Ethical Shopping - The Smell of Starbucks for Small Farmers

The last time I stepped into Starbucks was a couple of weeks ago. I went in for a Caffé Mocha to pick me way up, along with a herd of other coffee gazelles. The smells were, of course, roasting intoxicating, and there's always a feel-good sense of Starbucks, though the dent to the wallet if this becomes a habit is pretty hefty. I am one of the fifty-plus percent of Americans who indulge in coffee drinking every day of the week—a daily ritual as ceremonial and perky-calming as a Japanese tea ceremony. Another quarter of us drink coffee as an occasional beverage. Face it. We are coffee cowboys. The question is: are we fair coffee cowboys?

As I looked at the menu I noticed the Free Trade Certified coffee and I opted to try it in my Caffé, giving me the extra jolt of knowing I was helping the coffee farmers receive a fair wage for their labor. It made my coffee that much more flavorful. Fair Trade means the coffee was paid for with fair market prices.

I think I was the only one at the counter who went for the Fair Trade coffee and it made me realize that for all the billions of cups of coffee we consume every year, a small margin of our money actually goes to the coffee farmers—independent and cooperative. They live in the borderland of near or actual poverty, victims of powerful coffee middlemen who force them to accept half the market price for their coffee. Their production prices are still the same. So, they end up in a steep cycle of debt and unremitting poverty. The coffee they produce largely goes to America, and Starbucks is an enormous buyer of middlemen-massaged low coffee prices.

Bean Counters and Fair Trade

As coffeeholics we spend an average of $200 a year on the brew. If you go into Starbucks regularly, it's probably four times that. Starbucks rakes in over $6 billion a year from about 10,000 coffee outlets in 37 countries. They are the gorilla on the block, and if they choose to bring more Fair Trade into their shops, things could really shift.

Fair Trade coffee is still a small cup of the traditional roasts—4 percent for instant and 18% for whole and ground. Further, the annual supply—170 million pounds—of Fair Trade is six times that of demand—about 37 million pounds. This is largely because of consumer ignorance, or apathy to the price. Fair Trade coffee costs $1.26 a pound, while conventional market coffee costs .60-70 cents a pound.

Starbucks buys 11 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee a year, which is a little under a third of the total amount of Fair Trade coffee bought on the market. Yet that 11 million pounds is only 3. 7% of what Starbucks stocks up on each year in coffee.

Economics Espresso

As coffee drinkers we're being put in a hard place by the market middlemen. They engineer low coffee prices, which is attractive to the big coffee sellers, and we get coffee at low prices. If the world were all fair trade, we'd be paying double for our coffee. And all the coffee farmers would be earning a thriving living. That is a good exercise of global economics. Of course, we do have the choice to buy Free Trade Certified. To go ahead and pay the extra money. We can also make our voices known to Starbucks to start including more Fair Trade in their concoctions, and seeing if they can massage the price so there is more demand. Starbucks has the power to make an enormous difference.

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