Amidst times of giving, one of the most considerate gifts one can receive is a box of chocolates. It is considered the universal expression of love and affection towards the ones we cherish. Chocolate holds great symbolic meaning and is therefore frequently given on occasions when our words simply cannot articulately express the appreciation we have for someone. However, behind this beautifully constructed facade, a horrid story of exploitation and unequal exchange reveals itself. Overshadowed by injustice and hardship, the chocolate industry has difficulties clinging onto the romanticised idea of its delicacies.
The chocolate industry
Akin to many other commodities we attribute sentimental value to, chocolate is by no means devoid of the ugliness within the global economic structure. Unfortunately, the conditions within the chocolate industry are no exception from the exploitation that frequently entails today’s globalised manufacturing. Tainted by the capitalist mindset of continual growth and maximisation, the global economy is premised on the concept of unequal exchange. Ultimately, profits are being yielded by an already wealthy minority at the expense of the vast majority of people in the world.
In for example Côte d’Ivoire, the cocoa production has caused apparent adversities in various guises for the people involved within the chocolate supply chain. In the 2019 Netflix docu-series Rotten, the dark side of the West African chocolate industry as well as cocoa production is clearly demonstrated. The region is one of the world-leading suppliers of the cocoa bean, especially in the case of the two adjacent countries Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Jointly, the two countries constitute about approximately 60% of the total supply of cocoa worldwide. However, in the vast supply chain of chocolate, cocoa farming is nothing but a testimony to tragedy. Not only is the cultivation of the crop a lengthy and laborious process, but also an extremely volatile and perilous industry.
West African cocoa production is also tainted by the foul play of multinational corporations, colloquially known as cocoa traders, and by the unequal exchange of labour and materials provided by the cacao farmers. Within the supply chain, various so-called middlemen profit from the exploitation of smallholders. Farmers at the bottom of the supply chain are working in abject conditions, which in the documentary was compared to modern slavery, earning under a dollar a day whilst large and powerful corporations yield tremendous profits at the expense of the farmers. As a matter of fact, farmers solely receive approximately 6% of the product’s final market value whilst manufacturers and retailers respectively claim about 44% and 35% of the share.
Evidently, the primary beneficiaries of the manufacturing of chocolate is without a doubt the almighty multinational corporations. Namely, well known corporations such as Nestlé and Mars. This means that when we purchase any chocolate product at the set market price, hardly any of the actual profit reaches the cocoa farmers. In short, the multibillion-dollar industry of chocolate is explicitly able to exclude the people at its nexus with impunity. This further demonstrates that some people in the world are fortunate enough to benefit from the global economy, whilst others only seem to bear the burden of it.
The global economy
Structurally, the world is economically organised on the basis of injustice. The global economic system is constructed in a manner which excludes the majority of people keeping it afloat. For instance, the vast majority of people within the global South have unjustifiably been economically marginalised. According to Portland University professor Veronica Dujon, this sort of marginalisation has kept the global South in a peripheral relationship to the further industrialised and wealthy global North. Perfectly elucidated by political scientist John McCormick, “the global marketplace and the forces of globalisation are shaped to a large degree by the interests and the actions of the governments and corporations of these [wealthy] states.” In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, it is clear that the cocoa industry neither is intended for the people within the country nor at service for their own national interests. Rather, the Ivorian cocoa production seems to solely exist to supply the demand of foreign markets.
Today’s economic globalisation has ultimately entailed commercial exploitation of other human beings through a geographical relocation of labour-intensive work to the global South. A greater flexibilization of the labour force has been the result of a neoliberal reconstruction of the global economy, which author and scholar V. Spike Petersson in turn argues has contributed to an increasing feminisation of the global workforce. Essentially, what feminisation alludes to is the devalorisation of labour. It directly translates to lower wages, insecurity of employment and income for already vulnerable people such as women, migrants and those living in poverty. Ultimately, what feminisation has resulted in is higher profits for companies.
Promoting a sustainable cacao industry
Even though the global economy is largely at fault for the brought about injustices within the chocolate industry, the forces of the free market can also be utilised as a solution to the issue at hand. For instance, creating a demand for more equitable and reciprocal trading agreements will assure workers fair remuneration for their labour. Moreover, favourable conditions for principally cacao farmers would likely result in a more sustainable and ethical supply chain. When chocolate is sustainably made, a certain liability can be expected out of the companies manufacturing the products.
However, it is worth acknowledging that the path to a more fair and sustainable chocolate industry and global economy will not be met without resistance. It is highly improbable that the corporations that are sustaining themselves and thriving on behalf of injustice will adjust their ways. A perfect example of this is the futile endeavors at abolishing child labour within the chocolate industry. Large brands such as Mars have notoriously failed to take accountability for the abject labour conditions in their chocolate production. By dismissing these pertinent issues, companies are able to operate without impunity.
Despite the presented difficulties, it is possible to make a difference. In the end, we as consumers have the power to increase the demand and supply of sustainable products. With that said, the least we can do the next time we would like to express our appreciation for someone or simply enjoy the sweetness of chocolate is to consider purchasing more sustainably sourced products.
Dujon, V. (2012). ‘In the Absence of Affluence: The Struggle for Social Sustainability in the Third World’ in Dillard. J., Dujon. V., & M. C. King (ed.) Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability. New York: Routledge, pp. 122-136
McCormick, J. (2018). Introduction to Global Studies. London: Red Globe Press.
Spike Peterson, V. (2019). ‘How is the world organised economically?’ in Edkins, J., & Zehfuss, M. (ed.) Global Politics: A New Introduction, London: Routledge, pp. 345-364.
Di Muzio, T., & Robbins, R. H. (2017). An Anthropology of Money: A Critical Introduction. New York: Routledge.
Linnea Björk is a Staff Writer with Utblick since fall 2021.