradual than anyone would like it to be. 

Having said this, however, buying Fairtrade is definitely better than buying the alternative without symbol!!  I just think more transparency is needed and more investigation and resource in its maintenance is necessary in ‘Fairtrade’.  That warm but naive fuzzy feeling that your monthly purchase of Fairtrade is really aiding Third World developments is the picture of ignorance.  It helps, true, but we never know how much and if more can be done.  The fact that companies who make a profit are still companies who want to make profit is my skepticism- not that profits are a bad thing in itself, only that success is fuel for greed and the potentials of the fortunate portion of humanity is more often corrupt than benevolent.  I hope this doesn’t make me evil for being wary of Fairtrade, and whoever reads this better not use it as an excuse not to buy it and blame me for it – because that’s perverting my point. I’m not suggesting that Fairtrade is only the lesser of two evils,I am simply suggesting everybody make practice of the tiresome effort to not ignorantly accept everything at face-value, be it ‘good’ or ‘bad’

It seems every First World consumer product is so rife with controversy that to boycott chocolate would require boycotting every other product, less they cry ‘hypocrite’ for not standing up for animal rights in the meat market, or realising the sweat shop assemblage line of designer labels, or slave/child labour in the corrupt obtaining of raw materials.  This puts us all in a really tight spot.  Honestly, I cannot harvest my own cotton, silk, cacao, wheat, or rear and slaughter my own meat – so what am I, as a conscious consumer, suppose to do?  I could buy every Fairtrade item (or as much Fairtrade as is available), but because of the price I would be living minimally… and selfish I wouldn’t like to live minimally. 

Saving the world is not free, it always comes at a cost.  The only distinction between helping or not is whether the cost is to those who can afford it (the First World) or to those who can’t (the Third World).

The bottomline? As new as the methodologies and procedures in establishing and circulating fair trade are, it will only improve, and the funds will be better allotted once its market grows and resource will be poured more abundantly, as well as a general spread of knowledge and awareness.  But it starts with one (more expensive) chocolate bar.

I considered giving up chocolate, for real.  And this is a huge step for anyone who knows how much of my emotional eating depends on it.  I might have a fair trade block when I can afford it, but now that I’m aware of the potential any ‘other’ chocolate bar has of being the product of child-trafficked workers, I’m a little sickened.  And what of Milo and chocolate powder?  I don’t drink coffee, I usually only drink hot chocolate, so if I now can’t drink hot chocolate without it specifically being stamped as Fairtrade, I suppose I’m left with tea…and do I now need to investigate which teas are the most socially and environmentally just/righteous products?

I have opened up a can of worms, again. 

Life just got a little more expensive.

Buy Fairtrade. It’s a good idea.


5 Responses

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  1. Rachel said, on 16/04/2011 at 10:46 PM

    Hey Nik, this is a really thoughtful write-up about Fairtrade! It’s perfectly legit to be wary of it though. I remember reading about Fairtrade coffee a few years ago and while it seemed quite complex (to my simple mind), I came away with the idea (if I’m remembering all this correctly too) that while the farmers/producers themselves are not earning very much more monetarily in terms of each bean they produce, the Fairtrade system that organisations put in place makes sure that the producers have community programs that will enhance their quality of life, e.g. schools in the community for kids etc. The truth is, it is the lesser of two evils. At least they have good intentions.

    I agree, this whole thing is like a minefield, that we end up just living in denial. It’s easier not to think of the child labour that has gone into the pyjamas I’m wearing right now.

    I think being socially conscious requires a real commitment, integrity and consistency. And we’re all living within the system, so unless we try to live without it and truly transform it (not just reform), we can never truly escape the trappings of it. Fairtrade is really just about working within the system and improving (read:reforming) how things are done in certain industries. But the fact is, our whole capitalist society is structured on unfair trade practices, and that’s something that is very difficult to overthrow overnight.

    My tutor said something really interesting the other day, about how this whole movement (we were talking about the green/environment/climate change stuff, but it sort of fits here too) has sort of got us feeling very guilty about our purchasing decisions, and the way we consume things. Yet it negates the fact that we need to demand corporations to change the way they do things, and be responsible for the way they practice business and not filter the problem purely to consumers. Of course we know we can never ‘change the world’ with just our individual acts, but I suppose it is more about living with integrity and consistency – e.g. if you wanna be vegan, make sure you don’t use any leather products too, etc etc

    I hope your hiatus goes well! Here’s to being fruitful in all other ways :)

  2. Rachel said, on 16/04/2011 at 10:48 PM

    *filter the problem to consumers – meaning that they’ve got us constantly feeling GUILTY ABOUT EVERY SINGLE THING WE DO

    • enisea said, on 17/04/2011 at 12:04 AM

      ahhhh!! you have no idea how much relief this reply has brought me. i think i spent about two hours writing and editing this over and over because as much as i have my doubts about the effectiveness and real progress of ‘fairtrade’, i didn’t want these doubts to be contagious and cause others to be unfavourably disposed towards purchasing it!

      hahaha, first haitus: a week without chocolate. i love the timing of it all!

      thanks for (pretty much always) understanding!! golden, you are! :)

  3. dad2dave said, on 20/04/2011 at 9:33 PM

    I have a question – do you buy free ranged eggs or caged eggs?

    • enisea said, on 20/04/2011 at 10:03 PM

      Hahaha, this is what i mean, Dave. There is guilt on every level of purchase. And would my answer to your question authenticate or validate my point?

      Fortunately for me, I hardly do the grocery shopping. However, the parents found a local spot that sold free-range eggs at a very reasonable price and so get that as much as they can. When I get my own place, the only pet I’d consider is a chicken… for this very reason :)

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