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Monday, February 7, 2011

Of Chocolate & Justice

As the February magazine covers attest, this is the month of chocolate.

Mouthwatering brownies, luscious hot fudge, heart-shaped boxes of decadent truffles, pink and red candy-coated M&Ms. Nothing says love like chocolate. Maybe it’s because chocolate contains the same chemical our brain releases when we experience limerence, that all-consuming infatuation with a new love interest.[1] Or maybe it’s just the sensory pleasure chocolate provides—a combination of sweetness, smoothness and a dash of decadence or indulgence that bespeaks affection. For a lot of us, the best part of Valentine’s Day or the best cure for midwinter blues in snowy New England is chocolate.

In the Ivory Coast, it’s been a different story. The former French colony is the largest producer of cocoa, providing a third or more of the world’s supply. Proceeds from the cocoa trade including “bribes extorted by gun-brandishing roadside soldiers – are being used” to fund incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and his “unruly” supporters while Alassane Ouattara, recognized by the international community as the new president, “has imposed a month-long ban on cocoa exports.”[2] The ban has sent cocoa prices skyrocketing. Cocoa, not unlike diamonds and other conflict minerals we import from the African continent, carries the unsavory taint of violence, political corruption and the extreme exploitation of workers, who are often children.

That’s the bad news. According to the new documentary entitled “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” children as young as age seven work on plantations harvesting the cacao pods that yield the cocoa beans that get processed into chocolate. Some of the children have been trafficked: kidnapped, sold into slavery and many go unpaid.

While some chocolate manufacturers make a commitment to source chocolate that does not involve exploited or child labor, there’s a campaign afoot to bring Hershey’s into the fold. According to a corporate social responsibility report written in September 2010:

Hershey, one of the largest and oldest chocolate manufacturers in the United States, prides itself on its commitment to supporting its community and under- served children in the United States, yet it lags behind its competitors when it comes to taking responsibility for the communities from which it sources cocoa. Hershey has no policies in place to purchase cocoa that has been produced without the use of labor exploitation, and the company has consistently refused to provide public information about its cocoa sources.[3]

The good news is, according to the same report:

For years, a number of smaller chocolate companies in the US have been sourcing Fair Trade Certified cocoa and building relationships with cocoa farmers to ensure that these farmers earn enough to support their families, invest in their futures, and send their children to school. Additionally, many of the largest global chocolate corporations are increasingly sourcing cocoa beans that have been certified by independent organizations to meet various labor, social, and environmental standards.

As someone who enjoys chocolate on a daily basis, the issue of chocolate and justice, or injustice, is more than theoretical. In fact, I remember my horror many years ago, reading the cover of Ms. Magazine when it drew attention to chocolate and child slavery. What saddens me now is that even though I learned, at that time especially, that almost all chocolate involved horrific working conditions and exploited children I did not curb my consumption. I don’t know what allowed me to compartmentalize that information, far away from the pleasure center in my brain that craved chocolate and sent me out looking for it. We humans have a way of cordoning off what Al Gore calls “inconvenient truth,” be it climate change or exploitation. We rely on rationalization. We tell ourselves other countries haven’t imported our fair labor practices or people in far poorer economies are better off having some work rather than none. We say the standard of living there is different so a dollar a day isn’t as bad as it sounds. Or we deny by ignoring information that would otherwise put a serious crimp in our day as conscious and conscientious people. We ignore inconvenient truths all the time.

Last week as I drove home from church after the No Fair Holiday Party, I listened to a radio program featuring Cornel West and Tavis Smiley who were discussing President Obama’s State of the Union address. Cornel West, a professor at Princeton and a prophetic voice, noted the President had given a shout out to Representative Gabby Giffords and the other victims of the Tucson shooting but had not mentioned gun control. The President pointed to the resilient stock market but never once mentioned the poor. I thought to myself as I listened, Barack Obama used to be a community organizer. He understands justice. He has no doubt seen first-hand the ravages of poverty. But like most politicians, he doesn’t mention poor people. He talks about working families and acknowledges the ranks of the unemployed but he doesn’t speak of dismantling the mechanisms that sustain economic injustice.

With the exception of Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders, I don’t hear politicians rail against an economic system that favors the wealthiest one percent while further hobbling the poorest among us. The very people who so loudly proclaim, however incorrectly, that this is a Christian nation with deeply religious values, are quick to dismiss not just liberation theology of the seventies, but the early twentieth century social gospel as socialism.

