MOUNTAIN LAKES, New Jersey — Purchasing habits have power, and companies realize this. The ethics-based marketing of products reflects growing anxieties over the nature of these habits and their impact on the planet.
Marketing is one thing, action is another. Many unethical companies remain deeply ingrained in our purchasing culture, and they have done so through skilled marketing and public relations. In an era of global concern, these companies use this public relations expertise to maintain wholesome images while continuing to violate human rights.
A part of the problem is identifying companies which are a part of the problem. The next is identifying companies which are a part of the solution. Focusing on food and beverages, here are three companies to avoid, and three to give your business instead.
Nestlé is notorious for its abuse of the global poor as a part of its bottled water, baby formula, chocolate and coffee. Though there have been attempts in recent years to market Nestlé as a wholesome, and even progressive company, the reality is that Nestlé remains one of the most flagrant violators of human rights worldwide.
The boycott against Nestlé for its misleading marketing of baby formula in the developing world which began in 1977 continues, perhaps the most notorious abuse of the global poor perpetrated by the company.
Rural communities, in particular, have suffered from the monopolization of their water resources by bottling plants for companies owned by Nestlé waters, which include Poland Springs, Deer Park, San Pellegrino, Poland Springs and Perrier among others. In 2013, Nestlé Chairman and former CEO Peter Brabek experienced a public relations nightmare when a 2005 video in which he stated that water is not a fundamental human right, and should be given market value, went viral.
Another abuse of the global poor perpetrated by Nestlé is the use of child slave labor in the creation of Nestlé owned chocolates. The majority of the company’s chocolate is purchased from Côte d’Ivoire. In 2005, three individuals from Mali filed a lawsuit claiming that they were trafficked into the nation as children and forced to work fourteen hours a day in the 1990s. They documented such horrific human rights abuses as guards cutting open the feet of attempted escapees and children being forced to drink their own urine.
In 2014, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the case that Nestlé and fellow chocolate manufacturers Cargill and ADM could be held accountable for aiding and abetting child slavery overseas due to their tight control of the Ivorian cocoa market. This reversed a 2010 district court ruling which excused Nestlé and other companies from legal responsibilities for human rights violations overseas.
Alternative: Divine Chocolate
One alternative to chocolate made with slavery is simply purchasing organic chocolates, such as Newman’s Own. And while these companies do not engage in the use of slave labor, their practices generally detach the product from developing world markets instead of changing the practices of the market to promote more humanitarian labor conditions.
Divine Chocolate is fair-trade certified and 44 percent owned by cacao farmers in Ghana. A Co-Op of farmers launched the product into the United Kingdom’s market in October of 1998. There is a focus in the company’s culture in promoting the empowerment of farmers, and particularly women farmers.
Divine Chocolate is far from the only chocolate producer trying to bring ethics to an industry which has grown notorious for abusive agricultural practices. A variety of brands offer Certified Fair Trade chocolate bars, spreads and baking chocolates which can be purchased in stores and online. However, the chocolate industry is one which demands careful research by the conscious consumer.
Avoid: Coca Cola
The Coca Cola company, which owns Honest Tea, Monster Energy Drinks and Simply brand juices among the myriad of sodas and other bottled beverages in its roster, is a prolific worldwide abuser of human rights.
Between 1989 and 2002, eight union leaders from Colombian Coca-Cola bottling plants were killed for protesting Coca-Cola’s labor practices. Coca-Cola has also hired paramilitary forces to intimidate workers who have attempted to join the Colombian union SINALTRINAL.
Coca Cola also advocates for water privatization globally for the benefit of its Dasani and BonAqua brands. This privatization has caused heavy agricultural problems in India. In the state of Kerala, it also lead to health problems for the local population after what little water remained untouched by Coca-Cola became contaminated by high levels of chloride and bacteria.
The company was also sued for racially discriminatory practices in the United States in 2000, and remains notorious for marketing its nutritionally void brands to children around the world. Perhaps it’s best to find a different way to quench your thirst this summer.
Alternative: Ubuntu Cola
In 2007, Ubuntu Cola became the first cola to receive Certified Fair Trade approval in the United Kingdom. Made with fair-trade cane sugar from Malawi and Zambia, the company emphasizes giving back to the communities and laborers in African communities who make the success of the company possible.
Along with the company’s Certified Fair Trade status, which promotes ethical and sustainable farming methods in the developing world, the company also invests fifteen percent of its profits into the “Ubuntu Africa Program,” an initiative which supports sugar producers and communities in Malawi along with supporting entrepreneurial initiatives to end Malawi.
The company’s first project was the Elod’s blog project. The project was an effort by the company to pay for the education of Malawian sugar cane farmer Elod in his pursuit to study rural development while working as a sugar cane farmer and raising a family. The project has since concluded, but Ubuntu Cola continues to be a company which is changing the world one community at a time.
Starbucks is one of the most successful coffee companies in the world in terms of branding. And while Starbucks maintains a hipster-focused, trendy and bohemian aesthetic which suggests a company which is relatively innocent if slightly tacky, the reality of the company is far more disheartening.
Though Starbucks has taken efforts to ensure its coffee remains Certified Fair Trade, for instance, no such effort has been taken with Starbucks teas, nor has that effort been taken with Starbucks-owned Tazo Tea, though that brand is a part of the separate Ethical Tea Partnership.
Starbucks also attempted to block the Ethiopian government’s effort to trademark several of the nation’s famous coffee beans in an effort to protect the nation’s coffee industry from the more colonialist elements of the global industry as a whole.
Starbucks further remains one of the most notorious union busting and tax-dodging companies worldwide, and regularly falls under fire for these practices. Ultimately, while Starbucks’ friendly aesthetic is appealing, it is no more than an aesthetic.
Alternative: Equal Exchange
It is difficult to find a coffee shop chain with the sheer size and accessibility of Starbucks which maintains ethical practices, though readers in the United Kingdom are encouraged to visit the Soho Coffee company for this purpose. In the search for an ethical brand of ground coffee, however, Equal Exchange cannot be beat.
The only ground coffee brand to receive a perfect 20 out of 20 from ethicalconsumer.org, while Starbucks’ Cafe Estima received a zero out of twenty rating, Equal Exchange sells Certified Fair Trade Coffee along with Certified Fair Trade Chocolate, Tea and Bananas. The company’s emphasis on business ethics extends to its partnership with small co-ops in the developing world to create its products.
The company also supports the Congo Coffee Project. The Congo Coffee Project supports the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Panzi Hospital offers valuable medical services and counseling to more than 2,000 survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo each year. So far, Equal Exchange has raised over fifty thousand dollars for the project, and remains a model of corporate citizenship.
Our purchasing habits have power. Money has power. And though companies relying solely on enriching their shareholders as the bottom line leads many to doubt the capabilities of this power for good, companies can also be a part of the solution. When citizens make more informed purchases that treat human well being not simply as equal to the bottom line, but an inherent aspect of achieving the bottom line, positive change is made possible. The challenge that remains is putting purchasing power into action.
– Andrew Michaels
Sources: The Coca Cola Company, Nestlé, The Marginalized, Divine Chocolate US, Divine Chocolate UK, Equal Exchange, Ubuntu Trading, Slave Free Chocolate, International Labor Rights Forum, Ethical Consumer, Huffington Post, The Guardian, Confectionery News, Green Impact, The New Black Magazine
Photo: Farm Wars