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  • by Anup Shah
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The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things.

Sydney Mintz, Sweetness and Power, quoted by Richard H. Robbins, in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p.208.

The consumption of sugar and its history gives a great insight into various inter-related issues, such as economics, human rights, slavery, environmental issues, health, consumerism issues and so on. We also see a hint at the hidden costs and impacts to society.

On this page:

  1. Initially sugar was a luxury item
  2. Colonialism, slavery and sugar plantations
  3. Sugar then was turned into a necessity
  4. An enormous employer of labor, capital and resources. But is it productive?
  5. Children — that ultimate market

Initially sugar was a luxury item

Historically, around 1000 years ago, sugar was used in a variety of ways, such as:

  • For medicinal purposes (because it can be beneficial in limited quantities)
  • As a preservative
  • As a spice
  • As a sweetener, of course.

Yet up to the seventeenth century, it was an expensive luxury item. To be consumed by the masses, this luxury had to be turned into a necessity and be available in abundance to drive prices down.

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Colonialism, slavery and sugar plantations

Sugar was a lucrative trade in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The growing of Spain and Portugal’s sugarcane was expanded into the Caribbean and parts of South America. From there, it would be shipped to places like Lisbon for refining.

While this led to an industry growing from this, it also came with some costs. One such cost was slavery.

Modern economists like to talk about the spin-off effects of certain commodities, that is the extent to which their production results in the development of subsidiary industries. … Sugar production also produced subsidiary economic activities; these included slavery, the provisioning of the sugar producers, shipping, refining, storage, and wholesale and retail trade.

… The slave trade was a major factor in the expansion of the sugar industries. … The growing demand for and production of sugar created the plantation economy in the New World and was largely responsible for the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From 1701 to 1810 almost one million slaves were brought to Barbados and Jamaica to work the sugar plantations.

… [S]ugar became the focus of an industry, a sugar complex that combined the sugar plantations, the slave trade, long-distance shipping, wholesale and retail trade, and investment finance.

Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp. 215-216

Slave children were also used on sugar plantations.

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Sugar then was turned into a necessity

As Robbins continues to point out, sugar consumption increased in the late seventeenth century in Europe. In England and Wales, from 1663 to 1775 consumption increased twentyfold and rose more rapidly than bread, meat, and dairy products in the eighteenth century. (p.216).

Why did this happen?

Summarizing from Robbins (pp. 216—217), there were numerous reasons, including:

  • An increased production of sugar led to a decrease in price. Hence, what was once confined to the upper classes was more widely affordable to the middle classes as well. (For a while, prices were still high due to tariffs and political influence of the powerful plantation owners etc.)
  • Benefits of sugar were widely touted by various authorities and heavily promoted in many aspects of people’s lives.
  • It was used as a sweetener in other substances such as tea, coffee and cocoa.
  • Sugar’s reputation as a luxury good inspired the middle class to use it to emulate the wealthy. Sugar was a sign of status! As the price of sugar declined further, even the poorer classes were able to consume for this and the other reasons.
  • Government increases in purchase of sugar and sugar products led to further use as well. The capture of Jamaica from the French led to more sugar plantations being captured and creating rum rations for the British Navy.

Thus, sugar production and consumption increased, as did the amount of land devoted to its production, and the number of sugar mills and refineries, distilleries producing rum, and slaves employed in the whole process. Most important, the profits generated by the sugar trade increased dramatically. (p.217)

As historians McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb also pointed out, as consumerism was rising in general, innovative selling and cross-selling ideas were being used. This included selling sugar for a loss to help sell other products in the shops:

Even the humble eighteenth-century shopkeeper can be shown to have been the master of methods of boosting sales which are, all too often, confidently attributed to the ingenuity of twentieth-century commerce. The concept of the loss leader, for example, was well established amongst eighteenth-century shopkeepers. As Campbell wrote in 1747 [citing The London Tradesman, 1747, pp. 188-9] A custom has prevailed amongst Grocers to sell Sugars for the Prime Cost, and [they] are out of Pocket by the Sale. The losses were not inconsiderable [but the] intention (as it still is today) was to attract customers with this loss leader and then induce them to buy other Commodities (thereby boosting the shop keeper’s turnover) on which they would have to pay extravagant Prices (thereby boosting the shop keeper’s turnover).

Neil McKendrik, John Brewer, J.H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society, (Hutchinson, 1983), pp. 93-94

As Robbins also continues (p.218) further changes by the British government enabled more mass consumption of sugar:

  • Removing tariffs on imports allowed of foreign sugar allowed more competition and a lowering of prices so that nearly all levels of British society could afford sugar.
  • Abolishment of slavery in the early 1830s after abolishing the trade itself in 1807, led to the need for technological improvements that further lowered the price.

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An enormous employer of labor, capital and resources. But is it productive?

Sugar production and consumption increased. For example, it was used in greater quantities in tea and preserves and chocolate increased in popularity. Given the rise in consumption of other sweet foods, such as jams, sugar in bread, and later, in soda drinks and other confectioneries, candies, sweets and fast foods etc, the amount of land to produce sugar, refine it, and support the industry has also increased. That is, even more resources have been expended.

Sugar affects the environment in numerous ways:

  • Forests must be cleared to plant sugar
  • Wood or fossil fuel is needed in processing steps
  • Waste products from processing affect the environment
  • Parallel consumption of other items related to sugar, including coffee, tea, chocolate, etc all collectively put additional resource requirements on the environment
  • Numerous hidden or external costs include (and this is a very limited set of examples):
    • To create, maintain and support the office buildings where people work in these industries
    • To support the marketing
    • To support efforts in creating demands as well as meeting real and resulting demands
    • To distribute and sell
    • To create new ideas and products
    • To create, maintain and support factories to make the actual products
    • To create the materials for packaging
    • To deal with the waste/disposal of these packages
    • To deal with resulting health problems and the resources used to deal with them
    • To pay and support lobbyists to help governments and regulation agencies see their perspectives
    • and so on.

