Ideas for Life

Advertising can be philosophically annoying.  I don’t just mean ads which contain obvious lies (Carlsburg — probably the best beer in the world), trivial truths (There’s only one Coca-Cola), irrelevancies (Waaassuuuuup!), or fallacious thinking (If I can lose weight, you can too).  I mean adverts which wander into philosophical territory before jumping up and down.  Happiness is not a cigar called Hamlet.  The pharmacy Boots has finally stopped using the slogan ‘Boots — ideas for life’.  Boots does not provide one with ideas for life.  It sells deodorant and soap and hair gel and drugs.  Boots — objects which change the way you smell.  Boots — things which you can use to change the way your hair looks.  Boots — drugs you can ingest to stop stuff running out of your nose.

These sorts of adverts can be mildly irritating, but I lost my composure when I read Starbuck’s claim that it offers ‘100% ethically traded coffee’.  Really?  A bit of unscientific googling reveals a lot, but doesn’t an ethical trade require all sorts of things Starbucks probably doesn’t (maybe cannot) provide.  Does it require making amends for past injustices?  (If I’ve ripped you off in the past, don’t I have to make up for that if I want our present connection to be morally adequate?)  Does it require procedural fairness?  (If you and I enter into a fair agreement, we have to make sure we both know what we are getting into.  Certainly one cannot take advantage of the other in any way at all.)  Can a multibillion dollar company ethically trade with a poor farmer and leave that poor farmer more or less poor?  I know it’s a minefield — for all I know, Starbucks does some good — but the sentence, on its own, struck me as almost certainly false.

I nearly had a seizure a moment later when I glanced at a flyer from Barclays Bank with news of their work with Save the Children.  All very well, but did they have to say that ‘Nothing is more important than the life of a child’?  They can’t really believe that and still be a bank, can they?

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  1. Having had a peek at Starbuck’s site, it looks like they don’t mean anything much by the claim that their coffee is ethically traded.

    This seems to suggest that they regard ‘ethical trading’ as providing loans:
    They say they’ve offered 10 million plus in loans. They say ‘that seems like a lot’. Of course it doesn’t seem like a lot when you realize they’re worth more than 25 billion US dollars. Loans have to be paid back, anyway.

    Here, ‘ethical trading’ means helping farmers invest in their familes, farms and communities:
    Don’t know what ‘helping’ means. Could mean loans again or, um, paying them for the beans.

    There’s a further link on the Starbuck’s site for ‘an in-depth’ look at their practices and guildlines which leads here:
    There you find a paragraph about ‘addressing needs’ of suppliers, along with an email address for more information.

    Here, social responsibility means a committment to their mission statement.

    Here’s the Starbucks mission statement: “Establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles while we grow.”
    Still not sure what those uncompromising principles are.

  2. Maybe I’m biased, because I just finished a cup of cappuccino made with Starbucks coffee beans…

    I followed the links, found all the info awfully sketchy, but got the impression they do various things before putting “ethically traded” on the package, like paying higher wages (relative to local standards) and holding farmers to higher environmental standards. 100% ethical that may not be, but isn’t it at least more ethical? And shouldn’t we applaud businesses that try to be more ethical, considering that many don’t?

    This reminds me of the issue about “humane certified” meat. If you look into it carefully, it’s nowhere near ideally humane, but it is more humane. But that’s better than nothing, no?

    Granted, my coffee was very good…

  3. Hello Jean. Sorry to have dropped away for a bit. Back now.

    ‘At least more ethical’ might not be enough for me, if what’s being done is still below some minimum standard of moral adequacy. Probably Starbucks are making obscene amounts of money on the backs of the poor. If a few lives are a little less miserable because they’ve moved in the direction of decency, well, OK, but that doesn’t make Starbucks decent, that doesn’t get them past the line into decency territory.

    If you do what you are supposed to do, morally speaking, you don’t get applause. If you treat other people like people, for example, you are just doing what you ought to do. If you go beyond that, maybe dedicate a chunk of your life to helping the poor, then you get applause — probably you should get a lot more besides. I don’t think Starbucks are doing what they are supposed to do, much less anything over and above the call duty.

