Starbucks and me

As promised a few posts ago, I’ve been in touch with Starbucks to ask questions about a claim I saw in one of their stores in London:  ‘100% ethically traded coffee’.  I’ve put the whole of our conversation in the comments section (once it clears the spam filter).  You’ll see that I’ve just given up.  I now get my coffee from a local cafe which sells Fair Trade or I just brew it at home for a small fraction of of the cost of buying it from something like Starbucks.  It tastes much better without all the ridiculous foams and sugary things getting in the way of the beans — it tastes like real coffee.  Buying from Starbucks doesn’t seem worth the risk of helping to fund something which might be morally awful, and, anyway, it’s easily avoided. 

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  1. To:
    Subject: Ethics Query
    Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2008 14:05:10 +0000


    I noticed that a Starbucks in London features the claim ‘100% ethically traded coffee’. It seems like an enormous claim, and I’d like to know just how you interpret it, just what the words ‘ethically traded’ means to your company.

    Many thanks in advance,
    James Garvey

    Subject: RE: Ethics Query
    Date: Thu, 16 Oct 2008 11:26:04 +0000

    Hello Again,

    I’d be very grateful for whatever answer you might have to my question, below. Your website says that you’ll do your best to reply as quickly as possible, so I know you are trying, but I really keen to hear from you.

    Many thanks,
    James Garvey

    Subject: RE: Ethics Query
    Date: Mon, 20 Oct 2008 09:35:13 +0000

    Hello Again,

    I am sorry to be persistent, but it does say on your website that you love hearing from your customers, so I don’t feel too bad about pestering you a little. I still wonder what you mean by ethical trading. Maybe my original question was too broad, so I’ll narrow it down.

    I see that your website is careful to say ‘100% ethically traded espresso’, which is different than the claim made by the London store which I originally saw (‘100% ethically traded coffee’). I assume that means that maybe not all your coffee is ethically traded — just the espresso. OK, but I still would very much like to know about the coffee which is ethically traded. I followed the link to ‘learn more about Starbucks Shared Planet’. I take it this scheme is something other than Fairtrade. The link says, under ‘ethically traded’, that Starbucks:

    1. ‘helps farmers earn the higher prices that high-quality coffee deserves’ and

    2. invests in ‘alternative loan programs which give farmers who commit to certain social or environmetnal practices easier access to funds to support their business.’

    Is this what you mean by ‘ethically traded coffee’? Is it paying a higher cost for high-quality coffee (fair enough) and also offering farmers who promise to behave in certain socially and environmentally friendly ways easier access to loans?

    Again, thank you so much for your time, and I really do look forward to hearing from you.

    Best wishes,
    James Garvey

    Subject: RE: Ethics Query
    Date: Tue, 21 Oct 2008 13:58:19 +0000

    Hello Again,

    Sorry, but if I don’t hear from you I just get even more curious. One of Starbucks’ two claims about ethical trades has to do with helping farmers earn higher prices for high-quality coffee. I would have thought that paying more for better coffee than you do for worse coffee is just minimally rational, not part of a system of ethical trading. I don’t think I’m doing something morally right by paying a little more for better quality shoes. Do you?

    But it does matter that the price paid for coffee beans is high enough, so maybe that’s what Starbucks means. I’d want to know if my shirt was produced by cheap labour in a sweatshop. I wouldn’t buy it if the supplier got it by exploiting cheap overseas labour and selling it on for a huge markup. Similarly, I’d want to know that coffee farmers are not producing something for Starbucks for a barely living wage, something which is then sold on to me for a huge profit. I wouldn’t want to wear a shirt produced like that, and I wouldn’t want to drink something produced like that either. So can you say how much you pay for high-quality coffee? Can you say how that compares to what we pay for the end product? I know I’m prying, but you brought the whole ‘higher prices’ thing up! What are the higher prices paid?

    I’m also not sure I understand how offering loans to farmers who behave in certain ways counts as part of an ethical trading system. Loaning someone money on the side isn’t obviously connected to fair conduct in trade with him or her. Anyway, isn’t Starbucks committed to something in exchange for the changed behaviour on the part of the farmers? Do you have an end to hold up?

    Looking forward to your reply,
    James Garvey

    Subject: RE: Ethics Query
    Date: Weds, 22 Oct 2008 13:51:20


    You do still love hearing from your customers, don’t you? Just a short reply would make my day. Please? Pretty please with a dollop of foam and grated orange peel on top?

    I had a moment this morning, so I did a bit of Googling about Starbucks and ethics. It’s raised a few more concerns for me. It looks, a little, like when Starbucks actually do the right thing, they are kind of forced into it, kicking and screaming, by various sorts of grassroots protests.

    Starbucks are sometimes good to their baristas, but that’s only after trying to stop them unionising. Starbucks have only recently been accused of illegal anti-union activities:

    There’s quite a lot on the web about Starbucks trying to stop Ethiopian farmers trademarking varieties of Ethiopian beans. Oxfam managed to shift Starbucks by making them realize that the bad publicity would have cost more than the money lost to poor farmers:

    It also turns out that only 6% of Starbucks’ coffee is actually Fair Trade. There are pressure groups calling for Starbucks to do a lot better:

    There’s news this month about Starbucks wastes 23 million litres of water every day, which makes me wonder about some of its environmental claims:

    I’d be very glad to hear that all of this misrepresents what Starbucks is. I’d be grateful for whatever comment you might care to make.

    Yours sincerely,
    James Garvey

  2. Love it.
    Do you have Costco in London? I buy fair trade coffee beans at a Costco and it’s much cheaper than in a grocery store.

  3. Starbucks seems to have some difficulty answering
    simple questions.

  4. I love it….almost.

    What troubles me is that it seems as if their claims to be ethical has made you scrutinize Starbucks more closely than other businesses.

    If I were a Starbucks exec. I’d think–uh-oh, better not get into any of this ethics stuff, because the mere mention of ethics is going to make people hold us to higher standards. Let’s just skip it.

