By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Those of you who've been buying Fair Trade certified coffee for years now, have probably noticed that Starbucks has only tiptoed in that direction. Just 8.5 percent of its coffee is Fair Trade certified, according to critics.
The rest of Starbucks' coffees are "ethically sourced," according to the coffee king.
But people are starting to wake up and smell a problem: Starbucks' self-certified coffees do not have to pass any outside review, only the company's own criteria and in-house standards.
Typically, that's not a program that benefits the small producer, so much as the big company that devised the plan. Critics are asking, can Starbucks be a true supporter of small coffee producers in Africa and Latin America without submitting to an outside Fair Trade process?
Now, a possible boycott is brewing.
The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and GMO Inside are challenging Starbucks to use organic milk – yes, that's another issue — and Fair Trade coffee beans, just as many smaller coffee shops and local coffee grinders have managed to do for years.
"They're an extremely profitable company," says Katherine Paul, associate director of the OCA. "That profit is really at the expense of poor farmers, and really, they [Starbucks] should take the lead on Fair Trade and Organic. They have the ability to do that. It's time to give back to society."
The OCA did not come hastily to its conclusion that Starbucks could do better. For 12 years, it's been pressing the global corporation, which now has 20,100 stores and profits just shy of $15 billion annually, to improve its sourcing.
In 2007, Starbucks responded to OCA's call that it drop milk made by cows injected with Monsanto's Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (RBGH), a chemical blamed for sickening dairy cows and causing dangerous estrogenic effects in humans.
But the company has remained impervious to calls to buy coffee beans certified as Fair Trade for the American market – other than to offer a couple token varieties over the years.
To be fair about Fair Trade, it's not a panacea. The certification programs by the World Fair Trade Organization and the Fair Trade Federation, set up to help small coffee (and cocoa) farmers bargain for better prices, have been accused of not keeping pace themselves. Newer groups have come along to facilitate coffee trade for small producers, and some coffee cooperatives have begun dealing directly with coffee grinders in US and Europe, where the majority of java consumers live.
Still, many see Fair Trade certification by these groups as a fairer, more transparent way of helping small farmers.
Starbucks also kept its critics second-guessing the authenticity of its self-certification because of its positions on related issues. The multinational has not budged on requests that it switch to healthier organic milk instead of conventional, which could help support smaller farmers and reduce pesticide use.
Another issue: Starbucks' coffees and food items contain preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and other questionable additives, according to its critics. These include the recently outed "yoga mat" dough conditioner and preservative found in baked goods, azodicarbonamide, or as I like to call it, #@$P@&*#%PWFS?.
To read Starbucks response to these charges, see the company's statement on ethical sourcing. Starbucks reports that its "committed to offering ethically purchased and responsibly produced products," and that it supports farmers and forests.
Critics, though, say that Starbucks could, as Beyonce might say, put a ring on it, if they agreed to Fair Trade scrutiny.
The company's actions belie its intentions, according to the OCA and GMO Inside.
Last year, when Washington state advocates for GMO labeling tried to pass a state referendum, they appealed to Starbucks for support.
But the company declined. Instead, Starbucks backed the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a group that worked vigorously to defeat the ballot box initiative, I-522.
For organic food and GMO-free advocates, that was Starbucks going over to the dark side, and we don't mean they took an espresso break.
The Organic Consumers Association has called for a boycott of all the members of the GMA, including Starbucks, arguing that the grocery group, by fighting labeling choice, does not have consumers' best interests at heart.
GM labeling, say supporters, would simply assist consumers in choosing more natural foods, grown without genetic modification.
The GMA's position is that labeling genetically modified foods would be costly – even though multi-national food manufacturers already have to label GM foods for free-wheeling countries like Russia and China that require labeling.
The GMA also maintains that GM foods are safe and use fewer pesticides. Critics disagree with both those statements.
Given how important this issue is — to the growers, the land and forests — it's hard to fathom why Americans have been asleep on it. They're certainly well-enough caffeinated.
Paul thinks Starbucks has gotten a pass because it has successfully presented itself as warm and caring, and now that it's set up on every other street corner, it's simply accepted.
Coffee is immediate, hot and comforting. Fair Trade is abstract and distant and would require hanging out somewhere else, or even becoming your own barista.
"They've managed to make a name for themselves and become so popular that they're the go-to coffee place for consumers who don't think about Fair Trade, and a lot of consumers don't," she said.
So, look for the boycott to come, though we'll have to find out if it even slows the lines at the drive through.
5 Reasons to Boycott Starbucks
By Ronnie Cummins and Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association
1 – Starbucks uses non-organic milk from factory farms
In 2011 (and the company has grown steadily since then), Starbucks used over 93 million gallons of milk per year, enough to fill 155 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
None of it was organic.