    To make matters worse, for me anyway, I just saw a billboard for Bernard Matthews Turkeys. They recently had a scandal concerning ‘hygiene lapses’ and other horrors — including footage of a worker kicking some of the birds around like footballs. The advert depicts Jonathan, a ‘welfare manager’, who tells us he’s proud that Bernard Matthew’s turkeys are born and reared in UK farms. (Where else would they be reared?) It’s an attempt to get us past thinking that the company is nasty to animals. I don’t think I’m the only one unconvinced by Jonathan, little turkey-welfare whore that he is.

  4. <blockquoteIf you do what you are supposed to do, morally speaking, you don’t get applause.
    Maybe there is something inherently wrong about this mentality.
    BTW James, thanks for not killing anyone today, you’re super!
    Okay, maybe its a bit silly. But when it comes to corporations, the fact that they don’t meet basic minimum obligations is troubling. And when they improve, and we don’t reward that with some kind of financial gain, they have all the more reason to revert to their older more profitable ways, no?

  5. Well, it’s hard to disagree with someone who uses the phrase “turkey-welfare whore,” but I kind of like “ethics” advertising. It gets the word out that buying decisions ought to take ethics into account. Chipotle, the McDonalds Mexican chain, says something about humane conditions for chickens on its billboards. Just yesterday I noticed the word “ethical” on my Starbucks coffee bean package. Why isn’t it a good thing to get the word ethical out there in lots of places? It sends the message that it’s cool and classy to be ethical, that you can have a serving of ethics along with your lunch.

    OK, but your point is that Starbucks is expecting applause when it’s barely ethical, or just slightly less unethical than before, or whatever. I wonder if their “ethical” coffee is really that trivially ethical. By the way, their main product (Pike’s roast) is now the one with that “ethical” label. If it’s even a bit more ethical, that’s millions of cups a day times a little more ethical.

  6. Jonathan really pisses me off. Sorry if this sounds like I’m venting a bit, but you are helping me think this through.

    Agreed it’s a good thing to get the word ‘ethics’ out there, but only if it’s tied to things which really are ethical. A multinational using the word to make more money can’t be a good thing. (Anyway, I don’t expect McDonalds to teach us a thing about what’s right. If it just did something right for a change, I’d be fractionally happier. We can teach what’s right to each other and work it out without their help.)

    Should people think it’s cool or classy to be ethical? We should think (probably most of us do think) that we owe each other some minimal standard of treatment. We’d have better people, in the long run, if we help them work that out, work out why being moral matters…rather than getting the desired results by making morality cool. Anyway, it isn’t cool. Being bad has always been more cool than being good.

    Hello Wayne. When they improve, i.e. get nearer the minimum standards of morality, we give them a finanacial reward? Why do they get carrots and no sticks? Something as powerful as a corporation — something like Starbucks which can ruin lives and change destinies — ought to be held to incredibly high standards. If they fail to meet some basic level of morally acceptable behaviour, the consequences for them should really hurt. Maybe they don’t get to exist as such a powerful thing anymore.

  7. Perhaps it would be more ethical if said multinational refused to buy the poor farmer’s beans? Would the poor farmer be better off? Would the corrupt rich ™ multinational company?

  8. Its really a question of simple economics. Each party vies for the best deal. But neither party is likely to agree to a deal that doesn’t benefit both in some way.

    To my mind, the only ethics involved is an obligation to abide an agreed upon contract. Too simple?

  9. So, am I to assume this argument takes place within the confines of the thinking that capitalism is good, free markets are good, corporations are good or at the very least a necessary evil? I assume so since in order to argue about advertising, one takes it seriously at some level.

    I knew someone that worked at a Starbucks in Chicago. He said they took their recycling and dumped it in the dumpster with their garbage every night, back in an alley where the public couldn’t see.