  5. It seems reasonable to me to see if people, in this case, Starbucks, are really doing what they claim they are doing. I suppose that the basic question is whether a world where everyone were clear about what they were up to is desireable or not. There is the old saying that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue and perhaps one could argue that therefore, hypocrisy is better than outright knavery.

  6. Jean and amos,

    We should scrutinize business’s ethical claims. To do otherwise would be to make it easier for liars to get the benefits of ethics without its costs thereby making it more difficult for genuinely ethical businesses to compete. In this thread alone, Tree has helped Costco to act more ethically and be more profitable at the expense of Starbucks.

    It seems to me that the main issue is one of information. Markets function reasonably well when, and only when, those involved are able to act rationally. Without good information you get the kind of financial crisis that we’ll all soon be dealing with.

    Of course, with the internet information has become more and more available (as with James’s Google searches), but it has also gets more crowded, biased, and confused to the point where one could find any good info they wanted so long as they knew what they were looking for in the first place (in which case they probably wouldn’t need to look).

    It seems to me that the real problem with markets is that we’ve as a people fallen for the idea of marketing (which again, Google is increasingly finding more weasely ways of doing). I don’t mean not so much fallen for the content of marketing (though we do) but the idea that we can let other people pay for our information and still expect that information to be valuable. Don’t say you don’t unless you never watch the news.

    This kind of free lunch attitude to knowledge pollutes everything from our perceptions of products and businesses to the business of politics to anything else you might expect from a newspaper. Consumer Report is famous for good info. No ads. You get what you pay for.

  7. Interesting. I didn’t think of it as helping Costco to act more ethically so much as wanting to give a helpful suggestion. Ironically, I know this about Costco because I’ve been shopping there in order to stock up on food in advance of the financial crisis we’ll all be dealing with.

  8. Tree,

    We have been stocking up too. The way I see it, buying tangible, durable food now is a better financial hedge against the coming inflation than most other investment strategies. Except for maybe bullets.

    I don’t drink coffee but I tend to distrust any label of “fair-trade” or “organic”.

  9. Yes. I’ve started stocking up this summer although felt I should start doing so a year ago. Have to keep the dog in kibble, you know.
    Have no need for bullets.

  10. oops. meant to write I started stocking up…

  11. M. Harris, Definitely we should scrutinize. I’m just wondering whether minor efforts to be ethical really ought to draw scrutiny beyond what we’d aim at companies that make even less effort.

  12. Ladies and Gentlemen, Starbucks speaks:

    Our Ref.: 265379 22 October 2008

    Dear Mr Garvey

    Thank you for taking the time to contact Starbucks. I apologise that you have not yet received a response, we are currently working through a large backlog of emails and are responding as quickly as we can, however there are only three members of our team for all of the UK and Ireland. Due to the amount of separate issues you have raised it has taken a bit of time to put together a response for you whilst handling other customer queries.

    As you have brought up many subjects regarding Starbucks ethics, I have endeavored to include responses for all the issues you have raised, I apologise as this is a lot of information to get through. If I have missed a topic which you are looking for more information on, please let me know.

    I am still working on a response to the claim of Starbucks not supporting unions, and will send this to you as soon as possible. I would also suggest visiting to read our CSR report in full and also find more information about our partnerships with Conservation International, the Earthwatch Institute, the African Wildlife Foundation, Save the Children and the Mercy Corps. Shared Planet(tm):

    I hope that this information will clarify what we mean by Responsibly Grown and Ethically Traded. The quality of coffee is one of many factors taken into account when determining the price paid for each of our coffees. Our prices are based not on the market value of coffee but on the actual costs of production for each individual farm to ensure every farmer and worker makes a profit. Providing access to affordable credit is just one of the many things we do to support coffee farmers and farming communities, other examples include investing in social development projects, and giving one on one guidance through our coffee buyers and agronomists to farmers in order to improve the quality of coffee produced and thus earn even higher prices. More information can be found below and on and .

    Fair Trade:Starbucks shares the interests of the Fair Trade movement in ensuring farmers receive fair and sustainable prices for their coffee. The Fair Trade system includes about 670,000 participating small-holder family farmers, out of an estimated 25 million coffee farmers around the world, who belong to democratic, farmer-owned cooperatives that are listed on the Fair Trade Registry. Only small holder farmers who belong to democratically run coffee cooperatives are allowed to participate. Fair Trade licensing organisations around the world require buyers to pay producers a guaranteed price $1.29 per pound for non-organic green Arabica coffee. This price was effective from June 1 2007, the previous required price was $1.26 per pound for non-organic green Arabica coffee. Although Starbucks buys just 2% of the world’s coffee, we have been and remain the largest purchaser of Fairtrad Certified(tm) coffee in North America, and among the largest roasters and retailers of Fairtrade Certified(tm) coffee worldwide. In 2007 Starbucks purchased 20 million pounds of Fairtrade Certified(tm) coffee which represents approximately 16% of the global Fairtrade Certified(tm) coffee imports in fiscal 2007. We offer our Fairtrade Certified(tm) Blend, Café Estima(tm) in 28 different countries, and it is always available as freshly brewed coffee in our UK stores. As you may be aware most of the world’s coffee is purchased on the commodities market with pricing related to the New York C commodity price.

    Due to global oversupply, the commodity price, though recently improved, currently falls below the cost of coffee production for many farmers around the world. However, Starbucks does not buy commodity grade coffee on the New York C. We purchase our coffee at outright prices through negotiation with suppliers in origin countries. We believe that we should pay a fair price for all of our coffee. The average price (independently audited) that Starbucks pays for its coffee is $1.43 per pound, which is significantly higher than the commodity price. It also compares well with the guaranteed Fairtrade Certified(tm) price of $1.29 per pound. In order to supply the quantity of consistently high quality coffee we require, we must purchase from farms of varying size and scale. As there are restrictions to the size and type of farm which can join the Fair Trade system, we use alternative ethical sourcing and certification programs to meet our requirements. In addition to Fairtrade Certified(tm) coffee, we purchase Certified Organic, Certified Shade Grown, Conservation International Certified and Shared Planet(tm) Certified (C.A.F.E. Practice Certified) coffees. In any contract we make with farmers or exporters economic transparency is required.