The social gospel movement sought to return a concern for not just the poor but all forms of injustice to the national religious conversation. In 1917, Walter Rauschenbusch, a theologian and Baptist minister, conceived of sin as selfishness. He wrote that our forebears “created the condition of sin by [creating] the African slave trade and by the unearned wealth they gathered from slave labor for generations.”[4]

While Hershey’s CEO, David West, received an $8 million compensation package in 2009, many of the farmers who grow cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana that ends up in Hershey products are barely able to cover their costs, and as a result, use unpaid child labor and even forced labor on their farms.[5]

Though we mean no harm when we let a Hershey’s kiss melt in our mouth or nibble a Special Dark bar, we collude. Ironically, Hershey’s owns Dagoba, a small subsidiary that uses fair trade cocoa, but unfortunately, no products under the Hershey label outside the Dagoba brand do the same. Dagoba accounts for less than one percent of all Hershey products, which by the way, constitute 42.5% of the nation’s chocolate products. Consider how the scales would tip toward justice if Hershey’s would commit to securing all of its cocoa from fair trade sources.

And not unlike a President who used to community organize, who knows about gun violence and poverty but doesn’t mention them, the Hershey’s corporation has amassed an impressive record of community service and aid.

CEO David J. West states on the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility web site, “Not only did [Milton S. Hershey] transform the business of making chocolate, he established an enduring model of responsible community stewardship.... We’re proud of our legacy and our heritage of giving back to the community.”[6]

“Company founder Milton Hershey and his wife, Catherine Hershey, established the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania for disadvantaged children.” The Hershey Corporation invests widely in community projects and donates to numerous charities, clearly demonstrating the corporation’s commitment to using portions of its profits to improve the lives of children and communities in the United States.[7]

Hershey’s also participates in industry initiatives in West Africa to improve education and health. Like us, Hershey’s does not turn a blind eye to the well-being of others, but its commitments, like truth, tend toward convenience.

If a healthy profit coupled with convenience sounds reasonable, it may be, but it does not reverberate with the sound of justice. In the words of Cornel West, “Justice is what love looks like in public just as tenderness is what love feels like in private.”

All the years I have enjoyed eating chocolate, I have cared about others. I have sent money to worthy causes and invested in Equal Exchange, a company that pioneered fair trade coffee and chocolate here in the U.S.—and I have tried to purchase chocolate and cocoa from companies that disclose their sources. But when a lovely little bonbon or dish of ice cream beckoned I did not refuse it. And in my daily mocha, I have consumed copious amounts of cocoa without ascertaining the source of the beans.

At the very least, justice demands we acknowledge not just our actions but their impact on others. Justice taps us on the shoulder as we slide a spoon into the hot fudge sundae and summons us to look into the eyes of the children trafficked across the border to harvest cocoa. “Nearly 50 percent of children working in cocoa farming in Côte d’Ivoire and over 50 percent in Ghana reported injuries from their work in the past year.”[8]

Politicians such as the President and members of Congress face great political pressures. They depend on campaign contributions and political alliances with industries in order to get elected and re-elected. In the current political climate, if President Obama were to advocate for stronger gun control or begin a dialogue about the needs of the poor, people who aren’t part of the working families that get talked about: the more than two million incarcerated in this country, the tens of millions struggling with addiction, untreated mental illness, chronic homelessness, food insecurity, the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants raised here who must live in the shadows still—well, let’s just say it would be an unpopular recipe. It would not in all likelihood yield bipartisan support, fruitful civic dialogue or successful re-election. But it might result in stirring the conscience of our nation.

And the next time there’s an ice-cream social or birthday party to plan or attend, if we offer to provide fair trade chocolate, we can start stirring, too. It isn’t really convenient to be the one who asks, hey, where did the cocoa beans in this chocolate bar come from? Who harvested them and under what conditions? It’s a lot easier and more fun to savor recipes and glossy photos and spoonfuls of gooey fudge sauce than it is to watch a documentary entitled “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” or burst the buoyant mood of a get-together by asking questions; but justice isn’t about ease. It’s about love. The watchword of our faith is not convenience but conscience and what better or tastier way to express it than to buy fair trade chocolate right here at church. That’s why I initiated the First Parish Ministry of Chocolate. Check out the array at social hour ever week. This February let our cover story boast cocoa that promotes justice and affirms inherent worth. Amen.

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[1] chocolate contain high levels of the amphetamine-like neurotransmitter phenylethylamine (PEA) according to http://www.eoht.info/page/chocolate+theory+of+love

[2] http://www.npr.org/2011/01/27/133264669/Ivory-Coast-Political-Crisis-Update, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2011/0126/The-war-over-Ivory-Coast-s-cocoa-heats-up

[3] Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility for the Hershey Company, September 2010, presented by Global Exchange and Green America, available at www.globalexchange.org

[4] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, p.79

[5] Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility for the Hershey Company, September 2010, presented by Global Exchange and Green America, available at www.globalexchange.org

[6] The Hershey Company. “Social Responsibility: Introduction.” Accessed July 22, 2010. Available online: http://www.thehersheycompany.com/social-responsibility/introduction.asp.

[7] Time to Raise the Bar: The Real Corporate Social Responsibility for the Hershey Company

[8]http://www.childlaborpayson.org/Annual%20Survey%20of%20Child%20Labor%20in%20the%20Cocoa%20Growing%20Areas_June2009.pdf, cited in Time to Raise the Bar,p.8