Starbucks and Fair Trade

Last month, Pop Matter ran an article adopted from my book that talked about Starbucks and its impact on the music business. The title was, “Starbucks and the New Age of Censorship.” Obviously, this piece raised some criticism of the company, but it sparked an even more interesting conversation about fair trade.
In response, Rob Ivan of Atlanta wrote, “There are many ways to be accountable to your fellow humans on this planet, and Starbucks has a good record in this area.”

Responding to Rob, Mark Kemp of Charlotte, a terrific music writer I cite in the article, wrote a really smart and perceptive critique of Starbucks and its Fair Trade polices. Check it out:

“I need to take issue with this comment. Starbucks also has a record of misrepresenting itself in the area of accountability to its fellow humans. For example, the company’s PR information suggests though it doesn’t say flat-out that its coffees are all fair trade. And Starbucks does carry fair trade coffees but only about one bag out of many at most stores is “certified fair trade, which is the only kind of fair trade product available that consumers can know came from workers in fields who were paid decent wages for their incredibly hard labor. Starbucks doesn’t carry all 100-percent certified fair trade coffees because it would be more expensive to do so. Meanwhile, many small mom-and-pop stores really do contribute to fair trade practices by carrying all 100-percent certified fair trade coffees. But those stores pay an exorbitant amount of money for these coffees and have to raise their prices to get any kind of profit. If Starbucks used 100-percent fair trade coffees, it would cost the company much less than it does for mom-and-pop stores because of the volume of coffee it moves.

The end result is this: Many well-intentioned people go to Starbucks and purchase their coffee at marginally lower prices than what they’d pay at mom-and-pop stores, thinking they are buying a certified fair trade product because that’s how Starbucks effectively markets itself. Sure, people who want to contribute to fair trade practices should do more research and know this already, but many people trust Starbucks’ cynically disingenuous marketing of coffee, just as they trust its marketing of “smart, “exciting new artists. It wants people like Rob, the fellow who wrote the note above, to believe it is a more socially and environmentally sensitive company than it really is. And I’m not sure that’s much worse than not being socially or environmentally sensitive at all. It’s certainly less honest.”