    Today the majority of Starbucks coffee comes from approved Shared Planet(tm) suppliers through C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices. C.A.F.E. Practices were developed in partnership with Conservational International. C.A.F.E. Practices requires farmers to not only meet consistent quality standards, but also social welfare and environmental standards that protect the sustainability of the coffee we purchase. All of our Espresso Roast which is used in our stores to prepare our espresso based beverages is now Certified as Shared Planet(tm) , and is purchased through C.A.F.E. Practices. Many of our other coffees, both and single and blends are also Shared Planet(tm) certified. In C.A.F.E. Practices, each farm is indepedently audited in areas of human rights and social conditions, as well as environmental measures to conserve water and energy and reduce the use of agrochemicals. As part of our C.A.F.E. practice contracts with farmers, economic transparency must be proven by providing written documentation and receipts all along the supply chain, including the price paid to the farmer or picker. Last year we purchased 228 million pounds of C.A.F.E. Practice approved coffee, which accounts for approximately 65 % of our purchases, up from 53% the previous year. As well as paying premium prices for all of our coffee purchases we offer access to credit to help farmers through until their harvest or to invest in improvements to their farm or community. These loans are distributed by various independent alternative financing organisations such as Root Capital, the Calvert Foundation and Verde Ventures, a loan program managed by Conservation International. Our total current commitment to these organisations is $10.5 million. Loans are distributed according to the guideline of these organisations and are available to all farmers who qualify, not just farmers who sell to Starbucks. In addition to this Starbucks also contributes to coffee growing communities in many ways. In 2007 Starbucks provided funding through additional premium added to coffee contracts to support 50 projects in 11 countries and totalled at $1.5 million. Additionally we offer an award of $15,000 to any farm or farming community selected as one of our Black Apron Exclusives. This program recognises some of the most extraordinary and unique coffees in the world and allows farming communities to make an investment in a project that will improve the sustainability of their farms. We also partner with organisations such as Care International and the African Wildlife Foundation. Our work with both of these organisations has benefited farming communities in Kenya and Ethiopia with measures including water conservation systems, supporting local schools, improving quality and sustainability of coffee, as well as supporting wildlife and biodiversity conservation. Starbucks has been recognised throughout the coffee industry for its efforts in improving the sustainability of coffee production and for our support of our farmers.

    Some comments from industry leaders are: “Starbucks commitment to Fair Trade shows that you can give consumers a great product, while still paying farmers a fair price and taking care of the environment. Starbucks is helping customers make a difference in the lives of thousands of family farmers.” -Paul Rice, President and CEO of Transfair USA “Starbucks has a profound effect on the lives of coffee farmers. By rewarding quality with a higher price, schools and health clinics are built where there were none. Electricity and running water are brought to homes. Helplessness is replaced with hope. These changes go unreported and unnoticed by the outside world, because they are done by the farmers themselves, but they are real.” -David Browning Vice President Coffee Initiative, TechnoServe Thank you for taking the time to ask these important questions of Starbucks Coffee Company.

    We appreciate your concern and interest in Fair Trade and I hope this has helped to answer your enquiry, we look forward to welcoming you back to your local Starbucks.

    Dipper Well:Thank you for your recent correspondence with reference to Starbucks water usage, in particular relating to our dipper well tap. We have been looking at alternatives to the dipper well tap for some time, recently as a priority we have sought resolution of this issue. We are pleased to share that from 10th October 2008 Starbucks UK and Ireland stores have introduced a new interim operational procedure. Stores will be instructed to switch off the dipper well tap and will wash spoons after use. In this way we can ensure that we balance UK and Ireland food hygiene requirements with water conservation. Starbucks continues to strive to look at ways to reduce our water consumption going forward.

    Ethiopia:Please find below a copy of the statement that was released by Starbucks Coffee Company and the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office: Joint Statement from the Ethiopia Intellectual Property Office (EIPO) andStarbucks Coffee CompanyRegarding Agreement in Principle ADDIS ABABA and SEATTLE May 03, 2007 — Representatives of the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and senior leaders from Starbucks Coffee Company today announced that they have completed two days of constructive discussions and the parties have agreed in principle to sign a licensing, distribution and marketing agreement that recognizes the importance and integrity of Ethiopia’s specialty coffee names. This agreement will help to expand their ongoing collaboration to market and sell Ethiopia’s exceptionally high quality coffees. “Ethiopia is firmly committed to work in partnership with all international specialty coffee companies and distributors of its fine coffees, including Harar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe. We realise our approach to trademarking and licensing these coffee brands that originate in and represent the best of Ethiopia’s coffee heritage is a new approach that not only meets the needs of small Ethiopian fine coffee farmers and traders but also the coffee roasting and distributing companies and their customers,” commented Getachew Mengistie, EIPO Director General. “Ethiopia is recognized as the historic birthplace of coffee and the source of some of the finest coffee in the world,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman. “We’re extremely excited to continue to deepen our relationship with the Government of Ethiopia.” The Government of Ethiopia and Starbucks Coffee Company formalized the details of the agreement and signed this in May 2007. I would also like to assure you that have invested in other projects that can provide struggling farmers with loans to protect their businesses.

    Starbucks UK has been working with farming communities in Ethiopia since 2002 and details of some of the projects we have undertaken there can be found at .

    Thank you for taking the time to ask these important questions of Starbucks Coffee Company. I personally have had the amazing opportunity of spending time in Costa Rica with coffee farmers who sell their coffee to Starbucks and have seen first hand the real difference a partnership with Starbucks makes in farming communities. Our messaging surrounding Shared Planet(tm), which you have mentioned is a simplified description of all the aspects of our approach toward improving the lives of farmers and their families.

