When I was at university, our student Amnesty group got a visit from Professor Kevin Bales, a sociologist who had written a book called Disposable People based on his investigation into the shameful practice of modern slavery that I knew nothing about when I entered the meeting. Filmmakers Brian Edwards and Kate Blewett had produced the documentary “Slavery”, which had recently aired on Channel 4, following Bales’ research.
I came out of that room deeply shaken. The practice was not only odious but appeared to be remarkably widespread. The examples of real life stores that Bales had encountered during his investigations ranged from bricklayers in debt bondage in Pakistan to domestic workers in Paris. But the most appalling examples he had, illustrated by real pictures of backs crisscrossed by lash strokes that you do not expect to see outside the set of a Tarantino movie in this day and age, were from cocoa plantations in Côte D’Ivoire.
Being the young idealist that I was, I got together with a fellow-student Elizabeth to form a group called Oxford Anti-Slavery Campaign that mostly wrote outraged letters as far as I can remember. As a massive personal sacrifice that best illustrates my dedication to the cause, I also stopped eating chocolate, except the Fair Trade kind.
Then Elizabeth and I finished university, got other things on our mind, and moved on. However, I had clearly not been the only chocoholic to change my habits upon learning about the industry practices, as the American Chocolate Manufacturers Association not long thereafter published a convincing protocol of steps it was taking to clean up its act. I felt vindicated and celebrated with a well-deserved choco-binge.
As it transpires, I gave up too easily. Half a year ago author Elina Hirvonen, who lives most of the time in Zambia, criticised in her column in Helsingin Sanomat the chocolate industry for essentially the same gruesome tricks I’d heard about ten years ago. It singled out the Finnish candy giant Fazer for hypocrisy for its ad campaign that promised to spend 5 cents for every bar sold to build a school in Côte d’Ivoire – much cheaper than actually getting rid of the repulsive practices in cocoa farms, as Ms Hirvonen pointed out. This caused a surprising public uproar, maybe because it so clearly accused such a well-known and respected “feel-good” brand as Fazer. The company replied immediately, issuing a sickly-sweet press release that apologised if its campaign had caused offence and of course promising to “do more” to ensure responsible practices in its production chain, starting from those cocoa plantations. Nothing concrete, but one can see that they’re feeling the heat.
This shows that constant vigilance must accompany consumer boycotts and companies should, in most cases, NOT be given the benefit of the doubt, but be made to prove, and prove again, that they are not only window-dressing, but have in fact implemented systematic changes not only to their practices but also to their corporate culture.
As for me, I’ve lost Elizabeth’s contact details, so a return to the Fair Trade days it is, until the industry convinces me that something more has been done, and will continue to be done even when the activists turn their gaze elsewhere. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice ... Well, that won’t happen, will it now.
I’d be interested to hear your experiences of successful (as well as unsuccessful) consumer boycotts, and what other ways you know of impacting reprehensible corporate behaviour.