Michelle Chihara, AlterNet
Since the arrival of the venti
half-caf latte in the '90s, Americans have gotten used to the idea
of the $3 (or more) cup of coffee. Designer coffee is still booming
-- Starbucks Coffee company profits totaled $181 million in fiscal
2000, and the company now has 5,688 locations from Indonesia to Spain to the U.S.
But the tide of expensive lattes
has not lifted all boats. North America's morning Joe sits atop a
growing crisis, according to Oxfam America, which has just released a
report entitled "Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup,"
detailing the scope of the global coffee crisis. (The
full report is available here.) The farmers and workers who
actually grow coffee beans in regions from South America to Vietnam are faced with the lowest
prices in years, prices that do not cover their costs. Farmers are
slipping into dire poverty, pulling their children out of school,
unable to afford medicine and struggling to eat. Mass coffee farming
practices are also destroying rainforest ecosystems.
This week, there are two major
activist pushes to raise awareness and promote fair trade and organic
coffee, to protect both the farmers and the environment. The two
campaigns, one by Oxfam America and one spearheaded by the
Organic Consumers Association, agree on the problem if not the solution.
Both see an international humanitarian and environmental crisis.
Both encourage consumers to demand Fair Trade certified coffee whenever
they buy coffee.
The two campaigns diverge when
it comes to Starbucks. Oxfam America is going after the coffee
giants Kraft (Maxwell House), Procter & Gamble (Folgers), Nestl�
(Nescaf�) and Sara Lee (Real Coffee). The big transnationals are
certainly ahead of Starbucks, as bulk buyers of beans. And they
have shown a relatively complete indifference to the plight of small
farmers, as coffee prices fall and corporate profit margins go up.
Oxfam, in other words, is targeting
the big fish. Besides demanding better prices for the small farmers,
Oxfam is demanding that the coffee giants and rich country governments
help fund the destruction of at least five million bags of coffee
stock, in order to help stabilize the price. They also want the
companies to create a fund to help poor farmers find other ways
to make a living, so that they will be less dependent on one volatile
The coffee campaign is part
of Oxfam's larger Make Trade Fair campaign, an international effort
to make trade more fair to poor and developing countries -- including
calls for an end to agricultural subsidies in the first world and
a more democratic World Trade Organization. The campaign also included
a shindig on Capitol Hill, and a public service announcement co-produced
by the certifying body, TransFair USA and featuring actor Martin
"I was told that Kraft
has actually agreed to one of the our recommendations," says
Adrienne Leicester Smith, media director at Oxfam (at press time,
Kraft had not responded to inquiries). "I think it's important
to remember that this is bad for business, too," Smith continued.
"These very very low prices right now will correlate to very
very high prices later. When it fluctuates this much, it creates
instability for everybody."
Sustainable is still the buzzword.
Oxfam, Starbucks and the Ford Foundation entered into a pilot program
to help support small farmers using sustainable techniques in Oaxaca,
Mexico in July. "Starbucks is stepping up to the plate in a
lot of ways, so we don't apologize for applauding them," Smith
says. She points out that Starbucks counts for less than 1 percent
of the coffee market, so "we're going after the big guns, we
want all organizations to be responsible corporate citizens."
But the Organic Consumers Association
says Oxfam has got it all wrong, and that by giving Starbucks its
support, Oxfam is helping Starbucks "greenwash" its image.
The giants are relatively unabashed about their disregard for the
environment and labor, says Ronnie Cummins, OCA's director. "Just
look at their behavior for the past 20 or 30 years."
Starbucks, however, incorporates
social and environmental responsibility into its brand and its corporate
image. Chains like Starbucks, with its colorful brochures about
giving back to the community and the environment, "have a customer
base of people who are really concerned," says Cummins. "Before
we can take on the coffee cartel and kick canned coffee of the shelves,
period, we need to deal with a large and rapidly growing company
that claims to be environmentally and socially responsible, and
its 20 million customers who actually kind of believe that."
Starbucks talks the talk but
does not walk the walk, Cummins says. "CEO Orin Smith admitted
in the Chicago Tribune that less than one tenth of one percent of
total sales of Starbucks was Fair Trade certified. So why have these
brochures out everywhere talking about how great you are? If you
didn't then maybe you wouldn't have pissed us off so much."
And fair trade coffee is just
the beginning. The OCA also wants Starbucks to stop using any and
all genetically modified and non-organic products, from soy lecithin
and sweeteners in its pastries to milk. "For two years now,
they've admitted that 80 percent of the 32 million gallons of milk
comes from dairies where cows are injected with bovine growth hormone,"
Cummins says. "It's price; the bottom line is that tainted
milk in America is a lot cheaper than organic milk."
The OCA is marshaling thousands
of volunteers in 300 cities worldwide to hand out leaflets outside
Starbucks between Sept. 21 and 28. Their aim is to educate Starbucks'
millions of customers, so that those customers will in turn pressure
A spokeswoman for Starbucks
confirmed that only 1% of Starbucks coffee is Fair Trade, but cited
the company's partnership with Oxfam and the farmers coalition in
Oaxaca among other examples of Starbucks'
corporate citizenship. "Fair trade is one area that addresses
the livelihood of the farmers," she says. "There are a
number of other things that we're doing." Long term contracts,
which reduce volatility, were up from 3% of contracts to 31%, this
year, and Starbucks has also created a point system intended to
reward farmers who meet certain environmental and sustainable criteria.
Starbucks trumpeted its good deeds in a "Corporate Social Responsibility
Report" this year, available on its Web site.
All of the organizations involved
in the fight for fair trade -- OCA, Global Exchange and Oxfam --
are also involved in active organizing efforts on college campuses
nationwide, where students have already had some success in getting
their cafeterias to serve only fair trade coffee.
Starbucks or not, coffee farmers
are suffering, and both campaigns this week are aimed at helping
them. "This crash has just decimated 25 million people who
are dependent on the market," says Smith. "It's transcended
even where we were a year ago."
For more information about
the OCA Frankenbucks campaign, and to learn more about Fair Trade
coffee, go to: http://www.organicconsumers.org/starbucks/
For more information about
Oxfam's Make Trade Fair campaign, go to: MakeTradeFair.com
Companies like EqualExchange.com
sell 100 percent Fair Trade and organic, shade-grown coffee.
Michelle Chihara is a senior
writer at AlterNet.