UC THE PROBLEM: Starbucks, “Fair Trade” and You

A millennial sips a cup of Starbucks coffee, thinking about their passion for art and hope to save humanity, but has a hard time noticing the lack of truth in their own cup of coffee. With Starbucks at the epicenter of pop culture, many of us are willing to support Starbucks blindly, without question, as long as we can get that Tall Peppermint Mocha during the holiday season.

In 2009, UCSD became a fairtrade university, with a program that targets tea, coffee, sugar, chocolate, ice cream, and grains available on campus. Housing, Dining, and Hospitality (HDH) defines Fair Trade as advocating “the payment of a fair price for goods” in order to keep the workers and production staff protected from detrimental treatment. This means our coffee is a little bit more expensive, but allows the workers who produce it to have a higher quality of life.  

The arrival of Starbucks in 2015 on campus in 2015 created somewhat of a controversy — Starbucks does have a program called Coffee and Farmer Equity (easily shortened to Starbucks “funny” pun C.A.F.E.), but it does not sell products that have a “Fair Trade” label.

The C.A.F.E. program aims to treat workers beneficially. The reality is that many farmers don’t know they are working for Starbucks and never see the “benefits” that Starbucks claims to give their farmworkers. The C.A.F.E. program claims to be superior to Fair Trade status, but unfortunately this isn’t quite the case.

HDH explains the four components of their on-campus Fair Trade status: market access for marginalized producers, sustainable trading relationships, capacity building and empowerment, and consumer awareness and advocacy. That’s a lot of words with little face-value meaning. Luckily, HDH summarizes their components into five more attainable parts:

  1. Fair prices for farmers and workers.
  2. Environmentally sustainable farming practices.
  3. Decent working and living conditions.
  4. Investments in the local community.
  5. No child labor.

Additionally, there are specific categories a corporation must fit into to be considered Fair Trade: “A certification is granted by third-party certifiers such as Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International based on several principles: a set minimum price, a fair trade premium that goes directly back to the producers, supply-chain transparency, and specific environmental and social standards. The company launched its C.A.F.E. Practices in 2003, and by 2010 it said it was purchasing 86 percent of its coffee from certified farms.”

“A certification is granted by third-party certifiers such as Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International based on several principles: a set minimum price, a fair trade premium that goes directly back to the producers, supply-chain transparency, and specific environmental and social standards. The company launched its C.A.F.E. Practices in 2003, and by 2010 it said it was purchasing 86 percent of its coffee from certified farms.”

Essentially, those words all mean the same thing: fair trade is good for the safety of workers and producers. This is a cost trade-off that many are willing to make if it means better sourcing for products. Standards for health and safety are often lacking in foreign countries, and fair trade goods are a step in the right direction.  

In 2013, then Graduate Student Association (GSA) president Rahul Kapadia explained that people “want Starbucks,” and that it will create a large revenue that would help the university escape problems of debt by the following year.

“We have to think about what the constituents that you are representing want, not what you want,” Kapadia said, “it’s important to keep a healthy mix, have large and small corporations.”

During the meeting, the members of the University Center Advisory Board briefly discussed the implications of what having a Starbucks on campus meant for the fair trade program — however, they quickly decided that Starbucks’ replacement fair trade program was close enough.

By supporting Starbucks, and their abnormally low-cost, non-fair-trade coffee, the smaller businesses on campus have to deal with the unfair competition. While Starbucks was let on campus primarily to support students and their needs, it is not conducive to the student-run or independent businesses on campus. Places like The General Store and Muir Woods Coffee House are mandated to sell coffee that is deemed fair trade and thusly, cannot compete with the cheap coffee that Starbucks sells. That’s not a bad thing — selling fair trade coffee is a great thing, so shouldn’t everyone have to play by the same rules?

Both are mandated to sell coffee that is deemed fair trade and thusly, cannot compete with the cheap coffee that Starbucks sells. That’s not at all a bad thing — selling fair trade coffee is a great, so it only makes sense that everyone should have to play by the same rules. 

