sunlight soap hero

By: Stirling Smith

sunlight soap hero

A Glimpse into the History of Ethical Trade

This blog post was originally published on the Ethical Trading Initiative’s blog. Views expressed are personal and not necessarily those of ETI. 

We might think that the work of the Ethical Trading Initiative is a recent phenomenon, a response to the globalization of supply chains. In fact if Twitter have been around a century ago, ethical trade would have been trending.

The Crime of the Congo

In 1909, Arthur Conan Doyle published ‘The Crime of the Congo’; it was not a Sherlock Holmes mystery but an expose of genocide in the Belgian Congo which was a privately controlled colony owned by Leopold II, King of the Belgians.

King Leopold, with help from the explorer Stanley (“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”), persuaded the European powers to cede him the Congo when Africa was being carved up in 1885 at the Congress of Berlin, under the pretence of a civilising mission.

Leopold then amassed a huge personal fortune by exploiting this personal colony – 80 times the size of Belgium. The so-called ‘Congo Free State’ enslaved millions and mutilated its inhabitants. Communities were ordered to bring ivory, rubber, and palm oil to government or company depots. Hostages were held by the government and sanctions for failure to deliver the quotas included mutilation. There was no question of payment for the products.

The consequences were horrific. One estimate is that ten million people died as a consequence of the policies of Leopold – half the population. There was a huge public campaign in the UK against the atrocities when they became known – in fact one of the first modern campaigns we would recognise. Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, Heart of Darkness (1899) was based upon his experience there. And Roger Casement, later executed for running guns into Ireland, was honoured by the British government for exposing the scandal. Such pressure led to the Belgian Government taking over the colony in 1908 but, while some of the worst excesses were stopped, slavery continued.

Soap wars

Awful. But what’s that got to do with ethical trade?

From the mid-nineteenth century, advances in chemistry made large scale production of better quality soap possible. The growth of advertising, modern manufacturing and the need for cleanliness in the dirty environment in towns and cities of Britain after the Industrial Revolution, all combined to produce one of the first mass consumer products – soap. A vital raw material was palm oil.

And one of the biggest players in soap was William Lever, the founder of today’s Unilever, who manufactured ‘Sunlight Soap’. You might even have visited Port Sunlight, in the Wirral, where Lever established model village for his workers.

In 1911 Lever signed a treaty with the Belgian government to gain access to the palm oil of the Congo, and established the main co-ordinating base at Leverville – yes, a town named after himself (now Lusanga). The depot oversaw a huge operation for the extraction of palm oil from the Congo. The enterprise was based on slave labour. There were appalling punishments inflicted and mortality rates meant that, annually, up to a third of workers died on some plantations.

Lever developed plantations in the Congo to benefit from lower costs, even after the appalling crimes in the Congo Free State were well publicised.

A bitter taste? Slavery and chocolate

Cocoa was very popular in the second half of the nineteenth century as an alternative to the ‘demon drink’ – alcohol. In the 1890s, the largest supplier of cocoa in the world was the Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe – two islands off the coast of Africa. One third of the islands’ output was exported to the UK. After slavery in Portugal’s colonies was officially abolished in 1869, indentured labour, slaves in all but name, were trafficked to the islands from Angola, another Portuguese colony. In 1906 articles appeared in the press revealing the scandal. We should pay tribute here to Henry Nevinson (1856-1941), a journalist, who uncovered the trail of people being handed over to settle debts or seized by Portuguese agents and taken in shackles to the coastal towns of Angola. In São Tomé, he found conditions on the plantations so harsh that one in five workers died each year.

The main British chocolate companies were all implicated. Although William Cadbury was aware, as early as 1901, of Portuguese use of plantation slave labour and had been given evidence of the excesses committed by the Portuguese, his firm continued to purchase cocoa from São Tomé. There was controversy about Cadbury’s policy, with some claiming he kept buying because it was cheaper. Cadbury claimed that he was trying to collect the facts and then pressurise the Portuguese authorities.  In 1909, following a visit by Cadbury to São Tomé and Príncipe, Cadbury’s, Fry and Rowntree – the big three chocolate companies – announced that they would buy no more produce from the islands.

Lessons for today?

These two stories have a number of features in common. Both of them involved companies with reputations as philanthropic employers, providing model conditions for their workers in the UK, but who failed to consider workers in supply chains abroad. What we might call a lack of due diligence. And both involved exposes in the press and mass campaigns – just the sort of things that happen today.

And, just like today there were alternatives. A century ago the biggest retailer in the UK was the co-operative movement. The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) was amongst the largest sellers of soap and cocoa with its own factories in the UK. They sourced their cocoa and palm oil from Ghana. There was no forced requisition of raw material. No chopping off hands if the required quota was not brought in. No forced labour. The CWS sent directors out to look at the supply chain, and they said, before they left the UK, that ‘We are going out in the interests of co-operators at home, but not to exploit the natives.’

Ethical global supply chains are possible – it is not easy, but it is worth the effort. As those campaigners of a century ago would testify.