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Organic Consumers Association

Ethical Coffee (or) The Usual Brew?

Its Saturday morning, and Nicole Evans arrives at Kirklands Puget Consumers Co-op Natural Market in flip-flops, fresh from a yoga class. She orders a cup of Cafe Carmelita because she loves the taste and likes its provenance. Cafe Carmelita is "triplecertified" as fair-trade, shade-grown, and organic-meaning that its supposed to be produced under conditions that are healthy for workers, water, land, and the songbirds and other creatures that need a shady forest habitat. "I'd rather support shops offering fair-trade coffee," says Evans, "so people get paid properly for their labor-instead of next to nothing, with seven year-olds toiling to make 10 cents a day."

Across the street, a Starbucks outlet sells bags of its own fairtrade blend, Cafe Estima, and will French-press a cup on request. But it ordinarily only brews Cafe Estima once a month, in rotation with other blends. And Estima is only certified fair-trade, not organic and shade-grown like all of PCCs blends. Thats enough to kill the deal for another passing shopper, Microsoft developer Cliff Owens, who like Evans has a ready reason for choosing triple-cert coffee: Shade cultivation is "vital to avian- and all-habitat," he explains.

Starbucks reps see such superconscientious consumer expectations as unrealistic. "Our company has nothing against [the] fairtrade [system], and in fact its one of our big partners," says company spokesman Andy Fouché. "But to me, the term triple-certified begs the question, When is the end of it? How far do we have to go to prove were sustainable?"

Such questions are on more and more coffee consumers minds. Coffee has become not just a social but a social-justice elixir in Seattle, a city that, true to reputation, boasts the highest concentration of coffee shops (five per 20,000 people) in the continental United States. Triple-cert marketers and media broadsides like the documentary Black Gold, a hit at last years Seattle International Film Festival, have brought home the ironies attendant on $3 lattes that return two cents to the farmers who grow the coffee-and who earn much less than $3 a day. Certified coffee is the fastest-growing segment of Americas $11 million specialty-coffee industry. According to the U.S. accrediting body TransFair, which has certified more than 185 million pounds of fair-trade coffee since 1999, sales in that category have grown by an annual average of 64 percent in the same period.

Lars Atorf, a spokesman for Folgers parent Procter & Gamble, concedes that low prices have wreaked ruin in coffee-growing regions, especially Central America. But he insists fair trade isn't a "magic bullet" for correcting social inequities, and others within and out of the industry question how much it really helps ground-down workers. Nevertheless, Starbucks got the message in 2000, when activists threatened to stage 30 demonstrations at company stores around the country. It promptly launched its own fair-trade blend and agreed to purchase a million pounds of fair-trade coffee within the following year. Since then, it has regularly upped its ante, becoming the largest purchaser of TransFair certified beans in North America.

TransFair CEO Paul Rice lauds Starbucks for making "a significant contribution to family farmers" and "helping to raise consumer awareness." But other consumer and development groups smell PR, not genuine commitment, in the latte superpowers efforts. The 3.7 percent of Starbucks beans carrying fair-trade certification are "a drop in the bucket," huffs Global Exchange executive organizer Kirsten Moller. "Wed like to see at least 5 percent." For all the company's promotional efforts, "its unclear what consumers really get in a cup of Starbucks," says Kristen Kosidowski, organizer of Seattle Audubons shade-coffee campaign. "The details-like which coffees are fairly traded and what their practices are-are really unclear."

Stephen Coats, executive director of the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project, sees some grounds to cheer. He says Starbucks far outpaces "any other major commercial coffee company in terms of developing and implementing sourcing guidelines" in Guatemala, where its the biggest coffee buyer. But, Coats adds, Guatemala's low wages, child labor practices, and other poor conditions haven't improved since 1994, when his group asked Starbucks to develop a new code of conduct: "We also believe it could do a lot more than it has."

Compared to whom? Starbucks is an easy target, with its high profile and higher prices, its headquarters in liberal Latteland, and its oft-proclaimed dedication to treating its own employees fairly. Mark Pendergrast, author of the encyclopedic epic history Uncommon Grounds, thinks it "comes off as a saint compared to the Big Four major coffee companies": Folgers (owned by Procter & Gamble), Maxwell House (Kraft Foods), Nescafe (Nestle), and Douwe Egberts. "These companies tend to buy from very large, technofied sun-grown plantations, pay the lowest they can for their beans, and therefore pay their workers pitifully."

Nescafe and Maxwell House don't buy fair-trade beans at all, reports TransFair's Rice. Procter & Gamble is a different story: Last June it introduced three new roasts that are certified as organic and fair trade, though not as shade-grown. About 5 percent of the coffee in its Millstone line is certified fair trade, but P&G doesn't expect such offerings to find more than a small niche. Fair trade "isn't likely to resonate with the mass market," says P&Gs Atorf. "Our market research tells us this isn't any bigger than 1 to 2 percent of all coffee drinkers." The rest don't know and don't ask what conditions produced their morning buzz.

Still the triple-cert roasters press on, relying on consumers who believe that, in the words of Grounds for Change cofounder Stacy Marshall, "it's their responsibility to know where their coffee is coming from." Another roaster, Dean Cycon of organic and kosher Deans Beans, insists the onus should fall on the producer, not the consumer: "This should be an ethical decision for a company, not a marketing decision, not just adding ethics as a new niche." With coffee prices at historic lows, Cycon and other fair-trade supporters contend that coffee importers could afford to pay higher premiums to farmers.

To this, Atorf tenders a classic rebuttal: "We're not a charity organization. We have to make profits."

Though he and other small roasters are increasingly feeling the heat from big-time competitors, Dean Cycon keeps the faith. "I want to make a living," he says. "Not a killing."

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