Drink Coffee? Read This

Since the arrival of the venti half-caf latte in the '90s, Americans have gotten used to the idea of the $3 (or more) cup of coffee. Designer coffee is still booming -- Starbucks Coffee company profits totaled $181 million in fiscal 2000, and the company now has 5,688 locations from Indonesia to Spain to the U.S.

But the tide of expensive lattes has not lifted all boats. North America's morning Joe sits atop a growing crisis, according to Oxfam America, which has just released a report entitled "Mugged: Poverty in Your Coffee Cup," detailing the scope of the global coffee crisis. (The full report is available here.) The farmers and workers who actually grow coffee beans in regions from South America to Vietnam are faced with the lowest prices in years, prices that do not cover their costs. Farmers are slipping into dire poverty, pulling their children out of school, unable to afford medicine and struggling to eat. Mass coffee farming practices are also destroying rainforest ecosystems.

This week, there are two major activist pushes to raise awareness and promote fair trade and organic coffee, to protect both the farmers and the environment. The two campaigns, one by Oxfam America and one spearheaded by the Organic Consumers Association, agree on the problem if not the solution. Both see an international humanitarian and environmental crisis. Both encourage consumers to demand Fair Trade certified coffee whenever they buy coffee.

The two campaigns diverge when it comes to Starbucks. Oxfam America is going after the coffee giants Kraft (Maxwell House), Procter & Gamble (Folgers), Nestlé (Nescafé) and Sara Lee (Real Coffee). The big transnationals are certainly ahead of Starbucks, as bulk buyers of beans. And they have shown a relatively complete indifference to the plight of small farmers, as coffee prices fall and corporate profit margins go up.

Oxfam, in other words, is targeting the big fish. Besides demanding better prices for the small farmers, Oxfam is demanding that the coffee giants and rich country governments help fund the destruction of at least five million bags of coffee stock, in order to help stabilize the price. They also want the companies to create a fund to help poor farmers find other ways to make a living, so that they will be less dependent on one volatile commodity.

The coffee campaign is part of Oxfam's larger Make Trade Fair campaign, an international effort to make trade more fair to poor and developing countries -- including calls for an end to agricultural subsidies in the first world and a more democratic World Trade Organization. The campaign also included a shindig on Capitol Hill, and a public service announcement co-produced by the certifying body, TransFair USA and featuring actor Martin Sheen.

"I was told that Kraft has actually agreed to one of our recommendations," says Adrienne Leicester Smith, media director at Oxfam (at press time, Kraft had not responded to inquiries). "I think it's important to remember that this is bad for business, too," Smith continued. "These very very low prices right now will correlate to very very high prices later. When it fluctuates this much, it creates instability for everybody."

Sustainable is still the buzzword. Oxfam, Starbucks and the Ford Foundation entered into a pilot program to help support small farmers using sustainable techniques in Oaxaca, Mexico in July. "Starbucks is stepping up to the plate in a lot of ways, so we don't apologize for applauding them," Smith says. She points out that Starbucks counts for less than 1 percent of the coffee market, so "we're going after the big guns, we want all organizations to be responsible corporate citizens."

But the Organic Consumers Association says Oxfam has got it all wrong, and that by giving Starbucks its support, Oxfam is helping Starbucks "greenwash" its image. The giants are relatively unabashed about their disregard for the environment and labor, says Ronnie Cummins, OCA's director. "Just look at their behavior for the past 20 or 30 years."

Starbucks, however, incorporates social and environmental responsibility into its brand and its corporate image. Chains like Starbucks, with its colorful brochures about giving back to the community and the environment, "have a customer base of people who are really concerned," says Cummins. "Before we can take on the coffee cartel and kick canned coffee of the shelves, period, we need to deal with a large and rapidly growing company that claims to be environmentally and socially responsible, and its 20 million customers who actually kind of believe that."

Starbucks talks the talk but does not walk the walk, Cummins says. "CEO Orin Smith admitted in the Chicago Tribune that less than one tenth of one percent of total sales of Starbucks was Fair Trade certified. So why have these brochures out everywhere talking about how great you are? If you didn't then maybe you wouldn't have pissed us off so much."

And fair trade coffee is just the beginning. The OCA also wants Starbucks to stop using any and all genetically modified and non-organic products, from soy lecithin and sweeteners in its pastries to milk. "For two years now, they've admitted that 80 percent of the 32 million gallons of milk comes from dairies where cows are injected with bovine growth hormone," Cummins says. "It's price; the bottom line is that tainted milk in America is a lot cheaper than organic milk."

The OCA is marshaling thousands of volunteers in 300 cities worldwide to hand out leaflets outside Starbucks between Sept. 21 and 28. Their aim is to educate Starbucks' millions of customers, so that those customers will in turn pressure the chain.

A spokeswoman for Starbucks confirmed that only 1 percent of Starbucks coffee is Fair Trade, but cited the company's partnership with Oxfam and the farmers coalition in Oaxaca among other examples of Starbucks' corporate citizenship. "Fair trade is one area that addresses the livelihood of the farmers," she says. "There are a number of other things that we're doing." Long term contracts, which reduce volatility, were up from 3 percent of contracts to 31 percent, this year, and Starbucks has also created a point system intended to reward farmers who meet certain environmental and sustainable criteria. Starbucks trumpeted its good deeds in a "Corporate Social Responsibility Report" this year, available on its Web site.

All of the organizations involved in the fight for fair trade -- OCA, Global Exchange and Oxfam -- are also involved in active organizing efforts on college campuses nationwide, where students have already had some success in getting their cafeterias to serve only fair trade coffee.

Starbucks or not, coffee farmers are suffering, and both campaigns this week are aimed at helping them. "This crash has just decimated 25 million people who are dependent on the market," says Smith. "It's transcended even where we were a year ago."

For more information about the OCA Frankenbucks campaign, go to: OrganicConsumers.org

For more information about Oxfam's Make Trade Fair campaign, go to: MakeTradeFair.com

Companies like EqualExchange.com sell 100 percent Fair Trade and organic, shade-grown coffee. For a list of Fair Trade links, go to WireTap.

Michelle Chihara is a senior writer at AlterNet.

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