    Please feel free to send me any enquiries you have in the future as I would be happy to respond to those as well.

    Yours sincerely
    Abi Jackson
    Customer Care Specialist

  13. James: Starbucks seems to read your blog. Publicizing things works wonders.

  14. James, I tend to be a very distrustful person, especially when it comes to big corporations like Starbucks. My first reaction to their answer was that Starbucks had seen your blog (thanks to Google) and had cooked up a hasty answer. Perhaps. However, let me be paranoic for a moment. Starbucks read your emails and googled you. They then (I confess that I read John Le Carré novels) decided not to answer you, figuring that you would publish the whole set of emails. Meanwhile, they carefully prepared an answer to you (their answer is too long and detailed to have been written by an overworked customer care specialist in a morning), waiting for you to fall into the trap. Their answer probably contains its share of lies and half-truths, but few people will investigate further, given the sheer quantity of data, true or false, that they provide. Predictable result: you appear as if you, a hot-head, attacked them, Starbucks, a venerable institution, as worthy of respect as the New York Times, Lehman Brothers, or the Queen, without waiting for their answer. But they were waiting for you. Only my paranoic fantasy, of course.

  15. Having not read any John Le Carre novels, I have to say I was a bit impressed with the response, or at least the sheer size of it.
    I still don’t understand why, if they use some fair trade coffee, they can’t use all fair trade coffee.
    Maybe it’s just me, but it all seems so silly when all one has to do is NOT go to Starbucks.

  16. SBUX-MGR-Philosopher

    Having worked at Starbucks for the last six years, I can say that these answers are not made up on the fly. All of the practices and programs mentioned have been in place for many years, most of them long before I started. I’m glad that someone from the corporate office replied because I was going to reply to your questions myself. I would have told you the same things, albeit in far less detail.


  17. SBUX-MGR-Philosopher

    Tree, the answer to your question is in the response from SBUX. Starbucks doesn’t buy all fair trade because not all farms are eligible to participate in the Far Trade program. Many of those farms that don’t qualify for Fair Trade have really good coffee. Starbucks wants that coffee.

  18. Amos, I don’t think anything Le Carre is going on, but it is clear that Starbucks have prepared answers for questions on such topics, and I think that’s what they’ve sent to us. I’ll take the answers seriously and work through them.

    The sudden appearance of SBUX-MGR makes me a little nervous, but there are philosophers everywhere, so welcome.

  19. I originally wondered why paying more for good quality coffee makes the trade count as ethical. Maybe I think there’s more to ethically acceptable trades.

    I was alarmed by this in the reply above: ‘Due to global oversupply, the commodity price, though recently improved, currently falls below the cost of coffee production for many farmers around the world.’ Clearly, paying commodity price would be unethical. Offering someone less than it costs to produce something is a kind of horror, particularly if the producer doesn’t have much in the first place.

    I think the suggestion is that more must be paid for the transaction to count as ethical and not something close to theft. Agreed. The question is, then, how much more?

    How much profit is Starbucks willing to leave to the producers, roasters, etc — people who, I’m guessing by the talk of loans, need all the help they can get.

    I don’t know how much Starbucks makes on a pound of coffee, but I did find this article (it’s short and worth reading):

    The claim is that, even Fairtrade prices of $1.60 per pound paid for premium Ethiopian coffees leaves the grower with just $1.10 after deducting costs. Coffee retailers like Starbucks can make 52 espressos with a pound of coffee, making about $160 per pound.

    I think probably that’s not enough profit left to the growers. The growers, in lots of cases, do not enjoy the satisfactions of a good life. They live hand to mouth. Making a profit out of that does sound like an ethical trade. Does it?

  20. Jean, I take your worry seriously. I wouldn’t want scrutiny to have the bad effect you mention, but that doesn’t make me want to lay off the scrutiny, it makes me want to extend it. We should hold all companies accountable. The more power they have over human lives, the more scrutiny they deserve. And if we catch one paying lip service to morality — claiming the moral high ground while feverishly tunnelling under it — we ought to raise the alarm.

    I’m coming around to the view that we have a lot more power than we think. We can choose not to buy products with suspect histories, and we can spread the word. If we don’t insist, we’re not going to get a better world.

  21. I just googled Starbucks and your blog appears on the first page. Now, Le Carré aside, I do imagine that Starbucks, in their corporate image department, does have someone who checks Google and other sources everyday or several times a day. Starbucks does not just sell coffee (which gives you more or less the same hit of caffeine everywhere); it sells an image of yourself as a coffee-drinker, in this case, as a socially conscious coffee drinker.

  22. Amos, now you’ve got me worried. If I disappear, you lot will tell the cops about all this, won’t you?

  23. My, you are a paranoid bunch 😉

    This reminds me of how years ago, Wal-Mart made a huge deal of everything in their store being American made, which of course was a huge lie. They eventually ended that marketing ploy when the evidence to the contray would not go away, but they are still a horrible corporation.
    Still, the less tolerant the public is to the spilt personalities of corporations, the fewer lies will exist. (Hopefully?)

  24. Just emailed Starbucks the reply @10.38. If they respond, I’ll post it here.

    I do think my first concern with the notion of an ethical trade has a lot to do with how much profit is being kept from people living miserable lives.

  25. I found this while looking for an article on the supposed decay of Libertarianism. Amusing and interesting piece about the connection between the glut Starbucks and failing economies.

  26. Jean,

    I’m just wondering whether minor efforts to be ethical really ought to draw scrutiny beyond what we’d aim at companies that make even less effort.

    I think I understand the point that you want to make, but I believe that there is already a wide understanding among those who care about such things that the majority of multinational corporations today are not making any special effort to look out for the interests of others.

