a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Starbucks challenge

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 21st, 2005

Coffee house behemoth Starbucks (SBUX) is touting its corporate social responsibility efforts, including ‘fair trade coffee’ — coffee bought at a price that gives growers a decent profit after labor and materials. In a memorandum titled “Starbucks, Fair Trade, and Coffee Social Responsibility,” Starbucks pledged:

…Fair Trade Certified coffee has been promoted by Starbucks as a brewed “Coffee of the Week” and can be brewed by coffee press during store hours upon customer request.

Accordingly, the “green LA girl” blog has issued the Starbucks Challenge:

1) Simply visit your local Starbucks and ask: “Could I get a cup of fair trade coffee?”
2) Tell us what happens next. Was it hard or easy to get a cup?

I learned about it earlier this weekend in a comment to the “Union Jeans” post below. So later on I went to a Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, DC, and asked for a ‘fair trade’ brewed cup of coffee (I didn’t want to stretch into latte territory).

The lady at the cash register didn’t know anything about it, but the shift manager (I assume) offered to make a french press brew… but it turned out they didn’t have the fair trade beans on hand to grind. She said they’d get a shipment later in the afternoon. She seemed very honest and a touch apologetic about it, but the upshot was that there was no fair trade coffee to drink at that store. I go there every Saturday (my little girl’s ballet class is nearby). So I’ll keep checking.

Starbucks stores have passed only 18 of the most recent 31 challenges, which seems a bit low for a company that usually succeeds in making its stores meet its quality standards. Whether the whole initiative amounts to so-called “greenwashing” — when a company carries out a few environmentally or socially praiseworthy actions to deflect attention from its overall record on those scores — is another question. While my experience at the Starbucks outlet was somewhat troubling, on the whole they seem to be trying, judging from the additional research I’ve done since then this weekend.

Not many people ask for a particular bean or roast for a brewed cup of coffee, let alone a ‘fair trade’ product; more people will buy a half pound or pound of a particular roast, and I have in fact bought Starbucks fair trade coffee beans myself before. In its 2004 corporate social responsibility annual report Starbucks claimed it bought 2.1 million pounds of fair trade coffee in 2003, 4.8 million pounds in 2004, and hoped to buy 10 million pounds in 2005.

The offer to brew fair trade coffee on request isn’t the only or even the most significant aspect of the “coffee social responsibility” plan Starbucks says it is following. On the face of it, that would seem to be Starbucks’ professed “C.A.F.E” (Coffee and Farmer Equity) purchasing guidelines which “give preference to farmers who score high in measurements of economic fairness, socially responsible working conditions, and progressive environmental practices.”* In the same 2004 annual report, Starbucks claimed it bought 43.5 million pounds of coffee in 2004 made under these guidelines, which it summarizes as follows:

The guidelines contain 28 specific indicators that fall under five focus areas: product quality, economic accountability (transparency), social responsibility, environmental leadership in coffee growing and environmental leadership in coffee processing.

Each indicator is assigned a maximum number of points that can be earned, except for our prerequisites of product quality and economic accountability. A total score is tabulated to determine preferred supplier status.

For their part, “green LA girl” and commenters point out that SBUX’ own claims of paying $1.20 a pound worldwide for coffee (a) fall below the $1.26 mark mandated for fair trade coffee and (b) don’t yet fully specify to whom such prices were paid — farmers or “coyote” middlemen who underpay farmers and pocket the difference for themselves. How you view Starbucks’ claim that they have detailed data about this for 59% of their purchases (or, for that matter, the 18 out of 31 fair trade brewing success rate) depends, I guess, on whether you’re a ‘glass over half full’ or ‘glass nearly half empty’ sort of person.

I admit I’m kind of fond of Starbucks: they make consistently good coffee, they provide a nice, familiar place to relax whether you’re in your home town or on the road, and they appear to be a decent employer: health benefits for part-time employees, profit sharing, tuition deals. For whatever it’s worth, Fortune has the company among the 100 best employers in the United States in 2005, and Business Ethics had the company on its top 100 list 5 years running through 2004. The right to organize appears to be recognized, although the level of unionization is “one eighth of one percent” of “partners,” Starbucks’ term for employees.

But “green LA girl” has a point: if you can’t keep one promise, you may not be keeping others, and if you say you’re going to do something, you should just do it. This time I went ahead and got the lattes for my wife and me that I had planned to get anyway. Next time, I’ll pass if Starbucks is still not living up to their own simple pledge.

* A company called Scientific Certification Systems runs the certification process for Starbucks, and provides additional descriptions of the process at its web site.
UPDATE, 12/4: No fair trade coffee on Friday at an Arlington, VA Starbucks either. The store manager fellow didn’t know that “fair trade” was a term, not a brand: “All we’ve got is Estima.” “Fine” (whatever). 5 minutes later, the person put to French-pressing the brew comes back and tells me they’re out of Estima. “Fine, I want my money back.” She gives me a coupon instead; I didn’t want to make more trouble, and left with that. Meanwhile, greenLAgirl is writing an open letter to Starbucks inquiring what’s up with no Estima anywhere: high demand? manager screwups?
UPDATE, 1/26/05: Still no fair trade coffee at the Wisconsin Ave. store, each of the last two times I’ve tried. I did succeed at a Starbucks in downtown Silver Spring around Christmas time. I was so startled I didn’t object to buying a whole French press’ worth of coffee, and didn’t have the presence of mind to check what I was paying for it compared to a regular cup of brewed coffee. I asked for and got two paper cups, filled them both and left.

3 Responses to “Starbucks challenge”

  1. greenLAgirl Says:

    Yey! As a girl who aspires to be a glass half full kind of person, I hope your store has its fair trade shipment the next time you drop by —

  2. Alicia Says:

    For those of you who are interested in the issue of Fair trade, there is a powerful documentary out called Â?Black Gold,Â? that documents the lives of Ethiopian coffee farmers and clearly demonstrates why all of us should be asking for Fair Trade coffee. The film was recently released in the theater but is now available to the public on DVD via California Newsreel. You can read more about the documentary or pick up a copy of it here at

  3. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks, Alicia! I just did a “followups” post, and I’ll add this as when I get a minute. …done.

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