By creating different rules for Starbucks, the people fighting for Fair Trade are being harmed along with almost everyone in the surrounding community.

Are we as students willing to look past this ethical lapse because of the profit a coffee shop like Starbucks produces for the campus?

The answer is in the next cup of coffee that you buy.

 


April 20th: This article previously referred to the University Centers Advisor Board (UCAB) as the Center Advisory Board. 

  • Claire Maniti

    I’m not sure what the Center Advisory Board is, but the University Centers Advisory Board was the group that decided to approve a site-license with Starbucks.

    Also not mentioned: the Fair Trade Committee’s purpose, membership, and their decision to move from Fair Trade Certification to Fair Trade Verification. (Starbucks fit this second category).

    Whether or not you agree with the decision, there’s a lot of relevant context that wasn’t provided here. I’m the current Chair of the University Centers Advisory Board this year, and can give more info regarding past votes/documentation if the author wants: ucabchair@ucsd.edu

    • Newberry

      You’re being vague and focusing on all the wrong areas. Your first sentence is irrelevant and then you claim there was some kind of justification for letting Starbucks sell coffee without having to be fair trade. Would you mind saying exactly why you feel like they don’t have to play by the same rules?

      By bending the rules for bigger businesses all you do is hurt the small ones, I’m interested in the “relevant context” I’m missing. Other small coffee providers on campus need to pay more for their fair trade coffee because they play by the rules so they don’t make nearly as much money as a result.

      Thoughts?

    • Claire Maniti

      My first sentence was correcting a mistake in the initial article, which was changed after I commented.

      To address your second point: University Centers has no control over fair trade standards at UCSD. That’s entirely decided by the campus’ Fair Trade Committee. I’m complaining that the article is titled, “UC the Problem: Starbucks, Fair Trade, and You” and there’s no mention of how and why the Fair Trade Committee on campus changed the requirement for vendors from verification to certification.

      All vendors on campus must meet the minimum same fair trade standards, so I’m not sure where you’re getting your information about Starbucks not meeting the fair trade standard on campus. UCSD requires fair trade certification, and not veriification.

  • brandonio21

    I just wanted to point out that there seems to be a bit of repetition in the article, see:

    “The General Store and Muir Woods Coffee House are mandated to sell coffee that is deemed fair trade and thusly, cannot compete with the cheap coffee that Starbucks sells. That’s not a bad thing — selling fair trade coffee is a great thing, so shouldn’t everyone have to play by the same rules?

    Both are mandated to sell coffee that is deemed fair trade and thusly, cannot compete with the cheap coffee that Starbucks sells. That’s not at all a bad thing — selling fair trade coffee is a great, so it only makes sense that everyone should have to play by the same rules.”
    ——

    Although I can see the message that this article is trying to send (Starbucks fair-trade is questionable- vote with your wallet), I’m also a little skeptical of some claims made, mainly regarding pricing. It is mentioned that “Muir Woods Coffee House [is] mandated to sell coffee that […] cannot compete with the cheap coffee that Starbucks sells.” Two drinks that I’m familiar with, the 16oz white mocha and the 16oz brewed coffee, are both cheaper at Muir Woods[1]. Therefore, the author seems to be suggesting some sort of crisis-point for fair UCSD’s smaller fair-trade coffee shops. However, it is very clear that even if the students just went for the cheaper beverage, they would be supporting fair-trade. Sure, Starbucks is more fashionable, but an argument in terms of drink-cost may not be factually grounded.

    —–

    1. A 12oz/16oz white mocha is $3.25/$3.75 at Muir Woods and $3.75/$4.45 at Starbucks. Similarly, a 16oz brewed coffee is $1.75 at Muir Woods and $2.10 at Starbucks. Starbucks prices here: http://www.fastfoodmenuprices.com/starbucks-prices/

  • Pingback: UC The Problem: Starbucks, “Fair Trade” and You – Jordan Packer()

  • Pingback: Starbucks, the Apple of Coffee – Disobedient Media()