Of ethics and capitalism. And the dreaded mixing of the two. And please tell me what you think of this email I sent to this person.

I pride myself on being an activist running a capitalist business in an activisty way.

My business is not a not-for-profit, and I promise never to come to you asking for money to help me improve or continue the business, without showing you a business plan and a repayment schedule. For-profits that ask for donations (the vegan world is chockablock with ’em) sicken me. I’ve borrowed money from every monied (and not-monied) pal  I have, and I’ve always paid it back on time—with interest. That way, my business is my own. I’ve been a part of many co-ops, and my business isn’t a co-op for a reason—I’ve got crushing student loan payments, three mortgages, and an etsy.com addiction that all mean I’ve got to make this business work or else. I just can’t afford to share profits with anyone else if this business is going to succeed. I pay my employees worse than I’d like to but better than 99% of the rest of the food world, and I give them bonuses and chocolates and help them out when I can in other ways.

When it comes right down to it, I’m here to make money while not compromising a pretty rock-solid set of ethical standards I’ve cultivated over the years. Both of those pillars—ethics and keeping an eye on the bottom line—are absolutely crucial to the success of this little enterprise.

I try not to compromise, and I don’t pretend not to be a for-profit. I don’t want to make a ton of money, but I’d like to pay off a few bills and provide a few more good jobs and buy well-made clothes that cost a bit more (hellooooo etsy)—how cliched, to want to be doing this whole ethical American Dream thing in the political hellscape that is 2011, I know, I know.

So when I got an opportunity for a local business—a really good nonprofit!—to buy their holiday chocolates at Lagusta’s Luscious instead of a very very mainstream, very very mall-y, very very much 100% using chocolate harvested in various questionable ways, from small African boys who have been taken from their families in very very questionable ways and made to work for no money picking cacao beans to middlemen keeping mega profits from cacao harvests themselves and using them to fund violent uprisings and drug empires, I could go on and on and on about the horrible things behind mainstream, mall-y, non-organic, non-fair-trade chocolate—I was excited.

Also, the aforementioned company’s chocolates TASTE REALLY BAD. I’ve tasted all the chocolate of theirs my ethics will permit me to taste (the dark chocolates) and they are MIND-BLOWINGLY one-dimensional and waxy and processed and made of ick. AND they don’t include local ingredients, AND their stuff is made by machines and mostly likely never ever touched by human hands AND over-packaged in miles of plastic and styrofoam AND AND AND, obviously my wee little company, operating out of a 750 sq ft shop/world headquarters and run by a crazy vegan feminist anarchist obsessed with making chocolates so good you want to cry is, ah, quite a different thing entirely.

Not only was it a large order (about $1000), it was a great opportunity to steal business from The Big Bad Mainstream Chocolate Company. Win win for a small local biz, right? The order needed to go out two days after Thanksgiving. It would be great start to what was to become our most wildly busy holiday season of all time. I told my little team about the possibility, and they were psyched to go for it, even though it would mean a couple days of extra-long hours.

My contact at the non-profit was the assistant of the director, who met with me at the shop and, very politely and sweetly, told me that the deal was that if I could provide a similar amount of chocolate at a similar cost, they would be overjoyed to switch to me. They wanted to send holiday gifts to about 18 clients of theirs, and pointed to the corporate gifts section of The Big Bad Mainsteam Chocolate Company’s catalog. I studied the catalog and said we could work something out, while giving my standard speech about why our chocolates cost more. She was receptive and understanding and sweet.

Over the next dew days I spent hours working with her putting together 18 different special assortment towers that would be luxuriously decadent and made of truly ethical chocolate wrapped in ribbon made from vegetable cellulose that probably no one ever composts but me but you can if you want to!

I worked really hard on getting this account. I told all my friends that I felt like I was in Mad Men, working on reeling in a big fish. But I didn’t ply my potential with martini lunches and low-cut blouses. I told her about my company, and why I thought we could provide a superior product. Don Draper I am not.

