100% Ethically Traded Espresso

Just to update you on the Starbucks Situation — they got my attention and then we had a short correspondence.  What bothers me is their claim that their espresso is ‘100% ethically traded’.  I’ve put the most recent exhange in the comments section of this post.  The kind person on their end is giving me links, rather than answering my question directly.  (I did follow the links, but I don’t think there’s an answer in there.)  The question, roughly, is this:  how can trades which result in unnecessary human suffering on the one hand and profits in the billions on the other be ‘100% ethical’?  If it’s true that some growers are malnourished and impoverished, making perhaps $1.10 per pound of coffee while Starbucks makes $160, then the exchange is not fair or equitable or ethical.  It’s exploitation.  The profit comes from not paying a lot of people a living wage.  Maybe that’s not much different, from a moral point of view,  from harming someone for money. 

Anyway, I’m going to stop bothering them and leave this to you.  I think I have my conclusion.  The topic of greenwashing, by the way, has just been discussed in this interesting article from The Guardian.

Leave a comment ?


  1. To: ukinfo@starbucks.com
    Subject: RE: Customer Care E-mail Reference: 265379
    Date: Thu, 23 Oct 2008 11:51:51 +0000

    Dear Abi Jackson,

    Thank you for your lengthy reply, which is getting attention from me and from the readers of The Philosopher’s Magazine Blog. There is a lot to it, but I have a question about part of it. I just posted this query, and I wonder if you would like to reply to it.

    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?

    Yours sincerely,
    James Garvey

    To: ukinfo@starbucks.com
    Subject: RE: Customer Care E-mail Reference: 265379
    Date: Fri, 24 Oct 2008 10:08:34 +0000

    Dear Abi Jackson,

    Any thoughts on the profit question before you go off on holiday? I know you are busy, so ‘ll try to focus things for us. Just a few sentences and a question:

    Starbucks say that their espresso is ‘100% ethically traded’. Ethical trading, it seems to me, cannot result in unnecessary human suffering, yet, according to some sources I’ve read on line lately, the amount of money which growers receive for coffee is very little — not enough to get them out of poverty. Not enough for shoes and food for their children, much less the satisfactions of a good and secure life. The money they might spend on shoes and food is kept by Starbucks as profit — which some googling tells me is well into the billions.

    In what sense is this setup 100% ethical?

    Many thanks again for your time,
    James Garvey

    > Subject: Customer Care E-mail Reference: 265379
    > Date: Fri, 24 Oct 2008 17:42:57 +0100
    > From: UKInfo@starbucks.com
    > Our ref: 265379
    > 24 October 2008
    > Dear Mr Garvey
    > Thank you for taking the time to contact Starbucks Coffee Company.
    > The answers to your questions regarding profit and many more can be found by visiting http://www.starbucks.com/aboutus/csr.asp and reading our latest Corporate Social Responsibility Report.
    > More information regarding our partnerships with farmers can be found at http://www.starbucks.com/whatmakescoffeegood/ .
    > You can hear directly from our coffee farmers themselves about the difference selling their coffee to Starbucks has made for their families and communities by visiting http://www.starbucks.com/aboutus/farmstories.asp .
    > For more information regarding Starbucks ethics and ethical decision making process, please visit http://www.starbucks.com/aboutus/businessethicsandcompliance.asp .
    > We appreciate your interest in Starbucks.
    > Yours sincerely
    > Abi Jackson
    > Customer Care Specialist

  2. Good for you, James.

  3. I’ve already made the same point, but I agree with you that the world economic order is obscenely unjust
    or, as you say, not ethical. Paying a low wage is, as you point out, a form of harm and certainly, of exploitation. What is to be done? Orwell writes somewhere (maybe in his essay on Dickens) on change of heart people (Dickens is one) and change of structure people (Marx is an obvious example, Orwell, another.). Change of heart people believe that if people had more compassion towards the poor and powerless, things would change. Change of structure people believe that it is necessary to change the social and economic structures. I tend to be a change the structures person myself. I’ll see if I can find a link to Orwell’s essay, which, like almost everything by Orwell, is worth reading.

