Fairtrade Cadbury: Altruism or Self-interest?

As reported widely over the past few weeks, Fairtrade Dairy Milk chocolate bars are at long last rolling off the production line at Cadbury’s Bournville factory. This is a momentous, if long overdue, event for the fair trade movement, increasing all UK Fairtrade sales by 25% in one swoop and making the Fairtrade Mark visible in many more retail outlets.

The Fairtrade certification of Dairy Milk is a massive piece of ‘choice editing’, in a similar way to when Sainsbury switched all its bananas to Fairtrade. Usually ethical consumers have to make an active choice when buying Fairtrade products. When switching completely to Fairtrade bananas, Sainsbury addressed the fact that most people won’t actively seek out products that address issues such as sustainability and human exploitation, but will buy them when they are their only choice and they are right under their nose. The fact that Cadbury has followed suit by converting the most popular chocolate bar in Britain to Fairtrade, so placing Fairtrade in every newsagent and supermarket in Britain at no extra cost to the consumer, is a welcome development.

The development does also mark a big shift in the balance of power within the fair trade movement, raising all the big questions that arise when multinational companies adopt the Fairtrade Mark. So while it is an excellent thing, we need to be wary and thoughtful about the long term impact, and in particular ensure that the Fairtrade mission is not compromised or weakened in any way.

This move is happening 101 years after Cadbury first started buying cocoa from Ghana and 15 years since the Fairtrade Mark first appeared on chocolate, so although this is clearly good news for cocoa farmers and a triumph for the fair trade movement, Cadbury certainly cannot be said to be a Fairtrade 'pioneer'. One could go so far as to say that Cadbury carefully chose the right time for them to start making their transition to Fairtrade – this is, after all, a time in which the world market price for cocoa is above the Fairtrade minimum, so it’s a relatively inexpensive decision for Cadbury to make. This is in sharp contrast to, say, the picture in 2000, when the Fairtrade minimum was over twice the world market price.

Cadbury has a history of struggling between ethics and hard-nosed business practice, and parallels can be drawn between why they are finally making a shift now towards Fairtrade, and their original move to sourcing cocoa from Ghana in the early 20th century. The truth is, the company has shown a tendency to drag its heels when making difficult ethical decisions, only jumping when it makes sound financial sense to do so.

Back in the early 20th century the issue was slavery. Despite financing anti-slavery propaganda and denouncing ongoing issues such as the slave labour practices in the gold and diamond mining in Rhodesia and South Africa in their family owned newspapers, the Cadbury family hypocritically turned a blind eye to the fact that the majority of their cocoa supply came from the Portuguese colonies of São Tomé and Príncipe and was farmed using slave labour imported primarily from Angola. It took them almost a decade to accept that this was indeed the case, insisting that reports were false or grossly exaggerated, and burying their own commissioned report which was actually more damning than anything previously written on the subject. A high profile defamation action brought by the Cadbury family revealed that the shift could have taken place earlier, although according to one of their main buyers, it would have been “difficult” and “awkward” and would necessitate in a payment of premium, something the Cadburys were not prepared to countenance. Instead, they waited until they were able to establish that Ghana would be a viable source of cocoa immediately and going forward. When this was confirmed – which was incidentally at a time when they were being constantly being attacked in the press for their hypocrisy – they made the break from their Portuguese suppliers and finally boycotted slave labour cocoa.

Once again, Cadbury’s shift towards Fairtrade is primarily about protecting their interests, being based on a prosaic assessment of the current state of cocoa production worldwide. Another Cadbury commissioned report on the sustainability of cocoa production in Ghana has made the company aware of the serious challenges ahead, with production of cocoa seriously in decline. As Fairtrade in Ghana is a huge success story from a business point of view, this move may turn out to be a shrewd one for Cadbury. Let’s hope that it this is their first step to ensuring their cocoa farmers at long last earn a meaningful living wage from their product and that Cadbury are encouraged to convert the rest of their range in due course.