TUCKED INSIDE a fancy black box, the $26- a-pound Starbucks Black Apron Exclusives coffee promised to be more than just another bag of beans.
Not only was the premium coffee from a remote plantation in Ethiopia “rare, exotic, cherished,” according to Starbucks advertising, it was grown in ways that were good for the environment — and for local people, too.
Companies routinely boast about what they’re doing for the planet, in part because guilt-ridden consumers expect as much — and are willing to pay extra for it. But, in this case, Starbucks’ eco-friendly sales pitch does not begin to reflect the complex story of coffee in East Africa.
Inside the front flap of Starbucks’ box are African arabica beans grown on a plantation in a threatened mountain rain forest. Behind the lofty phrases on the back label are coffee workers who make less than a dollar a day and a dispute between plantation officials and neighboring tribal people, who accuse the plantation of using their ancestral land and jeopardizing their way of life.
“We used to hunt and fish in there, and also we used to have honeybee hives in trees,” one tribal member, Mikael Yatola, said through a translator. “But now we can’t do that. . . . When we were told to remove our beehives from there, we felt deep sorrow, deep sadness.”
Few companies have so dramatically conquered the American retail landscape as Starbucks. Last year, the $7.8 billion company opened an average of 25 new stores a week in the United States alone. And nowhere is Starbucks a more common sight than in environmentally conscious California, which has 2,350 outlets, more than New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Oregon and Washington — Starbucks’ home state — combined.
No coffee company claims to do more for the environment and Third World farmers than Starbucks. In fullpage ads in the New York Times, in brochures and on its Web site, Starbucks says that it pays premium prices for premium beans, protects tropical forests and enhances the lives of farmers by building schools, clinics and other projects.
In places, Starbucks delivers on those promises, certainly more so than other multinational coffee companies. In parts of Latin America, for instance, its work has helped improve water quality, educate children and protect biodiversity.
Inside many Starbucks outlets across America, the African decor is hard to miss. There are photographs and watercolors of quaint coffeegrowing scenes from Ethiopia to Tanzania to Zimbabwe. Yet such images clash with the reality of African life. They don’t show the industrial arm of coffee — the large farms and estates that encroach on wild forest regions.
They don’t reveal that even in the best of times in Ethiopia, the birthplace of wild coffee and the source of some of Starbucks’ priciest offerings, there is barely enough for the peasant coffee farmers who grow most of the nation’s beans.
Even where Starbucks has built its bricks-and-mortar projects in Ethiopia, poverty remains a cornerstone of life, visible in the soot-stained cooking pots, spindly legs and ragged T-shirts, in the mad scramble of children for a visitor’s cookie or empty water bottle.
“We plant coffee, harvest coffee, but we never get anything out of it,” said Muel Alema, a rail-thin coffee farmer who lives near a Starbucks-funded footbridge spanning a narrow chasm in Ethiopia’s famous Sidamo coffeegrowing region.
Alema’s tattered shirt looked years old. So did his mud-splattered sandals.
The red coffee berries he sold to a local buyer last fall were mixed with mountains of others, stripped of their pulp and sold as beans to distant companies — like other farmers, he did not know which ones — that made millions selling Sidamo coffee. Only $220 dribbled back to him.
This February, after Alema paid workers to pick the beans and bought grain for his family, just $110 remained — not enough, he said, to feed his wife and three children, to buy them clothes until the crop ripens again.
Starbucks conveys a different image on the white foil bags of Ethiopia Sidamo whole bean coffee it sells for $10.45 a pound. “Good coffee, doing good,” says lettering on the side.
“We believe there’s a connection between the farmers who grow our coffees, us and you. That’s why we work together with coffee-growing communities — paying prices that help farmers support their families . . . and funding projects like building a bridge in Ethiopia’s Sidamo region to help farmers get to market safely. . . . By drinking this coffee, you’re helping to make a difference.”
And while the Sidamo footbridge does make travel safer, it is but a simple yellow-brown concrete slab, 10 paces long.
Dean Cycon, founder of Dean’s Beans, an organic coffee company in Massachusetts, calls Starbucks’ pitch “marketing genius.”
“They put out cleverly crafted material that makes the consumer feel they are doing everything possible,” Cycon said. “But there is no institutional commitment. They do it to capture a market and shut up the activists.”
Starbucks officials insist such critics have it wrong. As proof, they point to Latin America, the source of the bulk of the company’s beans.
“You go to Narino, Colombia. We built 1,800 (coffee) washing stations and sanitation facilities and homes,” said Dub Hay, Starbucks senior vice president for global coffee procurement. “It’s literally changed the face of that whole area.”
“The same is true throughout Latin America,” Hay added. “They call it the Starbucks effect.”
