Friends Might Start Letting Friends Drink Starbucks


Coffee accounts for 80 percent of all Fair Trade certified products sold in the US, and with 40 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee purchases in 2009, Starbucks is by far the largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee on the planet. Starbucks’ commitment to Fair Trade is commendable, and in fact seems exceptional, in a world where the vast majority of companies engage in less-than-ethical business practices.  TransFair USA, the only third-party Fair Trade certifier in the US, calls the relationship between the non-profit and Starbucks “deeply transformational” to thousands of farmers and their communities.

In honor of Fair Trade Month, TransFair USA CEO, Paul Rice, and Starbucks senior vice president of Coffee & Tea, Dub Hay, met on Monday to discuss the virtues of Fair Trade and how the relationship between the non-profit and the world’s most well known coffee slinger has grown in recent years.  The discussion was broadcast live over the Internet,  with Rice and Hay fielding questions submitted via Twitter, Facebook, and live chat.

Fair Trade ensures that farmers around the world receive a reasonable price for their products, which in turn helps producers to invest in their communities, pay for their children’s education, and become better stewards of the land. Not only are coffee growers getting a better price, coffee drinkers are getting a better cup of coffee.  Unlike the Fair Trade swill the dedicated and ethical coffee drinker was forced to choke down ten years ago, today some of the highest quality coffees available are Fair Trade certified.

This is no coincidence; sourcing Fair Trade coffee forces buyers to develop deeper relationships with producers.  “I think the essence of Fair Trade is more than price, it’s about creating relationships and a new way of doing business,” observes Hay.  This new way of doing business includes providing technical advice, training, and extending credit to farmers (a major hurdle for small farmers).  Taken all together, these measures grant farmers access to information and capital to invest in on-site quality management and capacity building.  “If you are living in poverty, on the edge,” noted Rice, “you can’t afford to invest in quality.”

Overall, the conversation was congratulatory on both sides, and rightfully so.  Both Rice and Hay acknowledged how the relationship between the non-profit and the mega-corporation has grown from a rather contentious one in 2002 into a partnership that today is characterized by collaboration. TransFair and Starbucks are a part of a growing trend of partnerships between non-profits and for-profits, representing a significant departure from the past where the two institutions were sworn enemies.  We are entering an era where both businesses and non-profits recognize the mutually beneficial opportunities that exist in coming together to address social and environmental issues.

Of course, there is still a lot of work to do.  According to Hay, 100 percent of Starbucks espresso in the UK is Fair Trade, and by March of 2010 the rest of Europe and the Middle East will follow suit.  How much Fair Trade espresso does Starbucks serve stateside?  None.  According to Hay, there just isn’t sufficient demand from consumers in the US.  Both Rice and Hay mentioned Starbucks’ power and reach to bring Fair Trade products into communities that would otherwise not have access to them.  If Starbucks really wants to raise awareness, it should serve Fair Trade espresso in the US, even if consumers haven’t yet sent sufficient demand signals.  If the quality is there and the ethics are there, and the precedence has already been set in foreign markets, why not take a stronger stand and introduce Fair Trade espresso here?

Carly has a BA from Stanford and recently finished her MBA in sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her interests revolve around sustainable food production, sports, renewable energy, finance, and sustainable business consulting. She lives in Oakland where she spends her spare time cycling, home brewing, gardening, cooking, and surfing (when she can make it over the bridge).

8 responses

  1. Here in the U.S., most Starbucks outlets don’t even serve Fair Trade coffee, except on the occasional week when a FT blend is available as one of the choices.

    If you buy a coffee that is not Fair Trade Certified, you are voting — with your dollars — to exploit and impoverish producers in other countries. Fair Trade adds only a few pennies to the cost of a cup of coffee, so to settle for UNfair trade is pathetic.

  2. If Starbucks is getting their supply from fair trade farmers, why does the US dollar need to dictate it’s availability in stateside outlets. Starbucks is already pricey, we wouldn’t notice a couple cents more for the coffee we buy daily as a compulsion. There should be no other supply. Fair Trade coffee should be all that is available and that is it.

    But starbucks isn’t doing that. I forgot, they are being complimented for putting lipstick on a pig. Doing the right thing does not mean doing it only part of the time. They were the ones that got the world over to spend MORE THAN 65 CENTS FOR COFFEE without a second thought. They should make the switch. Not for the interviews and the write ups, but for the good that it would do

  3. But Fair Trade is too little, too late. And unfortunately, too many consumers have incorrectly given it a mental monopoly on ethical coffee growing.

    Fair Trade doesn’t benefit growers directly, only cooperatives — requiring farmers to join them to even participate. And at that, the certification process diverts up to tens of thousands of dollars annually on what could be spent on better things.

    Then throw in that Fair Trade gives growers zero upside for producing better coffee, and it’s an economic program akin to a stool with only two legs.

    Sinking more energy into an unstable, artificial economic system is only asking for delayed failure.

    1. Greg – what do you think would work better? I agree “fair trade” as currently defined is impefect, but I worry about making perfect the enemy of “better”. In most of the US people haven’t even heard of ‘fair trade’ so outside of the the San Francsico bubble, I’m not sure a monopoly is at hand yet at all….

  4. You may like to take a look at this Starbucks website. They actually have an annual CSR report that provides alot of info on what exactly they’re doing on their coffee purchases. I had no idea until I read it.

    You can always argue that Starbucks can do more and do better, but frankly I don’t think any other coffee chains have achieved or even tried half of what they are doing behind the scene. As far as I know, Starbucks is now selling a coffee called “Shared Planet” in the US. It’s something that they have been working on with Conservation International for like 10 years. We just didn’t pay any attention because there wasn’t much press around it.

    Fairtrade maybe an easily and more recognizable brand for some people now, especially with all the publicity. But I think there are many other similar organizations out there working relentlessly to help farmers one way or another. I think we should look at the full picture and let’s not jump to the conclusion that offering Fairtrade or any “certified” products as the only means to doing business the right way.

    Personally I salute Starbucks for what they are trying to do. Whatever it is, there’s some good intention behind.

  5. Every bit of Fair Trade helps, no matter how small, plus it helps everyone.

    That is why Fair Trade Sports, makers of (soccer, football, basketball, rugby, volleyball, and more) are a tangible proof point to educate US consumers on the benefits of Fair Trade and the fight against child labor, with all after-tax profits go to charity.

    Starbucks has at least started, which is a lot more than some companies have done.

    If you want to help, even a little, then visit Free Trade Sports, visit and you can also make a difference.

    Monica Turley
    Fair Trade Sports
    ~ Eco-Certified, Fair Trade, Union-Made
    ~ Balls for soccer, football, and more…
    ~ All after-tax profits to children’s charities

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