Chocolate, Labour Standards, and Blood

Here’s a petition calling for changes in labour standards in the cocoa industry: Tell Big Chocolate CEOS We Want Fair Trade Cocoa.

I’m bringing the petition to your attention, not necessarily endorsing it. I’m not signing it myself, because I know too little about the details of this particular case. But I do know that one of the main worries cited is the use of child labour; and I know that the merest mention of child labour is supposed to be immediately convincing. The problem is that while child labour is always regrettable — ideally all children should be free from labour so that they can spend their time learning and playing — child labour is not always unethical. In some cases (and you need to know the details of particular situations to know the difference) the alternative to labour is starvation.

I also know that in at least some other cases, the notion of “fair trade” has itself been subject to pretty convincing criticisms, including being criticized for having perverse consequences (i.e., making worse off the very people we ought to be trying to help). So, demanding fair trade might, or might not, be a good idea.

Finally, a word about vocabulary. The petition doesn’t just criticize cocoa industry labour standards in any old terms. It brands the industry’s practice with a particularly nasty moniker, labelling it’s product as “blood chocolate.” The term “blood chocolate” is of course supposed to be analogous to the term “blood diamonds,” which refers to “diamond[s] mined in a war zone and sold to finance an insurgency, invading army’s war efforts, or a warlord’s activity, usually in Africa.” It’s a pretty weak analogy. Blood diamonds are reputedly involved in actual bloodshed. That’s quite different from chocolate produced by regrettable (but non-bloody) practices. Using the “blood” brand mislabels the problems with chocolate, and dilutes the brand. If every questionable product is a “blood” product, then the term is effectively useless.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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