  10. I don’t know much about Starbucks, but it seems to me that corporations (and the people who run them) should be held to the same ethical standards as anyone else. That is, if they only lie a little in their advertising, it’s as wrong as a person, say, a doctor who only lies a little to his patients. How would we react if a professional criminal excused his crimes saying: now, instead of torturing my victims, I simply put a bullet in their head and so I expect praise for improving my ethics? I would doubt that for any bank, nothing is as important as the life of the child. Profits are the goal of banks. As to what you say, Tree, capitalism isn’t good; it’s what is.

  11. We’d have better people, in the long run, if we help them work that out, work out why being moral matters…rather than getting the desired results by making morality cool.

    I got a lot out of reading “The Origins of Virtue,” by Matt Ridley (I think that’s the title). He makes much of the fact that people exchange moral virtue for other things they want, one thing being an enhanced reputation. So you have to welcome a trend toward equating coolness and morality (if there is one). The more that morality can enhance a person’s image, the better, because very few people are going to sit down and “work out why being moral matters.” If people do that, other motivations are still going to be crucial for getting them to do good things, send money to charities, etc.

    Is Starbucks’ ethics talk totally superficial? Well…I don’t really know, but they have an excellent reputation as an employer. They pay good wages (I hear) and offer health benefits to part-time workers. So I come at this with an inclination to think Starbucks really might be a step ahead, morally speaking. Just might–the online stuff is very sketchy.

  12. Keith McGuinness

    Quote 1: “Part of Starbucks™ Shared Planet™, the company’s global commitment to doing business responsibly, the espresso comes from farmers and suppliers who follow the company’s exacting sourcing standards and guidelines for social, economic and environmental responsibility developed in partnership with the environmental non-profit organisation Conservation International (CI).”

    Quote 2: “Our cocoa is 100% ethically traded. Philosophically, ethical trade and fair trade are one in the very same. Up and through summer 2006, our organic chocolate products have been Fair Trade Certified™ through Trans Fair and our organic cocoa has been sourced at Conacado Co-op in the Dominican Republic.”

    It is a commitment to set of practices, in Starbuck’s case, developed in association with CI.

    Now you could argue about how ethical and fair those practices are BUT I don’t think it is either for or appropriate to simply dismiss them out of hand as you do.

    Your comments, James, read to me as simply opinions based on prejudice against large corporations. Furthermore, you appear to assume as self evidently true moral/ethical views which are not necessarily so.

    Source 1:

    Source 2:

  13. I don’t know exactly what the issue is here regarding Starbucks. I assume that we can find out, if we want, how fairly traded their coffee is. But it seems likely that they are paying what is considered a fair amount for the coffee they use, that is, prices not determined solely by market forces of supply and demand, futures speculations, and that sort of thing. I assume that it is at least a living wage for the farmers that produce the coffee that Starbuck’s uses.

    As for the morality of capitalism, that is another question altogether, but I should have thought that, other things being equal, whether they measure up to some ideal standard of virtue, Starbucks is doing better than, say, Nescafé – though, mind, I don’t know that – and that this is something to be encouraged.

    I do know that a local coop produces ‘fairly traded’ coffee and it is often purchased as an alternative to
    ‘brand name’ goods. The coffee is good too, and we are assured that producers are paid a ‘fair’ price, though I have never checked it out. Do philosophers do that – check things out, I mean, aside from some unscientific googling?

    One other point. Is Starbucks responsible for past injustices in the coffee trade? In what sense am I responsible, if I decided to set up in business tomorrow, for the unethical behaviour of my predecessors? How far back? What percentage? How repaid? To whom?

  14. Sorry, Keith. Missed yours in passing. I tend to agree, as you will see.

  15. Keith: I share James’s doubts about large corporations. Frankly, in my 62 years of existence, I have never seen much evidence that big corporations seek anything else except to increase profits. There may be exceptions, but I can’t think of one offhand. Even supposedly more ethical corporations, such as Google, make deals with the Chinese government to censor contents for Chinese users of internet, China being a big and juicy market. So, if Starbucks has discovered ethical trading now, congratulations, but all that means is that Starbucks is now dealing with the world with the same basic ethical principles that one expects of any other citizen of this planet, not that Starbucks has suddenly transformed itself into a force for good or a competitor of Amnesty International in the struggle for justice in this world. In the past 25 years, with the destruction of any political alternative to global capitalism, we (me too) have become such loyal subjects of capitalist domination that we cheer when the king (capitalism) in his majesty offers us a moment of clemency. God Save the King.