But what if it were? Imagine the impact Starbucks could have on the organic milk industry. The pressure it could exert on the marketplace by forcing other coffee chains to switch to organic, in order to remain competitive. And the role the company could play in ending the abuse and unhealthy practices rampant in factory farm dairies.
Starbucks likes to tout the fact that since it stopped using milk that contains Monsanto's rBGH growth hormone, it uses "GMO-free" milk.
That may be true. But by its refusal to switch to USDA certified organic milk, Starbucks is a huge promoter of the GMO agriculture model—because dairy cows are fed a steady diet of GMO feed, including corn, soy, alfalfa, and cotton seed.
That's an unhealthy diet for animals. And an unsustainable model for agriculture.
2 – Starbucks peddles mostly non-organic, GMO (junk) foods and drinks
Starbucks may use GMO-free (non-organic) milk in its coffee drinks, but only 1.1 percent of its coffee is certified organic.
And there are plenty of other GMO-tainted (and non-organic) products and ingredients on the Starbucks menu. In fact, the addition of breakfast sandwiches, juice and tea are credited with a recent uptick in company sales.
"The single largest contributor to the comparable sales growth in the [second] quarter was food," Chief Operating Officer Troy Alstead told Bloomberg. "It resonates with customers."
Here's what would "resonate" with consumers who want healthy food choices—organic, non-GMO food and beverages.
Instead, as "Food Babe" Vani Hari wrote last year, Starbucks' offerings include preservatives, high fructose (GMO) corn syrup, proplyene glycol, chemically derived sugars, cellulose gum (a filler made from wood pulp), and azodicarbonamide, a substance banned in other countries and linked to asthma. And that's the short list.
3 – Starbucks is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association
Maybe all those GMO-tainted foods are the reason Starbucks supports the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the lobbying group that has spent millions of dollars to defeat GMO labeling laws?
Last year the anti-GMO movement was locked in a fierce battle—on Starbucks' home turf, Washington State—with Monsanto and the processed-food industry, over I-522, a citizens' initiative to label GMOs.
The measure was defeated, by a mere 1 percent, after companies like Monsanto and Coca-Cola, and their multi-billion dollar lobbying group, the GMA, spent millions to defeat it.
The GMA stooped to illegally laundering contributions to defeat I-522. The group also donated $2.2 million to defeat a similar labeling initiative in California, in 2012. All told, GMA and its members spent about $20 million to defeat Prop 37.
During the Washington I-522 campaign, the OCA reached out to Starbucks to ask the company to withdraw its support from the GMA and come out in support consumers' right to know.
Motion denied. Starbucks continues to support the GMA, which is now pushing a bill in Congress that would preempt state GMO labeling laws, and overturn existing laws, like the one recently passed in Vermont.
The OCA has called for a boycott of all members of the GMA, including Starbucks.
4 – Starbucks fails the Fair Trade test
Starbucks wants you to feel all warm and fuzzy about buying its coffee. But here are the facts. According to the company's own global impact report, only 8.4 percent of the company's coffee purchases in 2013 were certified fair trade.
So how does the company get around such a dismal fair trade track record, and still fool consumers into thinking it "cares" about coffee farmers? By creating its very own "fair" trade standards.
Again, according to the coffee giant's global impact report, 95.3 percent of Starbucks coffee is “ethically sourced.” But all that means is that those coffee purchases meet the (weak) standards of Starbucks' in-house program, called CAFE (Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices). These sub-standard standards are often applied to large-scale plantations, which then compete against small-scale coffee co-ops for which (real) fair trade standards were intended to provide market opportunities.
Starbucks' CAFÉ standards are focused on the farm level, not on Starbucks’ own commitment to farmers in terms or long-term stability. Unlike genuine fair trade standards, the CAFÉ program standards don't specify either a minimum price or a standard for negotiating price that would guarantee a fair price for small farmers.
You can learn more about how Starbucks skirts the Fair Trade issue at the Fair World Project.
5 – Starbucks is negotiating "free trade" in secret
¬Starbucks isn't content to just make up its own "fair" trade standards. The company is also working behind the scenes to finagle corporate-friendly (as in, not worker-friendly) conditions for global trade.
A representative from Starbucks has a seat at the table of the highly secretive negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a global trade deal being negotiated behind closed doors. The public and most of Congress have been shut out of the negotiations—but nearly 600 corporations, including Starbucks, have full access.
When a representative from the OCA's Fair World Project contacted Starbucks to ask what role the company is playing on the negotiating team, and what policies the company is advocating, she was referred to the company website for its "policies on free trade."
Surely, a company as profitable as Starbucks can do better. But if it won't, it's time for Starbucks to own up to the fact that, despite its purported concern for society, the company worships exclusively at the altar of profits.