Today, I decided to participate in what has now become an office tradition: going out for an afternoon coffee. Three of us went to the nearest Starbucks where my two colleagues proceeded to order frappucinos. I, being possessed of an overly developed sense of justice and fair play, decided to order a fair trade coffee.
When my turn came, I asked the cashier if they had any fair trade coffee. She didn’t even know what I was talking about but her co-worker at the next register did. He informed me that they only brew fair trade coffee on the 20th day of every month. Thankfully, I’d attended a fair trade meeting where I learned that the Starbucks corporate Web site promises that any customer who requests a cup of fair trade coffee will be served one, even if it means brewing an entire pot just for that customer. So I mentioned the corporate Web site’s promise and the gentleman told me it would take about 10 minutes to brew. When I asked if I could have it iced, he informed me that they only make fair trade coffee hot so I asked if I could get a cup of ice with my coffee. Ten minutes (and a couple of snide remarks from my co-workers about my having to be difficult) later I was presented with a large cup of fair trade coffee and a matching large cup of ice. Both barrista and cashier were very pleasant, polite, and professional despite the extra hassle I had caused them. Kudos to them!
But what about the rest of the pot of coffee, I hear you ask? Well, if another customer requests fair trade coffee, they will be served out of that pot but chances are that few, if any, customers will order fair trade coffee.
Why is this? Naturally, the argument can be (and often is) made that there just isn’t enough demand for fair trade coffee. That’s understable. However, there were no signs advertising the availability of fair trade coffee at this particular Starbucks. I certainly would never have known it was an option had I not attended the fair trade meeting. With no signs advertising fair trade coffee (not to mention that it’s only brewed without request once a month), it’s easy to see why Starbucks may not sell much of it. But that can be changed. If Starbucks lets customers in their coffee shops know that fair trade coffee is available (and not just on request), more customers will order it. One shouldn’t have to visit the corporate Web site in order to know what’s available in the coffee shops.
The argument is also made that customers are not willing to pay the higher cost of a cup of fair trade coffee. But this argument doesn’t hold much water either. Although Starbucks pays a premium (higher) price for their fair trade coffee, the price they pay for a kilo of fair trade coffee is only about 50 cents higher than the price I paid for my large cup. This means that with the sale of just one cup of fair trade coffee in the U.S., Starbucks recoups almost the entire cost to them of a kilo of fair trade coffee. And a kilo of coffee makes many, many cups.
To be fair, Starbucks is the largest purchaser of fair trade coffee and some other coffee shops do not even stock fair trade coffee. Also, consumers should understand that Starbucks exists to make a profit for its shareholders and not to improve the lives of coffee farmers in developing countries. But consumers do have the power to ensure that Starbucks continues to buy and serve fair trade coffee despite the higher cost to the corporation.
Every time you go to a Starbucks coffee shop, ask for fair trade coffee. Tell everyone you know to do the same. Fair trade is helping farmers and other producers in developing countries gain a higher price for their labor and products. The more people buy fair trade products, the more retailers like Starbucks will be compelled to stock and sell fair trade items. As consumers, we have more power than we think and we need to start using that power for good.
To learn more about the coffee trade and how fair trade is helping to improve the lives of coffee farmers in some of the poorest countries, check out the movie Black Gold. In the meantime, you can order organic fair trade coffee produced by some of the growers featured in the film here.