  16. All very interesting. Many thanks for the replies.

    Keith: I’ll have a look at the links — agreed also that I tend to prejudge large corporations, but that’s because they’re all evil bastards. I take Jean’s careful point, too, about not really knowing enough about Starbucks to go after them. That’s me jumping the gun a little. Nevertheless, I do think it’s safe to say that Starbucks’ trades are not 100% ethical. Mother Teresa’s business dealings were not 100% ethical either. Starbucks is making an enormous claim.

    pistoffnick: I don’t think it would be more ethical for Starbucks not to trade with poor farmers, but that doesn’t mean I have to be happy with the status quo. It’s a false dilemma to think that they can either trade as they do at the moment (assuming they’re not wonderful ) or not trade at all. I also don’t think we should be guided in our thinking about how a company ought to behave just by simple economics. Something can be economically excellent but morally wrong — probably those two match up quite often.

    God save the King, indeed, Amos.

    Eric: I know I have funny views about moral responsiblity and history, but I do think that history matters when it comes to working out how we ought to treat each other now — mostly because how things now stand can depend on how people treated each other in the past. Maybe we in the West owe the comfy lives we’ve got to the dubious practices of those who came before us. We didn’t do those dubious things, of course, but we benefit from them, so maybe we owe something for them. We don’t start with a blank slate.

    Very, very probably, before Starbucks started talking about ethics, it had lower standards and maybe, just maybe, it exploited farmers. It has to make up for that before I come to think of it as 100% ethical.

    Is Starbucks responsible for the whole history of the coffee trade? Not exactly, but it’s not entirely detached from it either. It owes the head start it got in the world to the dubious practices of those who came before it. It didn’t enter the world with a blank slate either.

    I didn’t really mean to have a bash at Starbucks in particular — although I’m enjoying it now — but I am exercised by the trend in advertising which suggests that a company’s acitivites are ‘100% ethical’ when they aren’t. It’s cynnical, and it’s stolen a march on us consumers, who should be holding companies responsible when they treat us badly. It annoys me that lots of people will be easily pacified by this tactic. Jonathan et al will put our minds at rest.

    A chum pointed me to this link, for details of this sort of thing in the green world

    They have a word for it: ‘greenwashing’.

  17. Hello Keith — having trouble following your first link.

    I am going to email the csc and ask a few questions. I’ll do a short post asking for suggested questions for them.

    I did follow a link which claims to say what ‘scs certified’ means. I am not sure yet, but it looks like Starbucks is holding its suppliers to various things, rather than holding itself to anything other than dealing with suppliers who meet such and such criteria. It’s making farmers jump through hoops. The hoops might help in lots of ways, of course, but I do hope that that, plus loans, is not the whole of Starbuck’s ethical commitment. I would have thought they would tie themselves to something which favours the farmers in some way.

  18. Here is a statement from Brussels on the use of the Fair Trade label and regulation thereof. It is a little out of date but generally you can take it that there is more to the fair trade label than the premium it might command. The most effective policing would probably come from competitors.

    I drink Fair Trade tea a bit. Quality varies. I’ve had virtuous but vile instant coffee. That’s the key. I don’t mind paying extra for clinics on the plantation and schooling for the children of the workers but not at the expense of quality.

  19. For anyone who shares my unhealthy interest in Jonathan:

    If the link fails, google ‘jonathan welfare manager bernard matthews’.

    You’ll notice that the spokesperson (marketing director, for chrissake) says that the aim of the ads is to ‘address negative perceptions of the firm upfront’. Wouldn’t it be better to address the source of those perceptions, namely a crap record on animal welfare, pushing food on children which has little nutritional value, and having such rubbish practices that you nearly cause a massive outbreak of bird flu?

    It’s this attempt to tweak our perceptions, make us think the company is acting because it’s genuinely moved by moral demands rather than profit margins, which bothers me at the moment.

