The Politics of Coffee

The Politics of Coffee

Starbucks is evil!” That’s the cry you hear from an unending legion of students, hippies, progressives, liberals, coffee connoisseurs, and anti-globalization activists. And, to an extent, they’re absolutely right. Every large corporation out there, be it a coffee company or an auto manufacturer, trades environmental quality, exploitable labor, and their mom ‘n’ pop competition for profits, because that’s simply the nature of capitalism in our society. If a CEO didn’t work to make his company as profitable as he or she could, they would be tossed out on their ear. The duty of each company is to their shareholders – first and foremost.

But in the coffee world, globalization has taken a particularly nasty toll, especially on the third world. With the rise of Starbucks to an international coffee juggernaut, you might expect that the price being paid for coffee beans has risen with demand for the product- but you’d be wrong. In fact, while coffee consumption has rocketed up in the last ten years by over 700%, the price paid to growers for raw coffee beans has dropped from $3 a pound to barely 50c a pound.

A few years ago, Starbucks was under fire. Campuses were mobilized, press kits were being sent across the country, and protests were scheduled in 29 American cities over the treatment of third world coffee farmers. Starbucks responded by agreeing to sell a line of Fair Trade-Certified beans, which are purchased from the grower for a minimum of $1.26 a pound, in their stores. Fair trade coffee is generally grown on small farm cooperatives rather than huge company-owned plantations, and the 150% increase in price paid allows the farmers to actually send their kids to school, feed their families, and even improve their lives.


Starbucks, in this situation, caved. But they didn’t give in entirely to the activists, who would like nothing more than all Starbucks coffee to be fair trade product. The company says they simply can’t find enough fair trade coffee to replace their usual blend, as many growers can’t afford to get fair trade certified, or simply don’t know such things exist. Regardless of that claim, in 2002, Fair Trade-Certified coffee sales increased by 54%, while thousands of pounds of Fair Trade-Certified coffees were sold off at a regular market price due to lack of demand from coffee buyers like Starbucks.

Another reason used to dismiss Fair Trade coffee is the line of thought that consumers prefer their regular old consistent-tasting coffee to the inevitable variations that come with the fair trade product. Mass-produced coffee from factory-like farms give a consistency that scattered villagers scrounging for seeds often can’t match, which makes taste an inevitable trade off for the knowledge that your cup of java came from the back of a South American man making $4 a day.

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