    When one of them makes a claim that they are making such an effort, I think it’s proper to take a harder look at their claims than we do at the common (often immoral) practices of other businesses. Of course, we should not over-generalize or over-interpret their claims, but neither should we simply accept them at their word.

    If, on the other hand, you just want to say that we ought to give credit for the good things such companies do manage to do, then I agree with you. Starbucks, after all, probably is doing some good things.

  27. James,

    How much profit is Starbucks willing to leave to the producers, roasters, etc — people who, I’m guessing by the talk of loans, need all the help they can get.

    I’m not sure this is an ethical question. The producers, roasters, etc. do not work for Starbucks. They simply sell a commodity. No one forces them to grow coffee and no one forces them to sell it to Starbucks or anyone else. Starbucks presumably is not the only buyer after all. If Starbucks offers 1 cent a ton and someone sells at that price, it may be irrational, or in the case of falling demand or rising supply unfortunate, but I just can’t see how it’s unethical. Certainly not in the way that farm subsidies crushing competition is unethical or the way that paying off dictators to grant monopoly rights to a single company is unethical.

    Responsible businesses may want to pay higher prices than necessary for any number of reasons: to get publicity, to ensure adequate supply, to simply engage in charity. These, however, are at best supererogatory acts and at worst merely rational.

    There are cases where trade might be reasonably argued to be predatory: if a corporation destroys an economy making it necessary for the populace to work for that corporation at lower wages, there is a problem. However, simply offering a bid for an available commodity seems to be quite a different thing altogether.

  28. M.Harris: We’ve argued this before, and I’m sure that we’ll never agree, but I suppose that the point is that what is not ethical is a system with such great diferences of wealth and power, in which Starbucks and other coffee producers take advantage of low labor costs in poor countries in order to buy coffee and then market it at prices which correspond to rich or developed countries. The ethical problem then is not specifically one of Starbucks, but of a world economic order, in which there is such a tremendous
    difference between the rich and the poor. Since we’ve argued this before, I see no point in arguing it again, so I’ll probably not answer your reply, although, as always, I will read it with attention and interest.

  29. Hello M Harris:

    It’s an ethical question to me. You say:

    ‘If Starbucks offers 1 cent a ton and someone sells at that price, it may be irrational, or in the case of falling demand or rising supply unfortunate, but I just can’t see how it’s unethical.’

    I think there’s more to buying and selling than economic values — than just playing by economic rules. Sometimes transactions which lie well within the economic rules break some moral ones. If you’re poor and malnourished, and I take advantage of your situation and your suffering by offering you some toast for £10 a slice, you might have to accept or starve, and we might have a watertight deal, but I’m still a complete bastard for it.

    I don’t know a lot about the lives of coffee farmers, but some of the articles I’ve read recently tell me that many ‘live hand to mouth’, farm coffee because they know nothing else and can do nothing else, have a family to feed, no access to water or education or health care or retraining, etc. They’re kind of stuffed. They can’t make an unconstrained choice to sell or not sell, and they’re being taken advantage of.

    When a buyer from Starbucks shows up and they’ve got to sell because the kids are shoeless and starving and the beans will rot if they’re not processed, and they get offered pennies in profit, maybe they’re being exploited. What’s worse, for me anyway, is that they go on suffering while Starbucks makes billions a year in profit. They’ve got nothing to eat and various people attached to Starbucks get to buy more yatchs. A hunk of their profit comes from paying so little for the coffee. It comes from the food and the shoes that some little kid didn’t get.

    That’s an awful and emotive way to put it, but in a sentence I think ethical questions arise whenever somebody does something which results in unnecessary suffering. In this case, Starbucks seem to buy beans for next to nothing and sell them for a huge profit, with some very poor people suffering as a consequence. So it smells like an ethical matter to me.

  30. Considering the sharp rise in food prices, and how many more people are being forced into destitution and starvation, it’s of concern to me that so little is paid for coffee beans and the farmers make such a small profit while Starbucks rakes in the money.

  31. Coffee prices seem to be falling too, which doesn’t look good for small coffee farmers. Here’s a link to the BBC page on financial indicators. Commodity prices are at the bottom of the page.

  32. Starbucks is exploiting our fellow Mexicans

    Starbucks is a spine stuck into capitalism… The coffee beans they buy to make their coffees come from my nation, Mexico, in the state of Chiapas, which is relatively extremely poor. They do not pay the sufficient amount to our poor people (who no wonder flee to the United States for a better life), and later on, exploit prices for their own benefit… What is this capitalism all about? Is it really morally good to exploit the lower class to sustain a couple on the top? And despite the rhetorical questions I just proposed….People still avoid admitting Starbuck has self-evident ethical discrepancies?

  33. It seems all commodities are dropping which is bad considering the world economic situation.

    To the last commenter, the reason people avoid admitting the truth about Starbucks, and many other things, is because they don’t care. Apathy.

  34. I may sound cynical, but I just don’t see that most people care that much about others besides their immediate family and social circle. The coffee farmers of Chiapas are not a priority for most people, and in fact, if starvation wages in Chiapas means lower coffee prices for Joe the Latte Drinker, Joe, as long as he can pretend not to notice the starvation wages in Chiapas, will cheerfully drink his latte.
    Probably, only organized political action on the part of the farmers in Chiapas will improve their situation. Depending on the charity and good will of strangers has never been a good bet. By the way, I don’t deny that some people in rich countries are genuinely concerned about the situation of people in poor countries. They are a minority, unfortunately. Finally, compassion for others is never constant: the guy who feels compassion for Tibet may not feel anything for Chiapas. Political power, on the other hand, cannot be ignored.

  35. James,

    If you’re poor and malnourished, and I take advantage of your situation and your suffering by offering you some toast for £10 a slice, you might have to accept or starve, and we might have a watertight deal, but I’m still a complete bastard for it.

    Well, what you seem to be arguing is that I ought to go overseas just to make charity offers. I’m certainly a good person if I go over and give charity, but I’m not required to do so. I’m not required to go over there at all in which case the poor might simply have to go without.