  20. I agree, that coporations that behave unethically should be punished, but at the same time, that simply encourages them to be more opaque in their activities.

    I’m just thinking about this whole Starbucks thing, and I have to admit I do love their no water soy chai lattes…

    Are we blasting Starbucks for not living up to their basic moral obligations, or are we blasting Starbucks for not living up to their supererogatory duties? If Starbucks doesn’t buy fairly traded coffee, its still helping farmers, to a lesser extent. If it buys fairly traded coffee, it helps farmers even more. This might be something like what Ian Maitland argues for in his essay that sweatshops are good.

  21. Hmm, considering your utilitarian leanings, I’m surprised you would see helping farmers as supererogatory. It seems, rather, that it’s an obligation, but that “far side” of obligation that few people meet completely.

    I’m impressed with your choice of Starbucks drinks…I am a sinner who orders cappuccinos made with milk.

  22. I fail to see how Starbucks is helping farmers when it buys their coffee, even if it buys so-called fairly traded coffee. Am I helping the supermarket when I buy
    my groceries there? The word “help” signifies a certain amount of benevolence. I help a blind man to cross the street or I may help a child with his or her home work. A corporation that buys a product from a farmer at a fair price (wow) isn’t helping him: they are paying for his labor and his production costs. I see absolutely no benevolence on Starbucks’ part when they pay a “fair” price, just I am not showing benevolence when I pay a “fair” price for my groceries. The fact that Starbucks is no longer ripping off farmers is not an act of benevolence. Wayne: You have to live in a rich country like the United States and earn a good income in order to dare to say that sweatshops are good. If, by chance, the Good Lord had placed you in Bangladesh and you had to work in a sweat shop producing running shoes for coddled teenagers in rich countries, I doubt that you would see working in a sweat shop as good. You might see it as a necessary evil. A bit of empathy with the wretched of the earth, as you sip your latte, please. As markets crash, who knows? As the song goes, once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?

  23. By the way, Michael, I’m searching around for evidence that Starbucks really does use Fair Trade coffee. A few years ago only a small percentage of its bagged coffee was Fair Trade. The ‘Shared Planet’ thing is of its own devising — so far as I can tell, it’s not tied to the Fair Trade rules.

    It looks like lots of people want it to go Fairtrade:

    By the way, those of you in the states can ring them up toll free and ask (800) 235-2883.

  24. I hate to use Wikipedia but here:

    The Starbucks in the building where I work will allow me to take any pastries they haven’t sold that day to give to the homeless. I’ve also seen them give drinks to homeless folks and let them sit at their tables outside the store.

    Starbucks are cliche and over-saturated and it’s really hard for me to have any respect for people who spend 10 or more dollars a day for bad coffee. Starbucks is a perfect example of our consumerist, debt ridden society.

    From Wikipedia:
    In 2000, the company introduced a line of fair trade products.[74]

    Of the approximately 136,000 tonnes (300 million pounds) of coffee Starbucks purchased in 2006, about 6 percent was certified as fair trade.[75]

    According to Starbucks, they purchased 2,180 tonnes (4.8 million pounds) of Certified Fair Trade coffee in fiscal year 2004 and 5,220 tonnes (11.5 million pounds) in 2005. They have become the largest buyer of Certified Fair Trade coffee in North America (10% of the global market). Transfair USA,[76] the only third-party certifier of Fair Trade Certified coffee in the United States, has noted the impact Starbucks has made in the area of Fair Trade and coffee farmer’s lives by saying:

    Since launching {its} FTC coffee line in 2000, Starbucks has undeniably made a significant contribution to family farmers through their rapidly growing FTC coffee volume. By offering FTC coffee in thousands of stores, Starbucks has also given the FTC label greater visibility, helping to raise consumer awareness in the process.

    Groups such as Global Exchange are calling for Starbucks to further increase its sales of fair trade coffees. However, fair trade certification can cost US$20,000 to US$30,000[citation needed], and many growers are unwilling or unable to pay for certification[citation needed].