  4. Drat. My emails with Starbucks are stuck in the spam filter.

    Amos, I’ll follow the link. I’m maybe a hearts and minds person, I think. I remember arguing with someone, somewhere, about this sort of thing. He put it down to Hobbes v Rousseau — two different conceptions of human nature. If you think we’re naturally nasty, maybe you go for structural changes to keep us in line. If you think at bottom we’re reasonable, you try to talk your way to social justice.

    Now that I put it like that I’m not sure what to think. Maybe if it’s real harm we’re talking about, we don’t have the luxury of talking it over. Hard one.

  5. The Orwell essay is cut off at the end, but it is quite worth reading or looking for another link. Brillant writer Orwell and at his best in his essays. I’m more of a Hobbes person myself.

  6. Holy crap, Amos! I just printed the article out here at work and the pages just kept coming! Thirty to be exact. Guess I know what I’ll be reading at lunch.

  7. Tree, Enjoy your lunch. It’s an easy read. Orwell has a great sense of humor.

  8. Amos,

    I agree with you and Orwell that a “change of heart” argument is not really worth making. I also agree that the current system is tragically unjust and that structural reform is important. Where we disagree is in what kind of reforms are likely to be more preferable. The important thing, I think, is just that: preference. I’m more than happy to allow people to organize in any way they wish so long as they are voluntary.

    Labor unions (when they’re not beating up “scabs”) are a good example of an often beneficial form of communal organization that I have no trouble supporting. They had an immense influence on history across the world and I think qualify as a genuine kind of “change of structure” phenomenon. What I cannot abide is the same thing present in the form of obligatory government.

    Of course, if you really are a Hobbes man then you won’t go in for that kind of argument. I, however, do not buy into in Hobbes “state of nature” argument. Not to sound overly dramatic, but personally, I’d prefer to die alone as a wild animal than to survive fat as domestic animal waiting for slaughter. Perhaps the animals, though, will be able to run the farm more humanely?

  9. This is too perfect…Get a free cup of Starbucks coffee when you vote!

  10. Tree: Starbucks’ offer is worthy of a contemporary Orwell.

  11. Amos, I’d agree but I’m afraid I forgot to read the article at lunch! I’m re-reading The Metaphysical Club and grabbed that without thinking about the article. Tonight…

  12. M. Harris: I’m far from an expert on Hobbes and even less on Rousseau, but we were generalizing about their contrasting concepts of human nature: man being a power-seeking selfish creature in Hobbes. That’s how I see man. Now, from Hobbes’s view of human nature, it is not necessary to draw his conclusion, a monarchy or authoritarian government. Spinoza in his Political Treatise starts from the same view of human nature (power-seeking) and concludes that democracy is the best form of government, as it avoids the abuses of power being concentrated in the hands of one man, a king for example. You could also use Hobbes’s view of human nature in favor of labor unions: given that bosses will never cede any power or money to the working class out of good will, only the counter-power of organized labor will win benefits for workers.
    I agree with that statement. As to beating up scabs, that’s unfortunate, but it’s a rough world, as Hobbes would say.

  13. Tree: There’s no required reading on my planet, and Orwell may be out-dated for your generation. He writes very very well, that’s true, and is very very perceptive. If you’ve never read any of his essays, start with Politics and the English Language. What is the Metaphysical Club about? Link to Politics and the English Language.

  14. Amos, I’m afraid to ask which generation you are referring to.

    I read part of the essay on the bus. I’m familiar with Orwell but have to admit, I’ve never read Dickens, although I’m familiar with his work.
    Two things that stood out to me, totally unrelated to this thread–Orwell writes about the way Dickens went into great detail about the French Revolution and I was struck by the similarities in Dickens’ writing and Goya’s paintings, like his series on the superstitious people of Spain. “The sleep of reason…etc.”
    Also, Orwell writes, “If you hate violence and don’t believe in politics, the only remedy remaining is education.” I immediately thought of our good friend Bill Ayers.
    But yes, a very good writer and I found a lot of the things I think about expertly distilled by him to a fine point.

    Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, he won the Pulitzer for it. It’s about ideas in America. Specifically how ideas changed in the 19th century after the Civil War. He writes about Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, John Dewey and others to lesser extent. Where they came from, how they became influential thinkers and how they changed the way others thought.
    It’s a fantastic book. Sadly, my copy has seen better days but I hope it will hold out for a few more reads.

