Brewing up coffee justice

Second Cup slow to perk up, but Starbucks adds fair trade java

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Now, no one is pointing any fingers. But it’s possible that one day last summer you found yourself inadvertently gushing, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for that Starbucks to open down the street!” and then clapping your hands over your mouth in horror at your unabashed adoration of corporate America and begging your companion to never, ever repeat your words.

Take heart. Now you can feel better about yourself, if only in that slavish “kinder, gentler” capitalism kind of way.

Of all people, Starbucks — neighbourhood destroyer, frappuccino flogger and insidious Yankee usurper — has hopped on the anti-sweatshop wave and announced that its 2,500 U.S. outlets will offer fair-trade coffee beans for sale.

Last month, just three days before activist group Global Exchange was set to picket 30 Starbucks stores to demand that they carry coffee for which farmers were paid a “living wage,” Starbucks entered into a licensing agreement with TransFair USA to offer certified fair-trade coffee.

“This really shows us the power of the corporate accountability movement,” says Global Exchange’s fair trade director, Deborah James. “They don’t want to see their brand image tarnished.”

TransFair, a member of Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International, is a non-profit that provides third-party certification of fair-trade products in the States. Its Canadian counterpart is TransFair Canada/Fair TradeMark Canada.

Fair-trade coffee earns a TransFair label by being purchased directly from farmer co-ops (eliminating expensive middlemen) that are registered with TransFair. These co-ops have been proven to have good working conditions and democratic structures and to guarantee a minimum price of $1.26 (U.S.) per pound for regular coffee and $1.40 for organic beans.

The current market price for coffee is hovering at around $1.05. Coffee producers in the developing world have faced years of collapsing or wildly fluctuating prices that have plunged legions of farmers into spiralling debt and poverty.

“Fundamentally, we don’t have a right to cheap coffee,” says James. “It’s not like food or housing. So it’s not asking a lot to try to fix a system that gives us a luxury item for cheap and doesn’t give the people who produce it enough money to feed their families.”

Symbolic place

Coffee was both a strategic and a symbolic place to start the push for fair-trade commodities, say campaigners.

Most adults drink it daily, it’s the second-most traded commodity in the world (after oil), and that trade constitutes the largest transfer of wealth from the developed to the developing world.

But hold the foam. So far, the trial fair-trade coffee will only be dripping through Starbucks outlets in the States, and it will only be available in take-home packaged form at that.

(But Starbucks spokesperson Alan Gulick says that what the customer wants, the customer gets — so make some noise.)

Other Canadian roasters and importers, like specialty outlets Timothy’s and the Second Cup and store brands like Nestle Canada and Kraft, have so far not been convinced that fair-trade coffee is the drink of the future.

Shawn Macleod, VP of operations at Second Cup Canada, says that by virtue of the quality requirements of specialty coffee, they already pay farmers significantly more than the $1.26 fair-trade minimum, and he says 75 per cent of Second Cup’s coffee comes from a farm in Costa Rica called La Manita whose practices are “gold standard.”

“You want assurances?” he responds when asked about independent monitoring, “We’ve got the folks on the farm. That’s the bottom line. You can’t have quality coffee without good labour standards.”

Bob Thomson of TransFair Canada admits that La Manita is considered to be an industry “best practices” site and that many members of the American Specialty Coffee Association have visited the farm.

But he also insists that these promises of good practices, similar to those made by Timothy’s prez Becky McKinnon, ain’t the point.

“If one were to take them at their word, then they are doing good things. But with our system, we track right back to co-ops. We have a very good chain of control.

“They claim they’re doing the right thing, but they have no way of monitoring or proving it. What we have is a system consumers can trust.”

Nestle Canada, whose brands include Nescafe, Hills Brothers and Taster’s Choice, didn’t speak to NOW, but issued a statement about its concern about the living and working conditions of coffee farmers in developing countries.

Direct relationships

Nestle said that while about 15 per cent of their coffee purchases are through direct relationships with small farmers, they rely on the international market system for most of their supply.

Kraft Canada, which sells Maxwell House, Sanka and General Foods International Coffees, did not return NOW’s calls.

Sandy McAlpine, president of the Canadian Coffee Association (of which TransFair Canada is a member), says fair-trade coffee is “interesting” and “valid” but stresses that it’s only one responsible option among many and that many CCA members are already involved in aid or direct purchasing relationships with farmers in origin countries.

“Are all the problems fixed? No. Is the coffee industry as a whole working to improve those things? Absolutely.”

He also says the supply of TransFair-approved coffee is too small to supply the global coffee industry.

Fair-trade coffee has been available in Europe since the late 80s under the Max Havelaar label, and represents about 2 per cent of Europe’s overall coffee sales.

Some view corporate America’s concern with starving farmers as just an exercise in PR spin, and they’re probably right.

On the other hand, points out Thomson, this decision by coffee giant Starbucks, with its sheer purchasing power, will not only concretely affect farmers’ incomes but, with Starbucks’ dream of one day owning 20,000 stores worldwide, may also mean that fair-trade thinking and practice will soon be slipping down everyone’s throats.


Got a yen for some caffeine, but still can’t sink to a mega-corporation latte low no matter how nice they say they are?

Here are some of the other places where you can get TransFair Canada fair-trade coffee:

Alternative Grounds : 333 Roncesvalles

Big Carrot: 348 Danforth

Citron: 813 Queen West

All Wrap N’ Roll locations :
192 Bloor West and others

Who’s Emma :

Who’s Emma :

691/2 Nassau

Bridgehead : 201/2 Baldwin

52 Inc.: 394 College

Trinity Square Cafe:
10 Trinity Square

Percentage of Canadians who drink coffee daily: 67

Average number of cups a day: 3

Coffee as a proportion of all beverages consumed in Canada: 18 per cent (second only to water)

Years it takes a coffee tree to mature: 5

Pounds of coffee one tree will yield annually: 1

Number of beans required to produce one pound of coffee: 3,500

Amount of coffee imported by Canada in 1998:

130,000,000 kilograms

Starbucks’ 1999 revenue: $1.7 billion

Number of Starbucks outlets in the GTA: 43

Second Cup’s 1999 revenue: $149 million

Number of Second Cup outlets in the GTA: 150

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