Injustice in Java

In the spring of my senior year, I traveled to Jinotega, Nicaragua on a service trip. While there, I visited a coffee plantation to learn about coffee as one of Nicaragua’s biggest exports. The harsh labor conditions of this plantation were immediately apparent- workers were dirty, exhausted, malnourished, and many had their children in the fields to help the parents fulfill the daily quota. After conducting my own investigation once I got home, I learned that most coffee workers are not guaranteed their basic labor rights. 1 I was torn because I didn’t want to support a business that exploited workers, making them labor under abysmal working conditions, but I still wanted my daily roast. That is when I discovered Fair Trade certified coffee.

Fair Trade certified coffee ensures that the farmers who grow the coffee: “1) are paid a fair price for their harvest and 2) are democratically organized into cooperatives that sell direct to buyers in consuming countries.” 2 The guaranteed minimum price for Fair Trade coffee is $1.26 (US dollars) for Fair Trade specialty coffee and $1.41 for Fair Trade certified organic coffee, whereas the world price for conventionally sourced coffee is around 60 cents per pound. By receiving good and stable prices, small-scale producers in developing countries can achieve job and hunger security and farmer cooperatives can “invest in food, shelter, health care, education, environmental stewardship, and economic independence” 3.  The Fair Trade prices also enable cooperatives to engage in environmentally sustainable ways of farming. Additionally, these agricultural exports are crucial for growth and development of these communities and countries. With such benefits, Fair Trade fosters a socially and environmentally friendly relationship between producers, traders and consumers. And, as a result of all this, the Fair Trade business model ensures quality coffee.

In Nicaragua, I witnessed the harsh conditions of workers who did not receive Fair Trade prices. Coffee worker Blanca Rosa Molina said the difference of Fair Trade prices is “the difference between whether my family eats or does not eat… It means our children can stay in school and that we can have basic health provisions.” 4 According to the International Labor Organization, poverty is the most compelling reason why children work. They report that children contribute “around 20-25% of family income” and their contribution is oftentimes just enough to keep their families out of hunger. 5 In fact, in Sidamo, one place where Starbucks purchases coffee, “over half of children between the ages of 5 and 17 work 30 hours a week on their families’ farms.” 6 By working so much, their education and nutrition suffers. However, many other problems arise. I remember hearing over and over about the problems of child abuse and rape that happens on the coffee fields. Fair Trade business practices, as aforementioned, help prevent these harsh realities.

Despite coffee companies knowing fully about these harsh realities, Fair Trade makes up just 5% of the U.S. coffee market. Many companies feature only a few Fair Trade brews, while the rest are conventionally sourced. For example, the top five selling coffee producers in the US are: Keurig, Folgers, Starbucks, Maxwell House, and Dunkin Donuts. Dunkin Donuts is the only purchaser whose beans are 100% FT certified. Less than half of the coffee Keurig Green Mountain buys is Fair Trade Certified. Only 8% of Folgers and 8.4% Starbucks are Fair Trade certified. Kraft does not use fair trade coffee beans with their Maxwell House products. 7

However, these companies, with Starbucks as the biggest culprit, are able to escape criticism by using similar sounding buzz words, such as “ethically sourced” or “organic,” to try to trick the customer into thinking they are buying Fair Trade certified coffee when they are not. I have observed Starbucks promoting their commitment to buying and serving Fair Trade certified and ethically sourced coffee 8. They make consumers believe that ‘‘Every time you purchase Starbucks’ coffee, you’re also making a difference, helping to improve people’s lives, and encouraging conservation where our coffee is grown’’ 9. They use the label “ethically sourced” to essentially trick customers into thinking they are supporting a socially responsible brand. However, hidden behind the label of “ethically sourced” is a much different practice than the ethical behavior necessary to get the Fair Trade certified labels. The former label comes from Starbucks’ in-house program, called CAFÉ. This CAFÉ program is owned by Starbucks and is therefore up to Starbucks own criteria and standards of whether to label the coffee as “ethically sourced.” Starbucks’ advertising strategy to promote their brand as socially responsible is unethical in the very least.

Since Bucknell is a Starbucks campus, I was curious to see whether our cafes offered any of the few Fair Trade brews on and around campus. I have pleasantly discovered that Fair Trade Coffee is offered in all locations such as Bostwick and the Commons Café. Even the retail locations downtown always have one Starbucks Fair Trade roast a day. Even more agreeably, I have found that this Fair Trade coffee is purchased from a specific coffee plantation and community in Nicaragua. This is all attributed to the Bucknell Brigade, a campus club whose mission is to assist and support of the Nicaraguan people through service trips to Nicaragua, local fundraising efforts, and the importation of Nicaraguan Fair Trade raw beans.

Fair Trade is not only a business model but a global social movement for empowering the poor. Poverty doesn’t have to be an irreparable problem. The Fair Trade business model helps the poorest sectors in the world and it takes on many forms and can be applied to many different products and situations. We can address exploitation and poverty in the global marketplace right here at Bucknell.

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  1.  “Coffee the Environment and Labor.” Starbucks / Fair Trade Campaign. Organic Consumers Association, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.
  2.  “Global Exchange’s Coffee FAQ.” Global Exchange. Global Exchange 2011, 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
  3.  “Global Exchange’s Coffee FAQ.” Global Exchange. Global Exchange 2011, 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
  4.  Litvinoff, Miles, and John Madeley. 50 Reasons to Buy Fair Trade. London: Pluto, 2007. Print.
  5.  “Working to Help Coffee’s Children.” Tea and Coffee Trade OnLine 2nd ser. 176 (2002): n. pag. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
  6.  “Starbucks 2006 Corporate IRRESPONSIBILITY Report.” Justice From Bean to Cup. IWW Starbucks Worker Union, 2006. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
  7.  “Does Fair Trade Coffee Cost More to the Consumer?” Equal Exchange. Equal Exchange, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
  8.  “Coffee the Environment and Labor.” Starbucks / Fair Trade Campaign. Organic Consumers Association, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.
  9.  Ruzich C.M. “For the Love of Joe: The Language of Starbucks.” J.Pop.Cult.Journal of Popular Culture 41.3 (2008): 428-42.

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