Friday, 31 August 2012

God and Chocolate - Inspiration from the Great Quaker Industrialists

Cadbury’s Dairy Milk; Fry’s Turkish Delight; Rowntree’s Aero and Fruit Pastilles. These evocative names represent affordable luxury to generations of children and sweet-toothed adults. Yet how many people today know that these global brand leaders that filled the nation’s grocer’s shops and newsagents were Quaker owned and all started out as small family businesses?

In 2010, after nearly 2 centuries of business, Cadbury’s was taken over by Kraft in a widely publicised hostile takeover. Fry’s and Cadbury’s had merged early in the 20th Century and Rowntree’s became part of Nestle in 1988.

In response to this sense of a passing era, Deborah Cadbury, a collateral relative of the chocolate-making branch of the family, wrote The Chocolate Wars. This engaging and amusing book tells a story that matters to all those interested in social justice, of how Christian-inspired businesses were once a powerful force for social good. Readers are strongly urged to buy the book and read it with a favourite confection to hand.

Social justice and business? If there is one thing many political ideologues on both right and left often assume unthinkingly, it is that business means multi-national companies, venture capitalism and top-down power structures, rather than small business. New Labour largely meant reconciling the Left with this sort of ‘capitalism’. As such it is disappointing but unsurprising that Ed Milliband’s calls for ‘responsible capitalism' have met with widespread scepticism or indifference. But maybe we need not responsible capitalism, but ethical businesses, and historically these have usually started as small, family or community based concerns that grew organically.

Business was essentially the only career open to UK Quakers as until 1828, like other non-Anglican denominations, they were forbidden to participate in the professions like law or attend University. The Quaker ethos was austere, work oriented but compassionate and community-based. These qualities were ideally suited to the age of industry and commerce, and utterly disprove the belief that maximising profits at all cost for anonymous shareholders is the key to success. Chocolate was seen as socially beneficial, a perfect health drink for a time of widespread concern about the harm caused by alcohol misuse. Industrial innovation meant that Cadbury could provide a product in a variety of forms that they could market for its purity, at ever decreasing costs.

Likewise, Quaker religious principles meant that their workers’ welfare was paramount. Cadbury’s built Bournville (which gave its name to a superior Cadbury’s chocolate bar) an exquisite area for Cadbury’s workers which inspired other ‘model villages’ built by religiously-inspired Victorian philanthropists. The Cadbury’s understood that affordable housing, workers’ rights and community development are inseparable:  they negotiated cheap rail fares for their factory workers, provided onsite kitchen, sports and even medical facilities for their staff.

But industrialisation also had the potential to increase inequality in society. Joseph Rowntree and his son Seebohm were pioneering analysts and workers against poverty. Seebohm authored the seminal work“Poverty, a study of town life” about poverty in York, which Winston Churchill said “fairly made my hair stand on end”. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation  remains a key resource for those campaigning against poverty and inequality.

However, typically, as chocolate became a vastly profitable global business, the Cadbury’s business model – low key advertising, consumer loyalty, the implicit Nonconformist sympathy – was undercut by the competition from companies like Mars and Hershey’s. (American companies in particular made highly effective use of radio and television adverts in the post-WWII period.)

The fortunes of the Cadbury and Rowntree families show that competition and innovation can coexist with a model of work and business integrated with people’s lives, housing and community and that those blessed by God with wealth and influence must give something back. Their Christian faith protected them from the socially destructive blindspot endemic to current policy making, which is to treat people as individual units, who can be housed anywhere or employed in any way decreed by top-down strategies, rather than members of the abundant communities of mutual goodwill God intends.

Yet ironically, as doctors increasingly see sugar as a highly addictive substance and excess consumption implicated in obesity, diabetes and heart disease: can we still see chocolate as a healthy alternative to alcohol and an affordable luxury without a twinge of guilt? The early Quakers would have deplored the tendency for food producers to rely on the ‘addictive’ qualities of highly flavoured or sweet foods to gain a competitive edge, but they did not have the scientific knowledge available to us.

What kind of world would we live in if people made the purpose of their business to make the world a better place?