fair trade food

The Other Bar – an experiment in equality

When you buy a bar of chocolate, it’s a simple transaction with a retailer. Like any product though, there is a huge supply chain behind it, from the chocolate brand to the producers and the growers. The amount that makes its way back to the original cocoa farmer is typically around 3% of the retail price. For all the huge profits made in chocolate, many cocoa farmers still live in poverty.

There have been various attempts to address this, such as Fairtrade, or Divine Chocolate’s farmer ownership model. The Other Bar is a new one, “an experiment in Radical Equality” from the UNDP and the Fairchain Foundation.

The idea is this: when you buy The Other Bar, you’ll find a digital token inside, in the form of a QR code. You can use this to get 25p off another bar, or you can use it to fund the planting of cocoa trees in Ecuador. Either way, the farmer will benefit.

According to the packaging, making this choice gives me “the power to choose radical equality”: “Using cutting edge technology, The Other Bar puts you in charge. You could trust us, but we’d rather you trust yourself. Inside each bar you’ll find a token worth real money. Spend it on our cacao farmers or treat yourself to another bar. It’s your call. Radical equality for all.”

That’s clear, right? Here’s a video just in case:

 

I suspect there’s a good idea in here, fighting to get through the marketing copy.

I’m 100% sold on the need for a fairer deal for farmers. I admire Fairchain’s work in distributing profits better through supply chains. If there are trees getting planted, I’m on board. I should like this more than I do, but something about The Other Bar really annoyed me and I couldn’t exactly say what it was.

The packaging has been on the desk for a few days while I thought about it. It’s pretty striking – a smart cardboard sleeve with two foil-wrapped bars inside. There are revolutionary fists, hashtags, and the flattering invitation ‘hey radical, let’s fix the future together’. Various other slogans include ‘we build the new’, ‘we need warriors not fans’, and ‘take control’.

It feels hyperactive and overloaded to me, but that’s a matter of taste. There’s something else here that made me uncomfortable. After a couple of days, I think I’ve put my finger on it: fair trade shouldn’t be radical.

An honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work is not a revolutionary idea. It’s a basic right and the least we should expect. When did treating people with simple human dignity become a radical act?

Perhaps it is, in such an unjust system. Even so, I resent the language and iconography of radicalism being co-opted into a petty consumer choice of whether I spend or give away 25p. I don’t want to be cast as some kind of tuckshop Che Guevara for scanning a QR code.

I feel bad writing this, to be honest. Because here’s the thing: The Other Bar is doing something really good. They are paying their farmers twice the industry average. When other companies source chocolate from Ecuador, just 7% of the profits stay in the country. The Other Bar has successfully shifted profits down the chain so that 50% of the profits are enjoyed locally. That’s a remarkable achievement.

That’s the real experiment – the reconfiguring of the supply chain, building networks with Ecuadorian suppliers, and bringing a high quality product to market that delivers 50/50 value. That’s where the hard work is, and where the heroes are. The marketing hype on top of that project has, in my opinion, obscured the real innovation.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Maybe it’s the marketing copy that has overdone it. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure some overthinking has happened somewhere along the line.

For the benefit of anyone from The Other Bar who might be reading – congratulations on creating shared value for Ecuadorian farmers, and on bringing a great product to market. I would buy this, and I’ll be looking out for it in the shops. But you’re the ones who deserve the credit here, and not the consumer. I’m not a warrior. I’m not taking control.

I’m just a guy eating some chocolate.

2 comments

  1. Great post. I share your conflicted sense of frustration with this. Part of what rankles me is how the marketing copy empowers the Western consumer but appears to disempower the cocoa growers, who become the poor beneficiaries of a 25p tree planting voucher(!?). Radical equality would surely be about rebalancing power dynamics, not making small cash donations… And this is exactly what The Other Bar has done by reconfiguring their supply chain! So there’s a huge irony here: ‘genuinely radical product markets itself with completely non-radical dis-empowering rhetoric!’

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