For my loyal followers who received a draft of this post in your emails on Thursday, I apologize – that was not the final version. WordPress glitch! Here’s the official final post:
That shirt you’re wearing right now – do you know which country the fibers came from, where they were processed into cloth, or who stitched them together before arriving at your favorite clothing store? Do you know how much the farmer receives for the cotton he grows, what impact the transportation of the materials and then the finished product had on the environment, or whether the entire system is sustainable?
I don’t mean to make you feel guilty and I certainly am not an expert on clothing sourcing. That said, I do think it’s worth considering the path our stuff takes before it arrives on our doorstep, on our skin, or in our mouth. And I wouldn’t even consider mine a new or radical point of view. The Story of Stuff came out more than 5 years ago and the story translates to food through documentaries like Food, Inc., FRESH, and Forks over Knives, as well as the many masterpieces of Michael Pollan.
“How does this relate to your chocolate?” you might ask. Fair question. This question goes to the name I’ve given this website – Root Chocolate. That name was meant to bring to mind two roots: the simplified process of making chocolate from its core ingredients, and the idea that chocolate doesn’t arrive in this world as a whole. It touches many lives, environments, and even countries along the way as it transforms from Theobroma cacao to the bar you bring home. In fact, the documentary, Black Gold brings the supply chain issue to the coffee fields that often sit adjacent to the cocoa farms we’ll discuss in future posts. And as part of my personal mission, I intend to bring awareness to chocolate-lovers everywhere about the path that the components of your chocolate take before they end up following a sip of wine down your throat after dinner. Just on Friday the S.F. Gate published an article on the implications of slave trade on cocoa beans!
There will be many articles to come on the process of farming the cacao pods, fermenting and drying the beans, shipping them to a manufacturer (no matter how small or large scale), and then the process of processing the beans into an edible chocolate creation. Supply chain has environmental, socio-economic, and systemic implications. Today, though, I want to focus on my personal connection to supply chain, which falls mostly into the socio-economic realm.
In college, I spent a semester in Brazil with the School for International Training, which turned into a much more than a typical study abroad experience for me. My focus of the semester was to conduct independent research on my topic of choice – contemporary slavery. It is a difficult concept to grasp that slaves still exist when we are taught as early as elementary school that the United States of America abolished slavery in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment. Worldwide, slavery lasted slightly longer, and Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to terminate the classic system of slavery with the Áurea Law in 1888.
However, I spent the fall of 2006 in Açailândia, Maranhão in the Northeast of Brazil, where I conducted field research consisting of observations and interviews with former slaves and those struggling to help them, which illuminated the system of exploitation, a system that I once believed had died out long before I was born. The memories that still ring clearest in my mind from that semester are the interviews I held with former slaves, who had worked in coal fields and lumber yards without pay. This subject consumed me for the next year and a half and led me to publish a book on my findings, Contemporary Slavery in the Northeast of Brazil: The Social and Economic Manifestations of Coloniality. You can read the initial (unpolished) report I produced at the end of my semester here.
Now, as a result of my experience on the ground with individuals exploited at the bottom of the supply chain, I pay special attention to the sources of my stuff and my food. It’s not easy, but those companies with transparent supply chains are the ones with less to hide. Resources are now available that show exactly that:
- Know the Chain, for California manufacturers
- Combating Forced Labor, a Handbook for Employers and Businesses, by the International Labor Organization
- List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor, by the US Department of Labor
- Chain of Custody and Traceability
We may not be able to trace the origin of every product in our lives, but it’s worth a try. So, let’s all do our part to source our food and stuff responsibly and pay attention to where it’s coming from, cocoa beans included!