Fair Trade, Boycotts, and Starbucks

In the spring of 2001, one woman the newspaper never got her name held up a sign in front of the Bismark, North Dakota Barnes and Noble. This was the only Starbucks outlet in the entire state then. She called on Starbucks to stop using genetically engineered food, especially milk from cows fed bovine growth hormones, and ripped the company for what she called its limited commitment to fair trade coffee. Ryan Zinn wasn’t in Bismark that day or at the start of the Organic Consumer Association’s (OCA) boycott of Starbucks, but now he coordinates the campaign. For the last few years, the grassroots organization has been trying to get the coffee company to stop using altered milk and start buying more Fair Trade coffee. In a phone conversation, I asked Zinn why his group zeroed in on Starbucks as a target.

“You couldn’t go after Folgers, he said. They didn’t care. However Starbucks, he explained, preached corporate responsibility and promised “at least to some extent to protect the environment and care about labor conditions. The company could, in other words, be held accountable. But that wasn’t all. Starbucks, Zinn maintained, had the right customer base. Lots of latte enthusiasts consider themselves progressives and worry on occasion about clean air and fair wages. They could, OCA organizers knew, be shamed into not buying Starbucks. Finally, Zinn told me, it is easier to organize around a store then it is an item in a supermarket. “You can leaflet a store a lot easier than an item on a shelf, he said.

Beginning in 2001, OCA backers regularly stood outside Starbucks locations across the country and handed out fact sheets detailing the ill effects of milk from cows fed bovine growth hormones and complaining about Starbucks greenwashing on the fair trade issue. The fliers called on supporters to boycott the stores, send protest letters to the company, and engage in a little guerilla consumerism. They urged backers to go into Starbucks and order fair trade coffee. If none was available, the company was supposed to make some. Zinn and the others at OCA, then, instructed their supporters to ask the baristas to brew some of the coffee or make it in a French Press. If enough people did it, they could the OCA reasoned gum up the assembly-line works in most stores. Another OCA flier pictured an altered version of the Starbucks logo. The company in this version underwent a sex change, morphing from an inviting siren, if there is such a thing, into a cartoonish Frankenbucks, a man with beady, over caffeinated eyes, a diabolical smile, and twisted wires sticking out of his head.

Still Ryan Zinn insisted that the OCA campaign, from the start, was only partially about Starbucks. Mostly he and his colleagues wanted to use the coffee giant to initiate a conversation about genetically altered food, global trade, and the endless exploitation of labor at the bottom of each cup of coffee (and woven into every shirt and shoe.) In an e-mail follow up to our phone conversation, I asked him how he would assess the Starbucks campaign. He wrote back, “I think I would consider the SBUX campaign mostly ongoing. If we were to think of the Starbucks campaign as three (at least) concentric circles, the inner circle being internal policy change at Starbucks, the outermost circle being whole scale, structural change of the global trade system, the middle, and often overlooked circle, would be advancing the organic/Fair Trade market beyond Starbucks or single products, like coffee. Thinking about these three overlapping concerns, Ryan evaluated each one: “The demand and market for ‘Fair Trade’ items, from apparel to coffee, he noted, continues to grow. He added, “Fair Trade is a reasonably recognizable term and new industries are integrating Fair Trade practices, if not institutionally, then voluntarily. Unfortunately, this has not led to THE (!) question of, well if we have certain products that are fairly traded (.1%) than what does that say for the rest of the marketplace? In the end, I asked him to grade the campaign I am a teacher after all. Ryan clearly graduated from college before the advent of rampant grade inflation. He gave the OCA campaign a C+. He might have raised the grade if I spoke with him later. Towards end of 2006, Starbucks announced that it would no longer use milk from hormone fed cows.

Since this time, Starbucks has started its own bean sourcing program, CAFE Practices. They company equates this with fair trade, but this isn’t fair trade. Maybe another boycott is order to make things clear.