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Tracing justice issues in a cup of coffee


The renaissance of the coffeehouse is one of the most noteworthy developments in the secular lives of middle-class young people in the last decade. One chain above all others has both contributed to and benefited from the national caffeination of our disposable income: Starbucks. Starbucks’ own data suggest it serves more than 10 million people around the world each week. In 1994, Starbucks had 425 stores. As of June 2000, there were more than 3,000 stores, with $1.7 billion in worldwide sales in fiscal year 1999.

I cut (or perhaps stained) my coffeehouse teeth in 1995 at Starbucks stores all around the Boston area and was for a few years a regular customer. Then one day I stopped to count the cost of my coffee addiction. One $3 latte per day totals nearly $1,100 a year -- from me alone. The first and most basic problem became whether I should be spending this much money on coffee. When the coffeehouse craze meets the demands of contemporary Catholic identity, young Catholics have a unique responsibility to conform their coffee purchases to a rightly formed conscience.

We cannot avoid inquiring about the justice issues involved in purchasing coffee from an extraordinarily profitable coffee chain whose success has rested in part on the disposable income of middle-class post-Baby Boomers. Yet questions need to be asked of all coffee companies.

Given the important and complex historic relationship between U.S. and Latin American Catholicism, I focused my own social justice inquiries on Starbucks’ relationship to Latin American farmers. (Starbucks will not reveal precisely how much of its coffee sold in the United States is grown by Latin American farmers.)

The chain of production goes something like this: Farmers in Latin America sell coffee, usually through various intermediaries, to a group of one to seven exporters in the producing countries. With a few exceptions, Starbucks has had direct business relationships with exporters (and trading house importers in Europe or the United States) only, not with the farmers who grow and harvest the coffee. The coffee is then blended and roasted in the United States.

One natural social justice question to Starbucks is whether it shares its great global prosperity with all levels of workers. Toward this end, Starbucks has undertaken several programs, often through support of the relief organization CARE, to assist farmers and their families in Latin American countries. These include textbooks and supplies for schools in Costa Rica (a program that may be offered soon in Colombia), and community development programs in Guatemala.

While these laudable deeds may comfort coffee consumers, there are further questions for a Catholic conscience. Most basic is Starbucks’ history with respect to a just wage for farmers.

According to Mary Williams, Starbucks’ senior vice president for coffee, the company wants everyone to share in the global coffee success story of the last several years. Starbucks is “always” looking for exporters, she said, “who pass on premium fees to farmers.” The exporters, not Starbucks, have historically been responsible for setting the pricing structure with farmers.

The treatment of these farmers should be of critical importance to Catholics. Through Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum to Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, from Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra to Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens and Centesimus Annus, just wages (including profit-sharing) have become a foundational element of Catholic social teaching. The question we should ask any coffee company is to what degree wage standards for farmers are fundamental to its business operations.

Starbucks claims that it is limited in many Latin American countries from influencing exporters to pay just wages to farmers. Starbucks’ position is that economies of scale prevent it from working directly with Latin American farmers.

To its credit, Starbucks has recently taken more active responsibility for the wages of farmers. The company has recently entered into a licensing agreement with Transfair USA, a nonprofit concern that oversees fair trade coffee practices. Beginning later this year, Starbucks will sell “fair trade” coffee from Guatemala and Nicaragua in over 2,000 U.S. stores and through its Web site. Transfair USA will certify the farms that provide coffee to Starbucks’ existing suppliers. “Fair trade” coffee will conform to European standards that guarantee a living wage to farmers. After one year, Starbucks will evaluate the program, in the hopes that if consumers have responded positively, it can expand its sales of fair trade coffee.

There are other companies that stake their entire business identity on selling fair trade coffee. Companies such as Equal Exchange and others have built their reputation on fair trade with small farming cooperatives in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Equal Exchange has as its foundational commitments to “always pay a fair price to the farmer” and to “work directly with democratically run farming cooperatives.” Indeed, the first loan provided to begin Equal Exchange was provided by the Adrian Dominican Sisters who are typical of the many Catholic women’s religious groups who have provided low-interest loans and other forms of support. While Equal Exchange does not run its own coffeehouses, it is increasingly supplying coffee to independent coffeehouses around the country.

Making coffee purchasing a matter of social justice means more radical fidelity to the lament of James 5:4, as we wonder who is being ground down in every act of coffee consumption: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who worked your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord.”

Tom Beaudoin is the author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. He is a Ph.D. candidate in religion and education at Boston College.

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000