Starbucks’ dealings in Latin America have drawn some fire. Near the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, for instance, farmers cut off relations about three years ago over a dispute about selling to an exporter instead of directly to Starbucks.
The new arrangement, farmers said, would drain profits from peasant growers.
Starbucks, the farmers charged in a memo to coffee buyers, was supporting “a pseudo-fair trade system, adapted to their own neo-liberal interests, to dismantle structures and advances that we have made.”
In an e-mailed response to McClatchy Newspapers, Starbucks vice president for global communications, Frank Kern, wrote that the Chiapas farmers were ultimately “given the opportunity to ship directly to us as they requested, but they were unable to manage it.”
In Ethiopia, Starbucks says, it spent $25,000 on three footbridges in 2004. The company estimates the structures are used by 70,000 farmers and family members — about 1 percent of those who depend upon coffee for income. Some Ethiopian coffee leaders say there is a better way to help.
“If we are paid a (coffee) price which is decent, the people can make the bridge on their own,” said Tadesse Meskela, general manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union of 100,000 farmers, which has sold to Starbucks. “We don’t have to be always beggars.”
Starbucks won’t disclose what it pays for Ethiopian coffee. Instead, it lumps its purchases together into a global average, which last year was $1.42 a pound, 16 cents more than the Fair Trade minimum. Much of that money, though, never makes it into the pockets of farmers but instead is siphoned off by buyers, processors and other middlemen.
Starbucks executives say they want to shrink that supply chain. “You end up at least five levels removed from the farmer, and that’s where the money goes,” said Hay. “And that’s a shame.”
Hay said that as the company buys more coffee from Africa — it plans to double its purchases there to 36 million pounds by 2009 — the commerce will spur more progress.
“That’s our goal,” Hay said. “Africa is 6 percent of our purchases. . . . Seventy percent is from Latin America. So that’s where our money has gone.”
Starbucks has bought coffee from Africa for years, but now it is expanding rapidly there because it wants more of the continent’s high-quality arabica beans. In Ethiopia alone, Starbucks purchases jumped 400 percent between 2002 and 2006.
U.S. caffeine craze
While Starbucks is rapidly cloning retail outlets globally, 79 percent of its revenue last year was made in one caffeine- crazed country: the United States. With just 5 percent of the world’s people, the United States drinks onefifth of its coffee, more than any other nation.
Thanks largely to Starbucks, coffee is no longer just coffee. Now it is a vanilla soy latte, a java chip Frappuccino, a grande zebra mocha or — if you’re feeling guilty — a Fair Trade-certified, bird-friendly, shade-grown caramel macchiato.
Starbucks did not pioneer the push for more equitable, conservation-based coffee. But it has woven the theme into everything from the earthy feel of its stores to its own certification program, called Coffee and Farmer Equity practices, or CAFE, which rewards farmers for meeting social and environmental goals.
“Social justice is becoming increasingly important to consumers,” said industry analyst Judith Ganes-Chase as she flashed slides across a screen at a Long Beach coffee conference. One slide read: “Fair Trade is absolution in a cup.”
Atonement, though, is not as simple as it may seem.
“It’s very comfortable to believe Starbucks is doing the right thing — and to some degree, they are,” said Eric Perkunder, a Seattle resident who worked as a Starbucks environmental manager in the 1980s and ’90s. “They lull us into complacency. The stores are comfortable. You see pictures of people from origin countries. You believe certain things they are telling you. But there’s more to the story.”
Part of that story lies in the southwestern corner of Ethiopia, in a swath of mountains not far from the Sudan border. There, a dirt road snakes through one of the country’s largest coffee plantations, the Ethiopia Gemadro Estate, and comes to a halt in a dense mat of reeds and grasses.
A narrow path winds through the thicket and spills out into a clearing of stick huts. This is the home of an African Sheka tribe that for generations has lived off the land — catching fish, gathering honey and trapping animals in the forest. They call themselves the Shabuyye. “The land over there used to belong to our forefathers,” said Yatola, the tribal member in his 20s, as he nodded toward the plantation.
Conflict with local people and tribes is growing across southwest Ethiopia as coffee and tea plantations spread into the region under the government’s effort to sow more development. At Gemadro, 2,496 acres of coffee were planted from 1998 to 2001 on land the company obtained from the government in a countylike jurisdiction called the Sheka Zone.
Last year, Starbucks bought about 75,000 pounds of coffee from the Gemadro plantation and sold it as one of its “Black Apron Exclusives.” At the time, the purchase was the 12th in the series of vintage offerings, six of which originated in Africa.
Starbucks packaged the beans in the fancy black box and inserted a flier touting the plantation’s environmental and social track record. It also donated $15,000 to the Gemadro Estate for a school and health clinic.
