Monday, August 27, 2007

The coffee may be hot and sweet … but do you know if it is fair?

from The Herald


IF protesters at a world trade conference ever stop for coffee, the chances are it won't be a Starbucks.

In 35 years - less than 10 in the UK - it has come from nowhere to join McDonald's and Coca-Cola as an icon of global dominance.

Now the company is trying to counter its negative image by setting a £200,000 fund-raising target for its work supporting coffee-growing communities in Ethiopia.

Its 530 stores throughout the UK are highlighting East African coffees and the farmers who grow them, and its 8000 staff have been encouraged to get involved in its project with the development charity, Care.

Over the next three years, 1500 families, equating to around 6300 people, will benefit from a community development project in the rural region of West Harrarghe, Ethiopia.

The project will ensure the more efficient use of water from a local spring, establishing safe sources of drinking water for families and their livestock, as well as helping farmers to irrigate their fields, which in turn will enable them to increase their crop yields and earn a higher income by selling the surplus harvests.

It works out at less than £380 per store, giving rise to accusations that it was little more than a PR gesture.

Starbucks pointed out, though, it has worked with Care for 15 years, giving more than £1.5m to coffee growing regions including Costa Rica, Guatemala, Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Projects have included health and nutrition, community development, water and sanitation, biodiversity conservation, supporting farming communities, and women and children's protection.

Geoffrey Dennis, chief executive of Care International UK, said: "Together with Starbucks, we will be able to make a real difference to the lives of coffee-growing communities in this region of Ethiopia, which is subject to chronic food shortages as a result of droughts, among other factors."

The tribute is in stark contrast to the criticisms from campaigners such as Ethical Consumer magazine, which says the chain has become "a byword for globalisation", with fair trade coffee taking only a tiny proportion of its sales, because "when you're operating at that scale, your soul goes out of the door".

Among competitors, Gordon Richardson, the chief executive of growing Scottish coffee and music chain Beanscene, has complained that Starbucks will saturate the market-place and likened it to "an episode from the Simpsons where every shop in the block is Starbucks". The chain earlier this year promised to open stores in London at the rate of one a fortnight, adding to more than 200 in the capital, so that Londoners are "never more than five minutes away from a Starbucks".

In Scotland, where there are 39 stores, no targets have been set, according to Phil Broad, managing director of Starbucks Coffee Company UK.

He told The Herald: "We open one store at a time, we don't want to be seen as coming in and taking over Scotland."

Mr Broad said Starbucks, founded in Seattle in 1971 and in the UK since 1996, had always worked with coffee growers. "Every partner is involved," he said.

Employees had raised £28,000 last month in a fundraising challenge in the Lake District, with two Scottish teams taking part.

The chain is also in its fourth year of its "coffee house challenge" in partnership with the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce, which in Glasgow for instance disburses £20,000 for worthy community projects.

On the Ethiopian project, Mr Broad said: "We are truly excited to be building on our 15-year relationship with Care, one of the top three development agencies in the world, and are dedicated to furthering Starbucks UK's commitment to making a difference to coffee growing communities."

Other competitors set Starbucks' latest initiative against the small proportion of Fairtrade branded coffee in its sales. Mr Broad said it comprised 6% of sales, but he pointed out that they buy 14% of Fairtrade coffee.

Some coffee shop chains are now 100% Fairtrade, others offer it as an option.

David Williamson, managing director of Glasgow-based importers Matthew Algie, and also a partner in the Tinderbox cafe chain, said: "It is a public relations gesture, but the main thing is that Starbucks do a lot for coffee growers.

"They encourage farmers to grow high-quality coffee.

"Where they fall short is that they only buy a small proportion of their coffee through Fairtrade. If they moved that up even to 7% it would make a huge difference."

However, Mr Broad said: "It is not just about fair trade but about looking after coffee farmers. We have an open book policy with our farmers and our practices are independently verified, with socially responsible coffee buying guidelines to ensure sustainability of production."

How the chains compare (percentage of coffee sales)
# Pret A Manger 100% Fairtrade
# Marks and Spencer 100% Fairtrade
# AMT (rail and airport outlets) 100% Fairtrade
# Starbucks Fairtrade makes up 6% of sales
# Costa optional (now has its own Fairtrade brand)
# Caffé Nero Has a separate "fair" purchasing policy.

# Tinderbox 100% Fairtrade

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