Recently, Fiona McCarthy, Deyan Sudjic’s book ‘The Language of Things’, quoted William Morris’s comment: “I have never been in any rich man’s house which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of nine-tenths of all that it held.”
It’s amazing how many people are suddenly discovering that shopping doesn’t make you happy, now they can no longer afford to do it. Though I can’t help feeling this kind of about the evil of things is treacherous ground for those of us living in comfy houses, whose ‘things’ include heating fuel, and enough food.
And it gets more treacherous when we start to make judgements about other people with SkyPlus boxes and fifty inch plasma screens, who lollop foolishly in front of Wiis instead of playing healthgiving games of actual tennis in the brisk air of an actual November. It’s all too easy to seem condescending about other people’s choices, and all too easy to endorse (you’ve missed it again! Damn!) when we know we can buy whatever we want the day after.
Because even sanctimonious puritans have their weak spots. Take, as a random example, chocolate. I am the guilty person who stashes the dispensing machine in the drawer with the to bring out and re-stock each year, and then finds herself mysteriously unable to resist the little painted wooden Lindt sleigh and its tubby, unctuous passenger. I usually have a little stash somewhere to hand for emergencies.
And not necessarily from the beauty parade crowding out the till at the organic shop. Which, I’ve noticed recently, is becoming more like a mob. Sure, even miserabilists deserve the odd treat, when a Goji Burst Bomb just somehow won’t do it. But, being guilty miserabilists, we only allow ourselves a tiny wafer of something plain and treacle-black, instead of the thick floor tile of Galaxy we could get for the same money.
And here’s where the opportunists jump in. Hey! they think. These wacky organic dudes will pay more for less! Give it a ludicrous name and a plain brown wrapper, and watch the money roll in. So we have Ethical Chocolate, Conscious Chocolate, chocolate with nutriceuticals that will help us live to our thousand and first birthday. Paprika and strawberry flavour, anybody? Salami and car tyre, perhaps?
There’s big money in chocolate, and not just at Christmas. The (with added salami, wellbeing, and cardboard sleeves) is worth about £4bn a year, and growing at 18%, with 1500 new products in the last six years (or, in my terms, one a week for thirty years). And at the giant slab end of the market, Mars has just plonked down $10m to sequence the of the cacao bean, allegedly to ‘help’ the growers, but also presumably, useful insurance against the day when those pesky growers might turn round and hold an innocent multinational to ransom.
And you know there must be something in it when people switch from technology journalism to chocolatiering. In the 1990s a very fashion-forward posse in the Bay Area founded a magazine called Wired. Which was all about the Internet and the difference it would make to our lives.Which it duly did. So the difference it made to them was pots of money.
Which they are now investing in using ‘legacy’ equipment (I think this might mean ‘old’) and a ‘taxonomy of flavours’ that can change every 36 hours, for those of us who bore easily. They claim to be helping producers grow ‘premium beans’ and escape the ‘commodity market’. But how much of the money (£3 for 50 grams) goes to the growers? The size of a Mars bar, and not even wrapped in something shiny and brightly coloured? Who’s the sucker now?
The reason why they’re stacked up in ‘ethical’ outlets is these vague claims to be helping growers, which get us over the self-indulgence barrier. It’s certainly good to avoid chocolate picked by 43% of the world’s cocoa is picked by 110,000 child workers in the Ivory Coast. A voluntary protocol agreed in 2005 to avoid producers actually having to mark their yummy goods ‘guaranteed slave free’ – a bit of a dampener to the hedonistic impulse – has yet to change much. So companies that are doing something right.
No, the profits are made, as in so many sectors of our admirable economy, on spin; that diaphanous fairy dust sprinkled by marketers over almost nothing – say, two ounces of sweets – to turn it into something chic, aspirational, and probably life-saving. We make more money from image than the cocoa growers of Nigeria and Cameroon can dream of making from honest toil.
And on its way to you, it clocks up a The beans are sent from Africa to be traded in Amsterdam, but are often then sent back to cheap labour countries for processing, before being re-shipped (in temperature-controlled containers) back to us for fairy-dusting.
You still have to put up with it tasting of green tea and vanilla, or alternatively sea salt and pepper, (useful if you secretly prefer crisps anyway).
But at least you know all those volatile essences and boutique varietals are sending their inflated earnings home.