  15. James: I get the impression that Starbucks isn’t overly interested in discussing philosophical issues with us. In my experience, philosophical questions make a lot of people nervous, and that was Socrates’s experience too, as I recall.

  16. Amos,

    To hold that “man” (can’t we say “humanity” or just “people”?) is inherently Hobbesian seems a bit reductionistic. Certainly people do try to look out for themselves and some certainly do seek personal power above the welfare of those around them, but there’s no reason to conclude that’s all people do. I think that concluding that “beating up scabs” is just a part of life and therefore automatically moral does not strike me as a very good argument and it’s hard to see where that particular slippery slope could possibly end.

    It seems much more consistent to me to say that coercion is bad and only justifiable in order to prevent coercion. The “scab” and probably even the employer are not actually involved in coercion so this kind of violent response is immoral.

    I think my main question is this: if you are a Hobbesian and people are merely selfish and power-hungry, then why would anyone with the power to create a new state bother to try to create something other than a Hobbesian state? Presumably you are also merely selfish and power-hungry, so why would anyone trust your vision for a better world?

  17. M. Harris: There is absolutely no reason why you should trust me, and in fact, you’d be a fool if you trust me. Now, can you trust me when I warn you not to trust me?

  18. Tree: Education for what or about what? Actually, I’ve found that people learn in so many different ways, and that learning and education (the institution) often have nothing in common.

    Is the Metaphysical Club such a great book because the people it portrays fascinate you or because it is so well-written? For example, Dickens, as a writer, bores me, but Orwell’s essay about him fascinates me.

  19. Amos, I agree with you about education. It’s a shame the public school system doesn’t see it that way.

    When I read that statement by Orwell, I concluded he meant that if one is averse to violence and politics, one resorts to the educational system in order to try and change the future by teaching children . As you know, Ayers is prominent in the educational field yet seemed to have no issue with politics or violence, proving Orwell wrong. I just found it amusing.
    Not sure that answers your question.

    The Metaphsycial Club is a great book because the people fascinate me and it’s well-written. I think even if you weren’t particularly interested in the subject beforehand, you’d find the writing so absorbing you would read the entire book.
    I am biased, though. Easily half of the book covers people in New England and I think 19th Century New England was a fascinating place. Easily one of the greatest periods and places in American history.

  20. I looked up the Metaphysical Club in Wikipedia. 19th Century New England doesn’t attract me much, but it is always interesting how kindred minds get together, be it Wittgenstein and Russell at Cambridge, the experimental writers and artists who filled Paris in the 1920’s and who all seemed to know one another, the beatniks, or the circle around Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Leibnitz even traveled across Europe to speak to Spinoza, as if he (Leibnitz) somehow sensed that he and Spinoza were going to be the two greatest philosophers of the era.

    Some learning takes place in educational institutions, although it generally is not due to the educational process, but besides or alongside it.
    My experience as a teacher (and student) is that most students confuse being educated (playing the role of student, taking tests, etc.) with learning.

  21. Amos, I have also always been fascinated by the way certain people at certain times get together and create. I tend to think that this happens much more often than we are aware and only certain groups, like the Beats or those in Paris in the ’20s, are brought up over and over again as examples of this phenonmenon (phenomena?)

    I have always loved to learn but hated education up through high school. Which is why I almost always had a book I wanted to read hidden inside my text books during classes.

  22. Clearly I have more reading to do, but I am an Orwell fan — particularly Down and Out in Paris and London.

    Tree, the vote and get a cup of coffee thing makes me slightly ill. And this made me cough into my Cornflakes this morning:


  23. James, he should not receive any awards simply based on the title he gave his book.

    Opening five stores a day? Last I heard, Starbucks is closing many of its stores due to oversaturation.

    Starbucks seems to have better policies for its workers than most retailers but giving this guy an ethics award is nauseating.

  24. ooops. I overlooked the “2007” date. I guess back then they were opening five stores a day. That worked well for them.

  25. One hand washes the other. Notre Dame University gives an ethics award to Mr. Starbucks, and Mr. Starbucks generously offers to fund the Notre Dame Center for Socially Responsible Business. What Marx did not notice is that the economic and political elite has far more class consciousness than the working class could ever dream of obtaining. There’s a narcissism of class within the ruling elite: these guys really love one another and when they love one another, they love themselves.

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