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The politics of coffee

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Wake up and smell the protest

April 10, 2000
Web posted at: 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT)

Roast Starbucks! For the trendy coffee retailer, a public-relations nightmare was brewing last week, courtesy of the caffeinated mix of labor activists, consumer groups and environmentalists that brought us Seattle's WTO protests. Campuses were mobilized, press kits mailed, and protests planned in 29 cities. An open letter to Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz was signed by the likes of Friends of the Earth, the Cincinnati Zapatista Coalition and San Francisco's Harvey Milk Democratic Club. "The farmers who make you rich earn poverty wages," the letter said. "Sweatshops occur not only in the factory but also in the field."

But just in time to avoid being tarred as the Nike of corner cafes, Starbucks, the nation's largest gourmet-coffee company, caved last Friday, agreeing to launch a line of Fair Trade-Certified beans. The politically correct coffee is grown on small farm cooperatives rather than large plantations. It sells for a minimum of $1.26 per lb.--which goes directly to the farmers rather than the middlemen, who often pay growers less than 50[cents] per lb. The increase means that the farmers, who hand-pluck their beans and carry them down the mountain in 100-lb. sacks, can afford to send their children to school. "Fair Trade gets the benefit back to the family farmer," says Starbucks vice president Dave Olsen, emerging from negotiations with activists. "It is consistent with our values."

It also reflects the growing muscle of the corporate-accountability movement. From dolphin-free tuna, to old-growth-free lumber, to child-labor-free carpets and sweatshop-free sneakers, environmental and social concerns are invading the marketplace as never before. Coffee, the world's second most heavily traded commodity after oil, is the first foodstuff to be independently certified for the U.S. market based on criteria of economic justice. "Our vision is nothing less than restructuring the inequities between North and South," says Paul Rice, head of TransFair USA, the certifying group.

Funded by the Ford Foundation, TransFair USA is the newest member of a decade-old nonprofit network in 41 countries that monitors coffee-growing practices and controls the Fair Trade-Certified label. The movement, which began in Europe, includes 300 democratically run cooperatives in Latin America, Asia and Africa that represent 550,000 of the world's 4 million coffee growers. TransFair USA plans to certify other imported foodstuffs, including chocolate, tea and bananas, as is done in Europe.

Starbucks, the first big U.S. retailer to sign on, will promote its new coffee beans this fall with in-store posters and brochures and keep the product on the shelves in 2,000 outlets for at least a year. Will the effort percolate through the whole $18 billion U.S. coffee industry? Global Exchange, the San Francisco-based human-rights group that organized the aborted protest, is calling on companies such as Folgers and Maxwell House to follow suit. Warns Medea Benjamin, a Global Exchange official: "Coffee without the Fair Trade seal is very likely sweatshop coffee.


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Cover Date: April 17, 2000

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