    Beyond Fair Trade Certification, Starbucks argues that it pays above market prices for all of its coffee. According to the company, in 2004 it paid on average, $1.42 per pound ($2.64kg) for high-quality coffee beans.[77] The is in comparison to commodity prices which were as low as 50-60 cents in 2003-2004 [78]

  25. Here’s an article from the Guardian about migrant workers in Dubai, the lowest of the low, generally from Pakistan or Afghanistan. What does the local Dubai elite say to justify their exploitation of these workers? Exactly, what the sweatshops say: that these workers make more money in Dubai than they would back in Afghanistan. The elites need not only to exploit the powerless, but also to exploit them with a clean conscience.

  26. Jean-heh I’m not terribly fond of Starbucks coffee… I always thought it was overly bitter. But mmmm soy chai lattes… scrumptious! I wonder if the chai is fair trade, probably not, since I believe its Tazo tea.

    Yeah it is odd for me to talk about supererogatory duties as a utilitarian. I admit my inconsistency. I guess it points to a more underlying belief of mine, that I think what we might be asking Starbucks of here is to live up to an ideal. We should try to aim for the ideal, and I don’t expect us to always succeed. But because they don’t reach the ideal isn’t something that we should necessarily chide someone over. I think Singer would be okay with what I just said, since he says the same about people who don’t give everything except their bare necessities to world poverty causes. 🙂

  27. James:
    As you relate they are ‘trading’ on the natural confusion of Fair Trading and Ethical Trading and to further bewilder have added genuine Fair Trade coffee to their stock. Is it cunning or is the Fair Trade coffee not of the same quality as their main brands or is their margin affected? Similar profit with less quality on the Fair Trade?

    Starbucks haven’t arrived here yet but I am reminded to continue my resistance to the multinationals on the High Street by shopping local (non franchise) and continuing to buy genuine Fair Trade products.

  28. Thanks for all the links and clear thoughts. I’ll mull it over a bit, pick a brand, and do a post asking for the questions we want answered. Then I’ll send a polite email (no, really) and see what we get.

    In the end, we’ve wandered into practicality, real live questions about the real live world — unfamiliar territory for most philosophers. The point I think I was pursuing originally had more to do with a general trend in ‘ethical advertising’ which strikes me as egregiously unethical. Zeroing in on a particluar instance of it might clear some of this up in our heads.

  29. In most cases, a commercial advertisement is a call to action. Consequently, I am not sure philosophers are best placed to understand advertising, since so much of your attention is on knowledge and beliefs, and reasoning about knowledge and beliefs, rather than on action, or reasoning about action. The roles which advertising plays in western society are many, and information transfer about product features merely one of these, if indeed it is present at all. Since this function is not what most adverts are seeking to achieve, it seems rather pointless (as well as unfair) to criticize them for not achieving it, or for doing so only poorly.

    Commonly, a key function of consumer adverts is to provide information to intended potential target customers about what their peers (or those they aspire to be peers with) might be thinking or doing. If you don’t “get” the advert (as in the examples you give), that may be because it is weak in concept or in execution. More likely, however, is that you don’t get it because you are not part of the intended target audience. In some cases (eg, “Waaassuuuuup!”, or “You’ve been tangoed!”) the fact that large swathes of society do not get the ad is a major part of its attraction to the intended target audience.

  30. In a spirit of friendship with our advertising chums, Peter, and with humility, I take your point about philosophers not being best placed to understand some of what advertising is. But we are very good at working out when someone is engaged in bullshit. We can spot shabby thinking and lies and certain sorts of disguised manipulation like nobody else. We’ve been sophist-bashing since Plato.

    If Starbucks tells me they are engaged in 100% ethical trades, don’t I get to wonder what that means? Isn’t that ‘information transfer’, as you put it? Don’t I get to wonder if it’s true? There’s a point to the questions, and they seem fair enough to me.

  31. I just read through this discussion, and am wondering if you ever received the official statement/reply from Starbucks regarding their “100%” ethical trading practices?

  32. Not really. There are links to the whole discussion here:

    I focused the question and in the end they just sent me a number of links to blanket blurbs. Nothing specific. To their credit, they have said that they will go fully Fair Trade, but I don’t know when.

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