Furthermore, some of the industries involved in sugar (or sugar related products) have caused some problems that other segments of society have to deal with. As an example, consider the following, about Coca Cola:

If the cultural, health and economic problems with Coke’s colonization of Latin America weren’t bad enough, it also has a labor record that puts even most other multinational companies to shame. In Guatemala and Colombia, there is strong evidence that the Coca-Cola company actively supported the murders of union activists by paramilitary members at bottling plants run by its subsidiaries and contractors over the years. In Mexico, El Salvador and other countries there have also been ample allegations of the company using paramilitary strength to prevent unionizing and keep employees in line.

In 2001, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) filed a lawsuit against Coke for the murder of union activist Isidro Gil Segundo and an ongoing campaign of intimidation, terror, murder and paramilitary activity against union members and leaders. Across the board, Coke and its Latin American bottling partners, including Panamco and Bebidas y Alimentos, have waged vicious anti-union campaigns and been accused of rampant illegal labor practices, intimidation techniques, unfair firings and physical attacks.

… Today, Coca-Cola plainly stands as an unvarnished symbol of neoliberalism and modern corporate mercantilism. It is, plainly said, a multinational corporation exploiting cheap labor and emerging markets, that employs an array of illegal and criminal business strategies, and utilizes powerful public relations, marketing and lobbying powers to avoid accountability and fatten the company’s profits just as its product fattens its consumers.

Kari Lydersen, Sugar and Blood: Coke in Latin America, Lip Magazine, 28 May 2002

Note here how a luxury-turned-necessity product consumed en masse has produced so many negative side effects. Yet it is claimed as productive or desired because many jobs are said to be supported and therefore it has created wealth for those in this industry (though from the above, we also see that not all who work in this industry have necessarily benefitted).

It is, as a result, of some political sensitivity to even suggest that something like almost the entire sugar industry (and all the things dependent on it, such as soda drinks and confectioneries, candies, etc) wastes many resources and that the true costs (economic, political, social, health, environmental etc) are not accounted for by the industry. After all, the way economic progress is measured today, through things like growth rates, GDP, GNP etc, all these industries contribute to those measures. On paper therefore, it looks like the economy is doing well!

Such a suggestion in the mainstream that this in fact is an enormous waste would lead to much opposition. Hence, this is an example of how wasted capital leads to wasted labor and wasted resources.

That it is not even discussed in the mainstream of economics, media, politics, etc, is of no surprise, as much of today’s numerous industries are built off such externalized costs and effects. To criticize the core would be to shake one of the foundations of prosperity in many wealthy nations of today.

If many such industries were to shed waste in this way there would be a lot of unemployement! Yet, as J.W. Smith suggests in his book, World’s Wasted Wealth, the way to deal with this is to share the remaining productive jobs (through a reduction in the work week). This is quite desirable not from a lets-all-be-lazy perspective, but because as many health professionals have long said, many people in developing and developed nations alike all work excessively unhealthy hours. These saved hours would allow parents more time with their children and families, as well. Of course, this is a complex issue and not as simple as that. More on this larger and deeper notion of waste and wealth is discussed a bit later on in the waste page.

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Children — that ultimate market

The increasing consumption of sugar and related products has of course also been directed towards children and Eric Schlosser, author of New York Times bestseller, Fast Food Nation, is worth quoting:

Liquid Candy, a 1999 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, describes who is not benefiting from the beverage industry’s latest marketing efforts: the [United States’s] children.

  • In 1978, the typical teenage boy in the United States drank about seven ounces of soda every day; today he drinks nearly three times that amount, deriving 9 percent of his daily caloric intake from soft drinks.
  • Soda consumption among teenage girls has doubled within the same period, reaching an average of twelve ounces a day.
  • A significant number of teenage boys are now drinking five or more cans of soda every day.

Each can contains the equivalent of about ten teaspoons of sugar. Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Dr Pepper also contain caffeine. These sodas provide empty calories and have replaced far more nutritious beverages in the American diet.

  • Excessive soda consumption in childhood can lead to calcium deficiencies and a greater likelihood of bone fractures.
  • About twenty years ago, teenage boys in the United States drank twice as much milk as soda; now they drink twice as much soda as milk.

Soft-drink consumption has also become commonplace among American toddlers.

  • About one-fifth of the nation’s one—and two-year olds now drink soda.
  • In one of the most despicable marketing gambits, Michael Jacobson, the author of Liquid Candy reports, Pepsi, Dr Pepper and Seven-Up encourage feeding soft drinks to babies by licensing their logos to a major maker of baby bottles, Munchkin Bottling, Inc.
  • A 1997 study published in the Journal of Dentistry for Children found that many infants were indeed being fed soda in those bottles.
Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation; The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), p.54 (Bullet formatting added for clarity, but text remains unchanged)

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So, we have seen that

  • With the rise in consumerism, there has been a rise in sugar use.
  • With the increasing work demands, partly a result of rising consumerism, there has been a rise in convenience and fast foods
  • This implies more sugar!
  • Exploitation has continued. From slavery, it has moved to consumers and children (albeit in another form), while the environment continues to suffer.
  • An entire fast food industry has arisen due to consumerism.

Another central pillar of the fast food industry has been the rise of beef consumption, another luxury turned necessity. We turn to the issue of beef consumption in the next page.

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  • by Anup Shah
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