    I suspect that it is actually in the interest of coffee buyers to invest in their suppliers’ in order to better maintain a more dependable supply. If this is the case, then it would make sense for coffee buyers to pay more than they could actually demand. Coffee buyers may be ignoring their own self interests by not pay sufficient attention to this.

    They can’t make an unconstrained choice to sell or not sell, and they’re being taken advantage of.

    I find it difficult to believe that a farmer of coffee cannot grow some other crop instead. Most people throughout history, after all, have more or less been subsistence farmers. If they indeed only have a single skill, then they really are impoverished. The truly impoverished must rely on charity or break out of their circumstances through talent, perseverance, and the willing cooperation of others.

    Again, it would be nice if Starbucks engaged in charity and I suspect that such charity might actually translate into profits (in which case it would not strictly be charity).

    I think ethical questions arise whenever somebody does something which results in unnecessary suffering.

    It seems to me that it is not a matter of what Starbucks is doing that is causing suffering, but a matter of what it could be doing but is not. It could be engaging in charity by paying more than it currently does. Most ethical systems describe charity as supererogatory. There may be an argument for why charity is required, but other than religious doctrine, I do not know one.

  36. M. Harris, having read your comment above, which seems to hang on to the realities of the situation by its fingernails, I can only think I’m glad I’m not a coffee farmer selling to you.

  37. Tree,

    Isn’t it great, though, that as an independent and free coffee farmer, you wouldn’t, in fact, have to sell to me? Isn’t freedom, the precondition of all morality, a precious and wonder thing?

  38. The rich and the poor both are free to starve to death.
    The rich and the poor both are free to watch their children die from easily treated childhood diseases.
    Freedom is precious, as you say, but as Aristotle points out, certain external goods are a pre-condition for leading a good (or ethical) life.

  39. M. Harris, now I wish you were a destitute coffee farmer. When empathy is lacking, experience fills the void.

  40. Amos,

    Starvation is an issue of charity. You can’t make me buy your coffee and then pretend that it’s a legitimate exchange. It’s an exchange with charity on top.

    As I see it, you have two options to argue otherwise: (a) an economic/self-interested argument that buyers should take care of suppliers, or (b) argue that charity is not supererogatory but a moral imperative. I’ve already said I have never heard such an argument and invited anyone who wishes to make such an argument.

    Empathy? Where’s your empathy for me? Since I’ve had the “arrogance” of saying that freedom is wonderful I now must pay by experiencing poverty?

    OK then, let’s say I am a free yet destitute coffee farmer. Are commodity prices for coffee low? Alright, I grow something else. I live on a hard-scrabble mountain that cannot support anything else? Fine, I sell my farm to a more prosperous farmer and move to town where I am likely to get higher wages.

    It’s possible (though unlikely) that I have no other marketable skill, but then it’s possible that I’m a deaf-mute quadriplegic. Most people are not deaf-mute quadriplegics and most people however poor are not so limited as to only be capable of a single occupation.

    Whatever I do, whatever tribulations I face, I don’t think I’m going to be blaming foreign companies for not paying more than the coffee is worth (unless they’re involved in the kind of cartel-like behavior organized through international groups like the WTO). The pioneers of America bore extraordinary burdens for the chance of a better life for their children, and as a coffee farmer and until people with guns stop me, I will try to do the same.

    Most people in history have lived under conditions that were even worse than today’s coffee farmers (the population wouldn’t be rising so fast if this were not the case) yet they still managed to create remarkable civilizations in which people have often been very happy. Free markets appear to be at least partly responsible for the general rise in living conditions. I won’t say that freedom isn’t hard, but isn’t it wonderful too?

  41. I’m not at all sure what moral imperatives are or if they exist. Perhaps each person sets his or her own moral imperatives. In any case, solidarity with the poor, not charity per se, seems to be the issue here. Solidarity seems more horizontal, less condescending, less patronizing. Solidarity involves working together to change conditions. It’s a question of empathy, as Tree says. If you don’t feel that empathy and obviously, you don’t, there’s not much that I can say to you. As I said above, each person seems to set his or her moral imperatives, based on a set of core values, and we don’t seem to share the same core values.

  42. “Most people in history have lived under conditions that were even worse than today’s coffee farmers (the population wouldn’t be rising so fast if this were not the case) yet they still managed to create remarkable civilizations in which people have often been very happy. ”

    You mean like America, where they used slaves, child labor, etc. to build the country? Or maybe you mean Ancient Greece where they, um, used slaves…

    M. Harris, It’s mazing the things you can overcome that others cannot, in your own mind, that is.

  43. Amos,

    Thank you. I agree that charity can be condescending. Call it what you will. “Solidarity” sounds fine and good, but I’m not perfectly clear how this presents an argument. I’m all for helping the poor, but I believe this is done better by creating markets that are fair. Eliminating farm subsidies, for example, would go a long way towards this goal.


    Slavery is bad. Most people in history, however, have been independent farmers, not slaves. The coffee farmers are not slaves and you don’t know how dehumanizing real slavery is if you think they are. Freedom is good.

    It is not amazing to me at all that I am able to overcome where they cannot. I suspect that coffee farmers would like more, but they do not strive for more because they have never experienced more nor do they ever expect more. I have.

    I would add, though, that you pay attention to my remark about guns. Success is often made impossible not due to freedom, but by corruption and collusion between governments and big business. When farmers don’t have to pay extortionist prices for irrigation, seed, fertilizer, etc. from government backed monopolies or compete with government subsidized agriculture in the U.S., E.U., and Japan, they tend to be profitable.

  44. Actually, the best cash crops for small farmers in Latin America are coca and marijuana. I wouldn’t blame a small farmer in Latin America if he or she switched his or her main crop from coffee, with the price falling to a dollar a pound, to marijuana, coca or poppy.

