Food ethics: a decision-making tool for the chocolate industry - by Ralph Early
Food scientist, ethicist and university lecturer Ralph Early gave a lecture at the London Chocolate Forum in early October on the difficulty food brings when it comes to the effects on the environment – in this exclusive segment, Early elaborates on the chocolate industry and what needs to be done in order to sustain an ethically-driven future for the industry….
Chocolate is a remarkable substance. For many consumers it is indeed one of the most enjoyable, even addictive of food products. It gifts a seductive mouthfeel as its texture transforms while, at the same time, releasing distinctive and completely irresistible flavours and aromas: a consequence of some 600 active compounds providing unique sensory experiences extending from mellow sweetness to intense bitterness. Chocolate, though, is not a necessary foodstuff. It is a luxury and here, perhaps, lies its Achilles heel.
Citizens concerned with environmental protection and issues of human rights in food production, some of whom are increasingly vocal and are currently focused on other parts of the global food system, could readily switch to questioning the chocolate industry’s business models and ethical status, as well as the need even to consume the confection. At first sight this may seem improbable but observing citizen-led movements standing against industrial harms to the planet, as well as noting the speed with which concerns about single-use plastics have grown, the possibility of activists’ focussing on the chocolate industry’s behaviours is not inconceivable. Certainly, it’s something that CEOs and directors of chocolate businesses should factor into risk management strategies.
In considering threats to their industry, business leaders might, for instance, ask what if anything could catalyse wider public concerns and how related threats should be avoided. In this they should consider whether the moral values implied by the three pillars of corporate social responsibility – People, Planet, Profit – are demonstrated appropriately throughout the chocolate value chain. On checking, they will find that they are not. While many businesses have taken great strides to address e.g. issues of environmental sustainability and worker exploitation, this cannot be claimed for all.
A study1 undertaken by Sheffield University reported forced labour in cocoa production, while slavery2 is evidenced in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. CEOs and directors might also ask if it is morally consistent for an industry which emphases in advertisements the happiness it brings to consumers, to conceivably use raw materials produced by workers denied happiness through loss of liberty. They should note also other moral issues which give pause, including e.g. deforestation for cocoa production3, imbalance of power in the value chain causing failure to reward cocoa growers fairly, and the negative environmental impacts of chocolate manufacture itself.
If the chocolate industry is to achieve long-term sustainability and the elimination of human rights abuses etc., change is required. Some businesses are already addressing negative environmental impacts, e.g. through the development of environmentally sensitive packaging, while human rights issues are being tackled by fair trade initiatives. Even so, many businesses still need to be more progressive if they are to manifest sustainable and morally just business arrangements. They will need to rethink their supply chains and incorporated activities with the aim of creating systems which are, in essence, Ecological by Design and Ethical by Design.
To achieve this, food ethics methodology can be invaluable, especially to CEOs and directors as primary moral agents. When ethical analysis is placed at the centre of decision-making processes (Figure 1) appeal to ethical theory e.g. deontological ethics, concerning notions of duty, rights and justice, as well as utilitarianism, which aims at the maximisation of happiness, can give confidence that business decisions are morally right and ethically defensible. Take for example confectionery advertisements which target children who are incontestably vulnerable consumers. Food ethics analysis integrated into marketing strategies can, for instance, protect against ill-advised decisions with consequent public censure and harms to brand image, such as might be caused by enticing children with confectionery tokens to exchange for sports equipment.
Ethics though is not the whole story. The Stockholm Resilience Centre4 has identified nine planetary boundaries (Figure 2) which define “a safe operating space for humanity”. The development of sustainable food systems, including chocolate value chains, demands respect for the environment and biodiversity – a moral value – and the protection and enhancement of nature’s ecosystem services. The clearing of rainforests for cocoa production typifies actions undertaken by or on behalf of chocolate companies which are likely to run counter to the principle of Ecological by Design. Such actions fly in the face of concern for the protection and enhancement of biodiversity, as they destroy the planet’s natural capital, endangering long-term human survival. If the chocolate industry is to achieve true sustainability, this practice and others must be eliminated with ecosystem protection made a distinct priority.
The world’s chocolate industry is significant to global employment and national economies. It is also a matchless part of many food cultures. But, like so many food businesses, the way it functions as part of the global food system is open to question. Fortunately, the chocolate industry’s leaders increasingly understand the need to change and to adopt enlightened, ethical and sustainable business models. The consequences of failing to do so are too distressing to imagine.
- University of Sheffield. Labour exploitation is endemic in global tea and cocoa industries, international study finds. https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/labour-exploitation-global-tea-cocoa-industries Accessed: 29 October 2019.
- Minderoo Foundation 2018. Global Slavery Index: Cocoa. https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/findings/importing-risk/cocoa/ Accessed: 29 October 2019.
- Maclean, R. Africa cocoa industry failing on deforestation pledge – campaigners. London: The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/07/africa-cocoa-industry-failing-deforestation-pledge-campaigners Accessed: 29 October 2019.
- Stockholm Resilience Centre. https://www.stockholmresilience.org/
Figure 1 attribution: none needed.
Figure 2 attribution: With permission of the Stockholm Resilience Centre: J. Lokrantz/Azote based on Steffen et al. 2015.
By Ralph Early, Independent food scientist, food ethicist and food writer.
Twitter - @FoodEthicist