Ferrero’s hazelnuts. Approaches to economics

Jochen Ketels

Alba in northern Italy in the 1940s. The confectioner Pietro Ferrero has an idea: he creates a sweet spread out of roasted hazelnuts and cocoa which will subsequently conquer the world’s breakfast tables under the name Nutella. Today the Ferrero family is among the richest in Europe. Their wealth is estimated at more than 25 billion US dollars, sales of confectionary in Germany come to about 1.6 billion euros a year.

Hazelnuts are an important ingredient. A large part of the world harvest comes from Turkey. According to official statistics, around 400,000 children and young people between six and sixteen work in agriculture there.

In 2014, a journalist from the German weekly Die Zeit visited ten-year-old Mustafa there who works up to twelve hours a day, seven days a week picking hazelnuts for a daily wage of fourteen euros. Ferrero spends 400 million euros on advertising in Germany each year. In the advertising spot the blond young daughter ties a star-shaped box of Rocher around the neck of her golden retriever amid gold dust and piano music in front of a decorated Christmas tree.

I realise that I’m involved

Every lasting lesson starts with an interest in the world: I realise that I’m involved, I too like sweets. The feeling arises: the world is unjust and that is something to do with me.

The horizon expands, new questions arise, some are asked, some remain in the background: why doesn’t Turkey ban child labour? Is the company at fault? What is the connection between my consumer choice and fair, just economic conditions? How does the advertising for confectionary influence the health of children? How could the wages of pickers be raised through a reorganisation of the company’s cost structure? How does inventiveness influence the economy? Who ensures that human rights are complied with?

We want to understand: “Why?”

In the discussion, the path leads from our feelings to the effort of understanding. I want better to understand “why”? But stop – no premature, perhaps ideological conceptualisation, no simple answers, no ill-considered judgements. In the lesson we encounter examples of conditions of which the globalised economy has plenty. What insights can be gained from this, what is important?

The background to our striving for understanding is formed by the concept of development: circumstances are in flux and we ourselves are part of the narrative, embedded in the global relationships of modern economic conditions. In these conditions consumers, business, producers, the organising and investing forces of capital are involved. The economic process, going from a piece of transformed nature through our hunger for confectionary to waste disposal, forms a whole.

Keeping concepts open-ended

I myself am the consumer after all; without me the economy would not work. Many things could be changed in the value creation chain of the confectionary industry: the retail price, the amount spent on advertising and the wages of the pickers could be set in a different relationship to one another!

Basic economic terms such as capital, employment law, return on sales, efficient use of resources, consumer power, the influence on purchase decisions of advertising are discussed. But not with the requirement that they should be “learnt” as firmly defined concepts.

Non-ideological teaching starting with the phenomena means: keeping the concepts which follow from such realities flexible, keeping our own thinking with regard to “work”, “capital”, business, consumers and producers alert, aiming for concepts which are as differentiated as possible.

Fair trade is an alternative

Take the fair trade company Contigo from Göttingen as an example: trading in coffee with a fixed partner, the world market price here no longer determines the relationship between producer and consumer. Child labour is contractually prohibited. This cooperation includes health insurance based on the German model, regulated working hours, measures for safety at work, educational provision and suchlike.

The price for the green coffee is dependably agreed on a long-term basis in direct consultation so that producers can be paid several times the amount of the normal industry wage. With their purchasing choice, coffee consumers consciously override the laws of the market. Here economic principles other than profit maximisation become evident.

Everyone bears responsibility

Everyone – to begin with – looks out for themselves, starts with the self-interest taught by Adam Smith. And yet, if we look more closely, this does not need to be the end of the road. The economy in a wholly real way means “performing a service for one another”. There is no alternative in a world in which there is the division of labour.

This basic understanding can help us to obtain a sense of the connection between us as consumers and the producers. Our sense of justice, once it has been awoken, can trigger new thinking and action, the goals of economic activity can be framed in different terms, the will to take action is motivated. Self-efficacy cannot yet be experienced in the lesson. Developing a sense of it here means understanding ourselves as responsible actors with regard to all the others involved in the economic creation of value.

In this way we obtain a relationship with reality and learn to do justice to our co-responsibility for what happens in the world.

Moral imagination as teaching goal

The economy can mean only looking out for our own advantage such as profit targets, stock market capital gains or consumer bargains. The economy can also mean intervening creatively in circumstances and preparing the way for new forms out of an awareness of togetherness.

Our own intention should not be absent from the attempt to teach a productive lesson: showing the way how, beyond the dominance of market forces, paths leading to economic circumstances fit for human beings can be found in the “moral imagination”.

About the author: Jochen Ketels teaches mathematics and social studies at the Göttingen Free Waldorf School.