In the end, after cutting as much of a deal as I could cut, it came down to this: the $1000-$1200 (probably more like $1200 with shipping) she was going to spend at The Big Bad Mainstream Chocolate Company would cost $1542 with Lagusta’s Luscious. That included a substantial discount as well as a lot of personalized packages and service, handwritten notes to all her clients, gift wrapping, and more. I couldn’t go any lower, or else I wouldn’t make the profit necessary to keep propane in the $4k tank, or my employees paid, or or or or or. I couldn’t go any lower.

And so I lost the account.

I told my little team, and we agreed I should fight for it. So when the sweet assistant told me they wouldn’t be going with me, I wrote this back, and I’m still not sure that to think about it.

I know all about the financial realities of running a small business, and I wish I could give you more of a discount—but what I’m most proud of about my business is that we really “walk the walk” when it comes to ethics. All our chocolate is organic and fair-trade, and we use as many local ingredients as possible in our chocolates. This ensures that many of the ethical problems with chocolate production, including the documented use of child slavery on cocoa plantations, are not present with my chocolates. I know you’re a socially-responsible business as well, and understand these complicated issues.
One idea I’d throw out there is to spend the same amount (about $1000) but simply sending less chocolate–your clients will love the rich flavor of real, intensely-flavored chocolate, and I think they will appreciate the handmade artisan nature of our products as well. If you were to get 17 Big Assortments, the total would be $870 for the chocolate and $200 for shipping, so $1070, with complimentary gift wrapping.
Thanks so much for your consideration and I look forward to working with you in the future.

Not such a bad email, right?

Except that I’ve been feeling weird for a month now that I used those same African child slaves as a way to get business.

It feels weirdly exploitative that my for-profit biz worked the ethics angle so hard in order to land a big account. Everything I said was true and I stand by everything I said…but my stomach still gets a little wiggly when I think about it.

Anyway, it didn’t matter. We didn’t get the order.

We didn’t get the order, but we did get several other corporate orders that added up to more than $1000, and it was all OK in the end. For us.

But even with my weirdness about the email, I was angry, and sad, and obviously I still am since it’s a month later and I’m writing a blog post about it. Partially I’m sad for myself, yes, but mostly because now a nice local non-profit is sending their clients chocolate packaged in outgassing plastic, made with chemicals and with cacao beans harvested in horrible ways, because they couldn’t pay $400 more dollars. I gave them the opportunity to spend the same amount of money on less chocolates, but they wanted the Big Bad Mainsteam Chocolate Company’s lavish boxes, with that wiry plasticky ribbon and the mountains of packaging.

Can I blame them? A small business in New Paltz, New York that needs to look out for the bottom line in order to survive? Is the pot calling the kettle black here?

I want to say no. I want to say that I’ve made compromises too—only our Bluestocking Bonbons boxes are made with recycled paper printed with soy inks, our regular white and brown boxes are stupid dioxin-bleached paper boxes because I don’t have the funds for custom-printed boxes right now (want to loan me $10k? I’ll pay ya back!). I make compromises all the time, even though the number one purpose of my business is not to make compromises. It’s the nature of the world. But this compromise, made by this non-profit in my little town, has been haunting me. And so has my email. It brought up something unpleasant about the ethics of running a capitalist business, about using money to make the world better.

So there we are. I’d love your thoughts on the matter, you smart customers and friends and sweethearts, you.

Oh and Noam, too, if you’re reading this, let me know your thoughts too, OK? Just how hard should I push the ethics angle when selling the chocolates? Noam? Anyone?

12 thoughts on “Of ethics and capitalism. And the dreaded mixing of the two. And please tell me what you think of this email I sent to this person.