  45. Sorry I missed an interesting discussion. If anyone is still reading this, M Harris has made me think I need to think a little more about charity vs minimum moral obligations — what we owe each other as compared to what’s above and beyond the call of duty. I suppose I don’t think my insistence that Starbucks pay more is a call for it to engage in charity. I suppose I think it’s wrong to pay the poor so little and make so much as a consequence. There’s got to be something wrong with yatchs on one side and shoeless kids on the other, but the whys and wherefores need spelling out.

    I suppose I don’t think that doing something about the shoeless kids is a charitable act. I think probably doing something is part of the minimum treatment we owe each other. if we can do something about suffering, we should. That’s not charity, by my lights — if someone has a bad life, we should try to help. Maybe I can’t argue for it because it’s too close to an assumption for me.

  46. “Maybe I can’t argue for it because it’s too close an assumption for me”. That’s what I meant to say about core values, which lead to ethical imperatives.
    I suspect that we start from different metaethical premises, but in psychological terms, it’s the same thing. For instance, the almost visceral conviction that the distribution of wealth and power in this world is not just.

  47. In trying to argue for the conclusion, ‘if someone has a bad life, we should try to help’, I find myself having difficulty finding premises I might line up which are more certain.

    I’m turning into G E Moore.

  48. Help is a slippery concept.
    Charity is often misguided.
    Then there are things like micro loans which to me are a brilliant concept with good results.

  49. Probably ‘bad life’ needs to be pinned down — I don’t think Starbucks should make us all Americans with two cars and and picket fences. I just meant something under the standards of some minimally OK life. Maybe a bad life is one which isn’t decently long, which doesn’t have at least a shot at health, which doesn’t have enough food and shelter in it, not much in the way of creature comforts or satisfying human relationships, maybe there’s no room in it for something productive to do. Probably a minimally good life has all that and the thought that it won’t soon be taken away. More too. Anyway it has shoes and food in it.

  50. “If someone has a bad life, we should try to help”.
    The problem is with the “we”. There are those who
    benefit from the bad lives of others, and it is not in their interests to help. There are those who identify with the powerful, unlike you and I, who identify with the powerless. In order to decide to help those with a bad life, one already has to empathize with those who have bad lives or to feel that social injustice is not tolerable. There is no universal ethical subject (no “we”). There is no “good”, independent of social reality . However, I agree with you that everyone has a right to a minimally ok life (food, shelter, education, health care, political freedom, a society ordered by decent laws, maybe a bit of leisure too), and that there are sufficient resources on this planet to give everyone a minimally ok life. I don’t think that there is any manner to justify the idea of a minimally ok life to someone who has no concern for the poor and powerless.

  51. James,

    I do think that people are healthier for people to help one another, I’m just not sure how far that ought to go. What standard of life is good enough? Better than some minimal national average? Better than some historical norm? And how many can we in fact help without damaging the system that makes the help possible? Sure Starbucks has the wealth to do more good than it does now, but without the profit motive that keeps it competitive, I’m not sure how long that wealth would last.

    In any case, what are we to do when people decide that green tea tastes better than coffee? How will these coffee farmers survive then if they can’t grow tea? I don’t think we need to start making ethical pronouncements until we have a really solid grasp of the economics governing a particular system (which I admit in this case, I certainly don’t).

    In any case, I just can’t get too worked up about the yachts; I’m not rich but it still smacks of envy to me. After all, if no one’s going to get the yacht (or be employed to build them) then why bother to build large companies? Why work so hard if you cannot in fact become rich? Can someone only become rich by having commercial agreements with people whose income differs from your own by a certain percentage? What percentage is that?

    If I’ve got you thinking, then I think we’ve had a good conversation. I’ve also started thinking about ways that markets can go wrong and what an individual member ought to do to improve the system as a whole. Thanks James.


    Glad you mentioned microloans. Those strike me as really important. A lot of the most important economic developments have been cases where ways have been found of generating economic activity among the broader population. If this crisis keeps up, maybe we’ll all be looking for microloans eh?

  52. I’m not surprised but I am disappointed that Whole Foods is anti-union. To me, Whole Foods stores are for rich people who want to pretend to care.
    That’s an interesting Web site, depressing, but interesting. I’m glad you supplied the link, Amos.

  53. Tree,

    You have some impressively high standards. What kind grocery store would you recommend for poor people who actually do care?

  54. It isn’t easy to shop with concern, it does cost more, and it’s a moral minefield — very hard to get clear of some worry or other. In London, for example, you can find people who deliver organic, small farm, low food miles food to your door (there’s even one run by ex-homeless people, for a double whammy of moral value called ‘Cabbages and Kings’). No matter where you are, you have to do some research, read labels and, if you feel up to it, email the company and ask.

    I’ve got a copy of The Rough Guide to Ethical Living, which isn’t bad and has lots of useful links.

    Ethical shopping raises a huge number of questions, and it can make you think Aristotle is right about there being no moral rules to follow. You have to drag yourself along and think a bit about each case. And it’s complicated (e.g. I know the delivery folk burn carbon to deliver, etc). You can end up not knowing if what you are doing is right. But applied ethics ain’t easy.

  55. James,

    This is a great comment and part of what I was trying to say earlier in the thread about the dangers of marketing and the need for good information. Right now, it’s too difficult for the average consumer to get good information about the trading practices of different companies. We cannot expect the market for products from companies that equitably reward suppliers and employees to be efficient if very few are even aware of it.

    Books like The Rough Guide to Ethical Living may help, but I suspect that people need something with more detail, something like a periodical or website (one without ads) that gives regular and comprehensive information. Services like this would improve the profit motive for businesses engaging in the kind of practices that many would like to see in more or less in direct proportion to the degree to which they would like to see it.

