consumerism

After years of contemplating and examining what exactly is “local,”  specifically in relation to chocolate, I came to realize there is a big paradox going on here. As well, I have concluded that people who really and truly consider themselves hardcore “locavores”  in countries that are more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator wouldn’t eat chocolate at all. But they do, and that’s why this matters, at least a little bit! If you truly insisted on being a locavore, say, eating foods that originated from only within a 100 mile radius from your home,  then you’d have to give up a lot. In fact, many of us  might evens starve as many urban areas in the US are far larger than the agricultural space within a 100 mile radius around them can support. That aside, let’s continue with the matter at hand.

Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion, through my analysis of the issues regarding “locally”-made chocolate, that if you’re not local, it  does not help sell chocolate in the US. That’s why we closed up Aequare. I do think  that if we had had a store in the US, a mere geographical presence, a physical location, to sell from and to tell our story from, it would have helped our sales tremendously and may be made our story viable. But putting up a website these days, doing some marketing, and getting favorable blog reviews is just not enough. If you don’t have a massive marketing budget, most websites are akin to a billboard in the desert-hardly anyone can see it, let alone find it-and if they do, they’re  most likely to just keep on driving by.

It really comes down to this; do you want to spend your money on a product that is helping with local employment, contributing to economic activity in your backyard/neighborhood/town? Or, in the model we were trying to implement, would you rather support the “local” economy in a developing country, where the need for increased economic activity, livelihoods, and incomes is probably far greater than in your own backyard? The latter is just not compelling enough of a story for the average consumer.

Specifically, our aim was to produce chocolate in the country of origin, thereby helping create economic activity  in the local economy, while at the same time also contributing to economic activity in the country of sale…We wanted to add value in the country of origin-one of the major issues facing developing countries like Ecuador is that while resource rich, most of those resources, in the form of commodities, are shipped out of the country before being processed, and thus most of the added value is added in the developed world. Making this complicated concept clear to our customers eluded us and probably completed eluded most consumers, and simply never got through.

The average consumer has a much easier time and is much more willing to immediately buy into the “Fair Trade” “Organic” or “RF Alliance” label immediately, rather than the whole idea of direct trade, “value added”  in the country of origin (a way too academic idea, I think, for most consumers, and one that requires too much explanation), which was the Aequare story. Another big problem is that unfortunately, I think many consumers in the US and Europe, for whatever reasons, associate FT or Organic or RF Alliance with premium quality, which is not the case at all, and the products are sometimese even inferior in taste and quality to conventionally grown products.

Is it better to by a chocolate product produced in the US, with chocolate made most likely made from either a US or European-based multinational, who buys beans on the international commodities market and then ships them to whatever country for processing? BTW, I have seen “Swiss” labeled chocolates, sold by Albert Uster, now being made in South Korea! And where was the chocolate processed? It is just this distorted, crazy movement of materials from one place to another that we were trying to avoid.

Another issue regarding local, and in our case, “single origin” as in only from Ecuador, and for that matter, only from some specific farms in Ecuador, is that there is little to no regulation (at least that I know of, please advise if I’m mistaken) about calling your chocolate product “single origin.” So you might have a bar with 70%, 60%, or even less beans from a single origin being mixed with beans from other parts of the world, and not even know it. Who controls this? Who regulates? It’s basically up to the manufacturer to prove where the beans in their “single origin” chocolate are coming from…if they can.

I think the best anyone can do, especially when it comes to chocolate, is to try and source as much of their materials for their final products (including packaging and services such as advertising, marketing, copywriting, etc) from nearby sources. But with the Internet, it’s hard to say if all this effort for local somehow has lost a great deal of meaning…

These are observations, and not meant to be judgments about Ecuador’s people, country, or culture.

  • Delicious, cheap ice cream abounds.
  • You will always be acknowledged at any social event by numerous people, even if they don’t know you.
  • People will remember you and treat you like a close friend after meeting them just once.
  • No freeways.
  • Much less in-your-face, agressive advertising and 24/7 media bombardment-unless you choose to have CNN on all the time.
  • You leave the city, just barely, and feel like you’re in real country.
  • Holidays are not overly commercialized and made into a spending celebration.
  • Cheap, abundant, fresh, local food available everywhere.
  • No agressive sales pitches, telemarketing, or junk mail anywhere.
  • No school shootings.
  • No need to follow stop-lights late at night.
  • You can build whatever you want, no permit required, no questions asked, in most areas.
  • It’s hard to find things to spend your money on.
  • People work to live, they don’t live to work.
  • Most people live in the present, and are not uptight about the future.
  • You are never alone, unless by choice.
  • Nothing gets thrown away; people will always find a use for, or way to repair, things North Americans would consider disposable. You would be astonished.
  • Lack of selection makes choosing easier-no selection overload in supermarkets, department stores, etc.
  • Fresh cut flowers are affordable, cheap even-2 dozen budget roses $1.
  • You will rarely face a confrontational attitude in most disputes.
  • You can go from Amazon jungle, to highlands, to coast in a matter of hours.
  • World’s greatest chocolate.