  1. Pingback: two things before I fall asleep at the beach « resistance is fertile

  2. I don’t think it was inappropriate to mention child slavery. Your letter was perfectly kind and to-the-point. They should have taken you up on the offer to go with smaller boxes since your reasoning is sound: it’s impossible to plow through a box of Lagusta bonbons. They’re so incredibly rich and full of mind-blowing flavor: not like everything else, which is the same few notes over and over again (if you’re lucky).

    You’re not getting business by pointing out child slavery. You’re getting people to think, and feel, and remember that their choices have consequences. That’s what we do every day as vegans when we politely inform the jerk-of-the-day that male chicks are ground alive as a by-product of egg production, that young calves are stuffed into veal crates for milk production, that all manner of horrible things happen to every other creature used and exploited for so-called “food”.

    By buying Godiva or whatever-the-hell-else, the so-called “socially responsible” company voted with their dollars to say: YES, I want child slavery; YES, I want people to make dirt wages; NO, I honestly don’t care about recycling/compostability; YES, it’s fine for cows to suffer immeasurably for milk and milk-byproducts. All you’re doing – in the mildest possible way! – is pointing out that that’s what they’re saying.

    I hope the so-called socially-responsible company makes a new year’s resolution to get its act together in 2012.

    PS, to unnamed company: A big assortment is freaking huge. Anyone would be thrilled to receive it.

  3. I think the letter was fine, and the clients would have been psyched to get your fine chocolates in any quantity.
    It is VERY EASY to forget the child slavery aspects of chocolate.
    As a consumer of chocolate, I have never heard about it from an actual chocolatier.
    Thank for your the reminder.

  4. I think you were right on target with your offer and your email. The bottom line is, ethical vegan business or not, you have to survive and you have to be competitive. If you really want to fight against big business chocolate then you have to be in it to make money and market yourself well. I think you’re doing that and I applaud that you aren’t trying to be all things to all people. Your chocolates are divine and made of the best ingredients. The american dream should be to do something that you absolutely love, that supports your ethics, and allows you to make enough money to live a comfortable life!

  5. And guess what? Cheapness is part of the problem here–cheap inside but big and fancy on the outside kinda sums a lot of what’s wrong with consumer culture.

    I’m happy that you weren’t going to compete on price with the Big Chocolate company–because what you’re offering is simply better. And that should be compensated.

    And what you’re selling is not just chocolate but the entire package, which includes the fact that good, handmade, ethical, luscious chocolates simply cost more to make than ones that are not. If people are not prepared to pay for that, then they have to face their own choices or the consequences thereof.

    You asked them if they were going to put their money where their values were, and they didn’t. That’s part of what you’re selling, Lagusta. And that’s what I love about your stuff.

    Of course, from your post, it sounds like the not for profit may have had their hands tied due to their giftees’ lack of knowledge / appreciation for what you offer. So the takeaway is to keep on preaching.

  6. I love this letter, and I would like to receive it if I were the client. Especially if I were the sweet assistant and had to make the case for choosing your chocos to my business office or whatever.

    Correction: “One idea I’d throw out there is to spend the same amount (about $1000) but simply sending less chocolate–your clients will love the rich flavor of real, intensely-flavored chocolate, and I think they will appreciate the handmade artisan nature of our products as well.”

    Either “by simply sending” or “but simply send.”

  7. Hi Lagusta – I’ve been a recipient of those big company “chocolates” in the past, and let me tell you… they are awful. No taste, terrible texture, simply awful. Since you’ve already covered the environmental and social issues, I won’t even touch on that. 😉

    All I can say is, your products are amazing, and I am so proud that there are socially conscious business women like you in this world! Keep on doing what you’re doing. xo

  8. I think it’s really sad that you lost the account. I know that it takes a lot of willpower and guts to stand up for what you believe in and what you know is the right thing to do, especially when you seem like the only one who cares about it. The sad fact is obvious. Companies who have $1500 to spend on corporate gifts have limited ethics. They are also the companies who can most afford those ethics, and could help make an impact. It’s sad, but it’s America, and we got to be this way through lack of ethics.

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