A cruel irony – When comfort food & pets make you feel guilty

coffee-beans-chocolate-27192877 If faith is where you turn when there seems to be no place to turn (to paraphrase Zig Ziglar), then comfort food is what you eat at that time.

So what happens if you already feel bad and then you feel worse because you eat some chocolate or other food that may have inadvertently contributed to deforestation and the exploitation of farmers and children?

Perhaps you look to your adorable dog for consolation (only to find that it has a carbon paw-print twice that of a standard sport utility vehicle) or your cat (that probably preys on native wildlife – regardless of what you prefer to believe)? 

This may sound melodramatic but at times like these it can be hard to keep things in perspective.

Wracked with guilt, you reach for another jar of Nutella or peanut butter, packet of biscuits, potato chips or chocolate bar – only to perpetuate the vicious cycle.


This post was initially inspired by a number of media articles and blog posts that focus on ethical and sustainable issues associated with chocolate and coffee and the beans from which they are made.

IMG_3041Then, at the supermarket the other day, I noticed a brand of chocolate hazelnut spread that declared itself to be ‘palm oil free’ and featured a cute picture of a monkey on the packaging.

The implication, of course, was that other brands do contain palm oil – even if they simply label it as ‘vegetable oil’ – and that this palm oil may come from unsustainable sources that are responsible for clearing rain forests and displacing orang-utans and tigers and other animals that feature in wildlife conservation campaigns (plus a whole lots of other endangered species that do not).

A quick search confirmed my mounting fears about Nutella’s supply chain in terms of palm oil (e.g. here).

I also found this charming video (here) featuring an orang-utan and peanut butter that could apply equally to any other product that contains the offending palm oil. (Yes, even the great Aussie Tim Tam – see here.)

Clearly some of our favourite comfort foods may not have quite the ethical and sustainability credentials that we might hope.


Anyone drinking coffee while reading this post should not feel too complacent unless they have first checked that the beans were grown, harvested and processed using FairTrade or other ethical labour and that they were cultivated organically in the shade (not full sun as is the trend in some countries keen to cash in on this rapidly expanding export market – see here).

And if your coffee is made using single use pods (innovation gone wrong? – see here), then let us at least hope that the capsules can be recycled.

Or do the self-righteous tea-totallers know if their tea leaves are elephant-friendly (see here)?

And are you drinking from a reusable sustainable mug (‘smug’)?


There are many other foods that are consumed in far greater volumes around the world that share similar concerns but attract far less media (and bloggers’) scrutiny.

Growing any sort of monoculture usually requires cleared land and the use of pesticides and fertilisers. And cash crops are not generally expected to provide food for farmers in lean years or when supply chain prices are low or their country is hit with trade embargoes.

And palm oil is not necessarily bad – depending on how it is produced. It requires less land and energy than crop-based vegetable oils, such as soybean and rapeseed, and can replace mineral oils in some applications. 

It is often used in other foods, such as fried and baked goods, ice-cream and margarines, and non-edible grocery products, such as detergents, toothpastes, shampoos, soaps and lipsticks (as well as biofuel – and its waste products can provide stockfeed during droughts).

Although there have been campaigns involving uncertified palm oil (e.g. Greenpeace’s attack on Unilever’s Dove range – see here) and other agricultural products with dubious sustainability and ethical credentials, there does seem to be a disproportionate emphasis on coffee, chocolate and some spreads.

Perhaps this is because these items are luxury (or at least discretionary) goods, not staples, so consumers have a choice about whether or not to buy them?

(Even though it is very tempting to believe that chocolate and coffee are two of the major food groups – along with pizza, pasta and red wine!)

And they are being purchased in increasingly larger volumes in wealthy countries – but are made from raw products grown in much poorer countries that are easy targets for exploitation by corporations?

And their packaging makes it easier to include details of ingredients and their origins – or to add FairTrade, organic, rainforest alliance and other certifications?

And they are less price sensitive and can accommodate a modest cost uplift?

And they have recognisable brands that manufacturers and retailers want to protect?

And shareholders who want to protect their investment and dividends?

Or all of the above? (And what else?)


To help you snap out of your self-indulgent guilt trip, just remember that you can’t drive two SUVs at once or take a jeep for a walk. And even though I know there are people who truly love their cars, these vehicles do not actually reciprocate the affection.

And no amount of organic kale, bananas or chia seeds can make you feel as good as chocolate.

If we want to enjoy the good without the bad, then I guess it makes sense to practice ‘mindful consumption’ with these product lines for a start and some common sense.

Otherwise we may feel so miserable that we end up buying more of the offending items and then need really big dogs that like lots of exercise to help work off the calories (lest we put on weight and get depressed).

While better information and labelling is still required (including a clear definition of what terms like sustainable and ethical mean for these foods), will you at least try to pick the virtuous cycle next time you buy chocolate, coffee, tea, biscuits, calorific spreads and other treats?



Categories: Sustainable procurement

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Love the blog. As one of those who have been building the business of fair trade for over twenty years, I should say that coffee, cocoa and sugar were chosen because they were much easier for us (as inexperienced business folk) to source and build farmer partnership. Building standards for composite products was hard and then all sorts of practical questions of scale (and investment) arose. Work is underway to promote fair trade palm oil (see the UK company Traidcraft). I spent 6 years developing fair trade nut supply chains in the UK. Here parochial interests to ‘buy Australian’ at all costs is preventing a start. Small scale farmers and workers are now part of the governance structure, making the initiative truly a partnership between consumer and farmer interests. So work in progress!

    • Great to see some progress being made – at least in some markets. Your posts help to show what a complex challenge this is. At least the ‘buy Australian’ lobby shows that many consumers are willing to pay a bit more for something they believe in.

  2. I never thought of palm oil hidden in things. I was told a long time ago by my Doctor to avoid palm oil among other things because of my ongoing cholesterol problem. A very interesting read Pip as there are so many aspects of our food production that we don’t think of or even know about. You mentioned wealthy countries exploiting poorer countries. I saw a documentary once about European countries owning vegetable farms in a fertile part of Africa. The locals who worked on the farms were paid a pittance & struggled to afford to feed their families yet all this abundance of vegetables were all destined for European dinner tables.The locals didn’t have access to any of it. I’ve always believed that greed is one of the biggest issues that contributes to so many of the world’s problems. Governments can try all sorts of solutions to the various problems but they can’t legislate greed & other bad attitudes from people’s hearts.

    • Spot on – except that i’m not sure that greed is intrinsically bad. It can also be a powerful motivator and inspire innovation and improvements that can help to feed & develop nations (if done in a socially responsible way). Or maybe there is another term for ‘good greed’?!

  3. I think one reason for the spotlight on coffee and chocolate (and sugar) is because they are so addictive. It’s a first world problem: our lives are hectic so we want our treats — and, we can afford them. We can consume mindfully (and oh by the way I saw some refillable K-cups for those worst-idea coffee pod machines) but still, I think the most ecologically sound thing we can do is have fewer children. Thanks for a thoughful article.


  1. Slavery, human trafficking & exploitation in Australia today (Not sweet at all – Part 2) | Sustainability soapbox

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