I’ll go into as many of these as I can, in detail, in future posts.

Many Americans tend to have a polarized view of the world. America is safe; the rest of the world is a war zone, or at least a series of perpetual assaults on your person. America is clean; the rest of the world is dirty, polluted, and unhygienic. In America there is justice; the rest of the world is a Kafkaesque zone of arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, filthy prisons and human rights abuses everywhere. America is the leader in higher education; the rest of the world is mired in ignorance and poverty. Only in America can you find everything and anything; the rest of the world lacks culture, convenience, and consumer products.

It is much more complex than that.

Sure, there is crime and robbery here just like in any big city. Homes have tighter security-yes, picture those beer bottles cemented along the tops of walls then broken off to leave their jagged edges, electric fences, high walls with barbed wire. They do exist. The police are not always around, nor are they always honest. But people don’t live in a state of constant fear or paranoia, carry guns, or constantly hassle with corruption. Life is pretty normal.

The sidewalks are cracked, trash accumulates and is an eyesore in places. People cook food on streetcorners over open homemade barbeques, and handle it with their bare hands. You can choose not to eat it. But there are beautiful, pristine places, untouched and wild, close by. Food tastes like real food, not something that was harvested two weeks early so it could be trucked 3000 miles across a continent. It comes from just miles away, usually harvested the same day, or just the day before, it shows up in the market.

You can get in a car crash and be hauled off to jail, pay someone off, or maybe just make amends with the other person and go on your way. Most of the time you won’t end up in jail. People are generally fair-minded and treat you with decenc and respect.

Public education is often less than adequate or worse; yet there thousands, millions of successful people all over the world living decent lives who didn’t attend the Ivy League, or even a university. And they may not be making millions or flying in private jets. But they live lives of quiet dignity and respect.

You can find museums, theater, and art here. You can also find what you need. Ok, maybe they don’t have infomercials and the shopping channel, Ionic Breeze and other useless items to spend your money on-but would you really miss those things? And if you have enough money, you can get them anyway, just like anything else you want.

I should make it clear to my readers that despite some of my descriptions of daily life here, such as the process of obtaining my visa and the whimsical and arbitrary nature of some of the bureaucrats here, it is by no means a Kafkaesque atmosphere. A far cry from it. One of my friends who spent two years here in the Peace Corps commented to me that while living here, he always had the grass-is-greener attitude that this or that would go so much smoother in the US. Yet he astutely points out that after being back in the US over ten years, despite all the technology and supposed accountability, his attitude holds true less than half the time.

We can all turn up or down the volume on any portion of the world we wish too; you can allow these small inconveniences to become big ones that can ruin your day, your week, or even your life. Or you can take them in stride as just the way things work here, and find your way around them. Rather than focussing one’s energies on worrying about or obsessing about the way “things should be”, which can easily become a roaring din that drowns out all possibilty of positive thought, I find it easier to try and just deal with things the way they are.

Some people do look at me like they would like to ask me that question when I tell them we are moving to Ecuador. Just like the guy who asked me “What are you going to do with that degree?” when I told him I was getting it in Latin American Studies. If you are asking yourself the same question, you probably won’t understand this post, or even this entire blog.

One of our main convictions regarding this slight change of venue is family. We have no family in the area, and while it may seem normal to many people to live only within the “nuclear” family and rarely see anyone beyond except for holidays and other special occasions, we don’t think this is normal at all. I think it is downright abnormal. To use the old cliche, It Takes A Village to Raise a Child, I think that’s exactly right. In Ecuador our kids will have the primos, tios, abuelos (cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents) around constantly, while here, their only regular contact will be their schoolmates, teachers, and the two of us. I think the presence of all these people around will definitely reinforce the values we want our kids to have, while growing up here they will have much more outside influence than we would like. And I think this is worth far more than some of the benefits naysayers like to point out to us (free public schooling of at least somewhat decent quality, a regular job with a steady income-ah, nothing like the pleasure of slow crucifixion by nine to five, cheap financing for all the wonderful things we don’t need, Bratz, GI Joe, …).

I’m not worried about my kids missing playgroups, playdates, or daycare either. We won’t need the last one since we will have plenty of help around.

Welcome to Destination Ecuador!

Welcome to Destination Ecuador! My family and I have been living in Ecuador for the last four and a half years. We’ve dealt with the worst kinds of red-tape, searched out or ended up making hard-to-find ingredients ourselves, imported equipment for making chocolate confections, learned the import-export business...Continue >>

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