Monday, January 08, 2007

Beyond the Coffee: The Ethics of Starbucks

Starbucks drinkers seem to prefer their latt├ęs with a double-shot of social justice. Fairtrade branded coffee has been a wildly successful seller at the global coffee giant, indicating the consumer’s desire to feel morally vindicated in overpaying for a cup of coffee. The Fairtrade label supposedly ensures that coffee farmers are not exploited by banana republics, and that the environment is preserved in the process. Unfortunately, such signalling is unreliable and in some cases, downright faulty.

The Fairtrade standards dictate that coffee traders must secure farmers a premium over the market price for their beans, meaning, essentially that Fairtrade coffee growers must be paid more for their product than what it is worth. In return, the growers must ensure that their workers are paid decent wages, and have the opportunity to unionize. In addition, growers must adhere to certain environmental standards.

An investigation, however, into whether these standards were being upheld by the Fairtrade coffee growers that supply Starbucks found unfortunate results. It was found by the Financial Times that coffee pickers working for a Fairtrade certified coffee plantation were paid under the national minimum wage. These workers labored in squalor, and were paid just $3 a day. The farm itself breached environmental regulations, as 20 acres of coffee were being grown on a national park designated area. The standards that Starbucks were obligated to uphold by labeling the coffee as Fairtrade were, essentially, thrown out the window.

Even if Fairtrade standards were upheld, critics argue, Fairtrade certification is not the most effective method of ameliorating the financial situations of poverty-ridden coffee growers and workers. Cynically speaking, Starbucks supports Fairtrade simply because of the great profits garnered from coffee advertised as ethical. Instead, CAFE (Coffee and Farmer Equity,) which aims to help coffee farmers through a mixture of technical support and microfinance loans, helps coffee farmers far more than simply paying them a higher price for their coffee.

What matters most to the coffee magnate, the largest buyer of Fairtrade coffee beans in North America, is not the well-being of the farmers they purportedly help. Look in a Starbucks chain, and what you will find is brochure upon brochure detailing to what extent Starbucks has helped poor coffee growers the world over. Yet look also at the cup of Fairtrade coffee, priced at £5, and think of Peruvian coffee pickers laboring 10 hours a day for just $3. And let Starbucks know that their double-shot of social justice seems a bit weak.