“With its pure water supply, near pristine growing environment and dedication to conservation-based farming methods, this 2,300-hectare (5,700- acre) farm . . . is setting new standards for progressive, sustainable coffee farming,” the flier said. “Gemadro workers and their families enjoy access to clean water, health care, housing and schools, all in keeping with the estate’s commitment to maintain the highest standards of social and environmental stewardship.”
Hailu is one of those workers. He stood outside his one-room, dirt-floor home, folded his arms across his chest and said that while he was happy to have a job, he was struggling to support his wife and family on just 6 Ethiopian birr per day — 66 cents.
“Life is expensive,” he said. “We have to go all the way to the town of Tepi (about 35 miles) for supplies.” The round-trip bus ticket costs him four days’ pay.
Plantation manager Shiferaw said Gemadro Estate wages are higher than the 55 cents a day workers earn at a government plantation near Tepi. Gemadro workers, most of whom are classified as temporary — also subsequently received a raise to between 77 cents and $1.10 a day, he said, adding, “We pay more than the minimum wage of the country.”
Still not a livable wage
That’s still not a livable wage, according to the U.S. State Department.
In a 2006 report on human rights in Ethiopia, the agency said that “there is no national minimum wage” and that public employees earn about $23 a month; private workers, $27. Those wages, it said, do “not provide a decent standard of living.”
Plantation wages are only one issue for workers and neighbors, however. The health care partially supported by Starbucks is another.
“When the estate came, they said they were going to give us adequate health service,” said Geremew Gelito, an elder in the tiny village of Gemadro, where many estate workers live. He called the clinic bureaucratic and ineffective. “As far as the promise of adequate health service, we have not received it,” Gelito said.
Shiferaw, the farm manager, said there are plans to improve the care. “It is not a very big clinic,” he said, “but now we are increasing.”
In his office above a furniture store in Addis Ababa, two days’ drive to the northeast, the agricultural manager for Ethio Agri-CEFT, Biru Abebe, said he was unaware of any complaints.
“Everybody goes and gets treatment,”
But tribal member Yatola said the Shabuyye who live just downstream cannot get health care. “The company just gives medical attention to people who work for the company,” he charged. The coffee industry breeds larger concerns, as well.
An article in the April 2007 Journal of Agrarian Change points out that as coffee growing expands in southwest Ethiopia, the ecology can suffer. The Ethiopian government’s advocacy for its coffee industry, as well as for tea and other rural developments, has also drawn international concern about the fate of its highland rain forests.
Improving the lives of farmers and the environment is the goal of many coffee certification systems, such as Fair Trade, Rain Forest Alliance and Smithsonian Bird-Friendly. The Gemadro Estate has been approved by the European-based Utz Certified, an organization started by a Dutch coffee roaster and Guatemalan growers.
“It’s good,” said Yehasab Aschale, Utz’s field representative in Ethiopia who said he toured the Gemadro plantation last year. “They are environmentally friendly. They are planting shade trees of the indigenous types. And they are improving the working conditions of the workers.”
Starbucks also gave the estate’s beans its own CAFE practices approval last year, signifying that the plantation protected the environment, paid workers fairly and provided them with decent housing.
Yet no one from Starbucks ever inspected the Gemadro plantation for CAFE certification. Dub Hay, the Starbucks global purchasing executive, said he knew little about the plantation because he hadn’t been there.
Starbucks bought the coffee after tasting it in Europe, Hay said, adding that a coffee buyer from Switzerland visited at some point.
No one from the company Starbucks pays to oversee CAFE verification, Scientific Certification Systems of Emeryville, inspected Gemadro either. Instead, the plantation hired and paid an Africa-based company to do the job— a common industry practice.
Then, something out of the ordinary happened: The African company’s inspector was fired for doing a poor job, a fact that emerged only after McClatchy Newspapers asked about the verification process.
“Clearly, the inspector didn’t do as good, or as thorough, a job as is to be expected in CAFE practices,” said Ted Howes, vice president of corporate social responsibility for Scientific Certification Systems.
Howes declined to release a copy of the inspection report, but he said his company would visit the plantation this year. “There are issues we want to look at more closely,” he said.
Dennis Macray, Starbucks’ director of corporate responsibility, added that such problems “can happen in any kind of a system. . . . You can have something go wrong.”
If the CAFE certification process was flawed, why did Starbucks certify the beans?
“I can’t tell you,” Macray said at the Long Beach conference. With that, the trail went cold. Macray did not return follow-up calls. Starbucks spokeswoman Stacey Krum said details are confidential. Krum, however, defended CAFE practices in general.
“There isn’t a standard code for the coffee industry; this is something we are learning as we go along,” she said. “And we are proud of it and confident it is achieving results.”