  56. James,

    Well, it’s a good start, but certainly has a way to go. Business & Human Rights Resource Center seems to be just what it claims to be, just a way of organizing and getting to different news stories. Corporate Critic is interesting, but not priced for the average consumer (£150 a month?!). Gooshing gives a single 5 star rating for each company that is not terribly revealing. Idealswork is for investing, so related and important, but not exactly something that can inform the average consumer. I liked Responsible Shopper’s rating system, but it doesn’t give all that many companies and it’s often missing a lot of info.

    All of them appeared to be relatively small outfits based on internet research. None of them was doing the kind of independent research that Consumer Reports does except perhaps Idealswork which as I said, doesn’t quite count. Most of these sites appeared to work more as a resource for finding companies involved in bad conduct rather than finding companies involved in good conduct. Of course, these sites may grow into something more useful and we can always hope for better ones in the future.

  57. M. Harris, I’m sure to you they do seem high.
    Start with local farmers’ markets and go from there.

  58. Tree,

    Oh! Well, that’s good. There’s a sort of farmer’s market down the street where I do a lot of my grocery shopping. It’s easy to get most of my food there since I don’t usually buy meat. They don’t grow any coffee around here though, so I have to buy that wherever I can get it. I do go to Starbucks occasionally, but it’s over-priced and even when I do go, I usually opt for their (ridiculously priced) green tea frappachinoes.

    As far as high standards, I’ve never seen a Whole Foods before, and don’t really know anything it, but seeing the awards they’ve received, I was surprised that you came down so hard on them. It’s nice to be able to find exactly what we want, but in the real world, I’m not sure that’s always going to be affordable. We can always hope I guess.

  59. Hmmm. I suspect that there are more sites out there…the Rough Guide might be a little out of date by now.

  60. M. Harris, if you’ve never been to a Whole Foods, why did you come down so hard on me?
    I certainly didn’t think I came down hard on them anyway.
    If you went to one, you would see that they are primarily small stores with a lot of expensive, prepared foods and many expensive, gourmet choices. While they tend to have decent size departments devoted to homeopathic/all natural health remedies, their produce and dairy departments are tiny and overpriced and about half of their produce departments are devoted to expensive flowers and plants.
    Then there are all the useless New Age-y CDs and books and yoga equipment that clutters the stores.
    One can buy many of their items elsewhere at a cheaper price.
    I’m fortunate to be close to farms. I don’t eat meat but I could buy from local farmers. I have a co-worker who has a small farm and I buy eggs from her. They also raise animals for food, and have bees for honey and make maple syrup.
    Then there’s always having a garden, if you can. I did that this year.

    Anyone ever read Diet for a Small Planet?

  61. Diet for a Small Planet. Wow, that book is one of my favorite hits from the past. I danced to that song when I was young. I’m a vegetarian myself. Mostly lentils and brown rice. Cheese. I too have never been in or seen Whole Foods. I have never entered Starbucks, although I pass it by almost daily. Then again, I don’t drink coffee, because it irritates my stomach.

  62. Amos, have to say I’ve yet to read all of Diet for a Small Planet. I learned about it years ago at the Mennonite college I attended for a while; many students owned worn copies, usually belonging to their parents.
    I’m vegetarian, too. Although, in the past year I have bought hamburger from the above mentioned co-worker a couple of times who assured me that the cow led a happy life and agreed on it’s own free will to die for our dinners. Or something like that.

  63. Tree,

    I’m confused. How did I come down hard on you? I did feel that you came down a bit hard on me when you implied that your standards only seemed high to me because mine were apparently so low.

    Also, claiming that Whole Foods is for “rich people who want to pretend to care” may not exactly be coming down hard, but it’s certainly not high praise (I’ll assume the “rich” part wasn’t meant to be critical but claiming that they cater to hypocrites surely was).

    It must be nice being so close to farms; I always enjoyed visiting my grandfather’s. Still, if I did that would mean missing the convenience of taking my bicycle to work every day. Oh well, can’t have everything!

  64. M. Harris, I don’t know. Maybe I misread your initial comment that got this ball rolling as one that wasn’t very nice. The price I pay when I try to squeeze in comments here between work duties.
    No harm no foul.
    That’s nice you get to bike to work. I take the bus, an hour each way. Blaaah.

  65. Tree,

    I may have said some things that you intensely disagreed with, but I don’t think I said anything unkind to anyone. I hope not anyone.

    I understand what you mean about sending off comments in a rush though. I’ve racked up quite a few really embarrassing syntactic blunders throughout this and other threads.

    I use to have to take the train an hour each way. It was not exactly my favorite, but it sure beat driving. At least it meant I could sleep a bit more. 🙂 Take care.

  66. I read Diet for a Small Planet in the early 1970’s and it marked me. But I had forgotten that it had marked me and so your bringing up was a Proustian moment, which brought back an era in which I imagined that the world was changing (in a positive, almost utopian direction) and that I and that book were part of that change. I’m sure that the information available in the book is now found in many other sources, but it seemed quite original when it first came out. In addition, I love to feel that
    someone is reading books that I once read: I was so happy when I learned recently that my nephew was reading the copy of the Portable Nietzsche that I had bought in the 60’s and left who’s- knows- when in my sister’s house. In any case, I confess that I’m a vegetarian because above all, I don’t like meat. Childhood traumas about meal-times when lots of meat was on the menu.

  67. You seem like someone I would enjoy talking about books with, Amos.

    M.Harris, I do like the bus because I can read or chat with people. That can be nice. I so wish we had a commuter train in this area. They’re so backwards here.

  68. Tree: Perhaps you should start your own blog, one about books or about reading books. I would be happy to participate and I suspect that M. Harris would also contribute his opinions.

  69. Funny you should mention that, Amos. I have 3 blogs, one is general topics/autobiography, one started out to be about my photography but I wandered off course at some point, but just last night, I posted a goodbye post as I’ve been so discouraged about blogging and gave up.
    I also had an online book club about four years ago; it was fun. I’ll definitely take your suggestion into consideration, though.

  70. The Uncredible Hallq » Philosopher’s Carnival #83 - pingback on December 8, 2008 at 3:51 pm

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