Using chocolate to fight poverty: Tastes great … makes enemies.

Joe Whinney and Theo Chocolate factory

Joe Whinney and Theo Chocolate factory

I just spent a few days hanging out with all sorts of humanitarians at two local meetings that illustrate just how big a player this region has become in the fight against global poverty.

It made me think of chocolate.

The first meeting was the annual confab for Global Washington, a non-profit organization devoted to bringing together our region’s burgeoning community of do-gooders. The second was the Global Savings Forum, a conference sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at getting financial services to the very poor.

I talked to a lot of good people about what they are doing to alleviate suffering, improve health, seek justice and otherwise make the world a better place. Most of them are non-profit organizations and yet they spent a lot of time talking at these meetings about the need to enlist businesses in helping the poor, the value of public-private partnerships and the idea of corporate social responsibility.

It all sounded great. Some businesses are taking the idea of ‘corporate social responsibility’ seriously – as opposed to just public relations.

But those looking for an unencumbered love-fest of enlightened capitalism might want to ask Joe Whinney, founder of Theo Chocolate in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, about how much love he’s gotten from his commercial colleagues for trying to also accomplish some social good.

“I was surprised at the attacks, and we’re still getting attacked,” said Whinney, who started the business just wanting to make high quality, fair trade chocolate that didn’t exploit poor cocoa farmers.

But in the process the Seattle chocolatier has made some powerful enemies, from the mega-corporations like Hershey’s to most of the professional associations representing chocolate and cocoa industries around the world. I’ve written about Whinney and Theo before, when I was at the Seattle PI (the newspaper), and got a whiff of the hostility they engender from some of the large-scale commercial manufacturers.

Maybe that’s because I quoted Whinney’s colleague, Andy McShea, saying:

“Much of the chocolate business is still pretty exploitive, oppressive,” said McShea. Consumers, for example, usually cannot be confident they are not supporting abusive labor practices when they buy chocolate. “The beans come from everywhere, including some places where children are working under pretty bad conditions.”

The big players in the global chocolate and cocoa industry don’t like these kind of statements (and here are a few more, from World Vision and Fortune mag). But so far as Whinney is concerned, most of the big guys are just not doing much to reduce the exploitation and abuse in the international chocolate trade.

“So, no, we’re not getting love letters from them,” Whinney said.

Theo doesn’t represent a commercial threat to giants like Hershey’s, he said. The threat comes from trying to improve things, he says, which can’t help but expose those companies who are not really trying to do anything other than make a profit.

Whinney spoke at the Global Washington in a session on the idea of “doing well by doing good,” directing commercial enterprises toward a social good. He said he was inspired by the passion and purpose of many attendees, but added that they may not realize how difficult it can be to combine business with social good.

I asked some of those at the meeting if this isn’t always going to be a fundamental conflict — between seeking a profit and trying to help the poor.

“It can be, but I think it only seems like a necessary conflict,” said Bill Clapp, one of our regions’ leading philanthropists and a co-founder of this organization devoted to boosting the Pacific Northwest’s anti-poverty movement.

Businesses and corporations who take the long-term view of profitability, Clapp said, already recognize the need for their workers to live in a clean environment with good schools and affordable housing if they are to succeed. The more enlightened businesses realize this doesn’t apply only locally, he said, but also globally.

“We live in a global economy,” he noted.

Many Europeans seem to understand the financial benefit of taking the global, long-term view, Clapp said, but American businesses are still “way too far behind on that score.” The Global Washington meeting, he says, indicates our region does understand the value of globally oriented, socially responsible business.

“I don’t think you’ll find anything quite like this gathering anywhere else in the country,” Clapp said.

Chris Shore, director of environmental programs for World Vision International in Los Angeles, was also at the meeting. He also said there is growing recognition by many in the corporate world that they need — if only for their own financial interests — to more strongly incorporate social benefits into their business plans.

“Starbucks knows it needs to be seen as clean and green,” Shore said, because consumers do care and are getting smarter about the difference between truly responsible businesses and mere window dressing. He agreed with Clapp that Global Washington is “something extraordinary,” an indication that this region sees this not so much as a moral obligation but also as a business opportunity.

As for Theo Chocolate, it’s really expensive. Yet people are buying it. Whinney thinks that’s not just because it tastes good.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Terry Lawhead

    good stuff following Global Washington’s event, which did not get the coverage it deserved. the ideas behind the discussion are of course what is deeply important long term, not the event itself, although we should be proud it is happening at all. especially as we embark on a very special experiment, the elimination of social programs in Washington state due to budget cuts. some voted on by citizens, others simply unfundable due to declines in tax revenues due to the recession. not that this is the space for any kind of ruminating, with our Governor pleading for suggestions on how to enter into negotiations of what to cut and what to let survive. the disconnects beg for science fiction/speculative fiction to explain what is happening and where we are going; any literal explanation denies amazing trends of human nature driving a lot of economic whirlpools. Bobby McFerrin and many others promoting and demonstrating the healing powers of music may be one useful antidote; we need better tunes to whistle past the proliferating graveyards….of course many activists will despise such an idea and for good reasons…..