Cause Coffees Produce a Cup with an Agenda
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'Cause coffees' produce a cup with an agenda
'Shade-grown,' 'fair trade' and other eco-friendly, socially
aware blends of java are attracting consumers
By Patrick McMahon
July 26, 2001
SEATTLE -- Now that you've figured out how to order a double
tall latte, decaf skinny with no foam, there's a whole new
Bird lovers want you to buy "shade-grown" coffee to protect
disappearing rain forests used by migratory songbirds in
Central and South America.
Purists concerned about pesticides push "organic" java.
Worried about impoverished Third World coffee growers?
There's "Fair-Trade Certified" coffee that guarantees
farmers a minimum price.
In this hot spot for boutique coffee as well as in an
increasing number of cities across the nation, coffee is
being poured with an environmental and social agenda. The
big chains, led by Starbucks, are acceding to activists'
demands that they offer these "cause coffees." While these
brews are sometimes branded politically correct, "we prefer
to call them sustainable coffees," Washington, D.C.,
activist Christopher London says. "They sustain the
environment, and they sustain the farmers." But there's a
"It has to taste good for people to buy it," says London,
who promotes ecological labeling for coffee at Consumer's
Choice Council. "If you can't sell it, it's not
sustainable." But many of these blends are selling, with the
help of environmentalists and other activists extolling
their virtues and demanding more availability.
While still a minuscule part of the U.S. coffee market,
these beans and brews are being sold at Borders Books cafes,
Hyatt hotels, campus coffeehouses and grocery giant Safeway.
Seattle-based Starbucks, the nation's largest gourmet coffee
retailer, now promotes blends of Fair-Trade Certified,
organic and shade-grown coffees.
"There is extraordinary excitement with people in our stores
about things like shade-grown," Starbucks chief executive
Orin Smith says. Starbucks stepped up its promotion of
"cause coffees" after it became the target of protests by
human rights groups demanding that it sell fair-trade
But many Americans just don't take their morning cup of joe
all that seriously.
"At 6 a.m., I really don't care about the rest of the world.
I just want to wake up," says Seattle law student Jeff
Yuhasz, 32, who keeps a can of Folgers in his freezer. "It's
definitely an issue of political correctness." Many
consumers say they like making an impact with their coffee.
Philadelphia concert promoter Larry Ahearn, 53, drinks three
or four cups a day. His current brew is an Azteca Blend from
Trader Joe's gourmet grocery chain.
"It's shade-grown, 100% organic, Equal Exchange, Fair-Trade
Certified," he says. "Everything but Eugene McCarthy," the
antiwar presidential candidate in 1968. "When I buy
shade-grown coffee," Ahearn says, "I feel like I'm voting
for a better environment or a better world." A host of
worries Coffee is the second most-traded commodity in the
world after oil, measured in export dollars. It is produced
in 80 countries in tropical regions, most of them
environmentally sensitive. The largest exporters are Brazil,
Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Mexico. The largest
importer is the United States.
Fully 80% of adult Americans are regular or occasional
coffee drinkers. Only 14% say they're daily consumers of
gourmet coffees -- premium blends, latte, espresso, café
mocha, cappuccino and frozen and ice-blended coffee
beverages. But that number represents almost 29 million
people, up from about 8 million five years ago, according to
a 2001 survey by the National Coffee Association.
Today's sustainable coffees -- a small niche of the gourmet
market -- are not as new as they are newly visible. Organic
coffees -- once found mostly in health-food stores -- and
the others are just getting more space in grocery stores and
on the menus at coffee bars.
"It's really an emerging trend," says Gary Goldstein, a
spokesman for the coffee trade group.
While nothing might seem less contentious than a cup of hot
coffee, environmental, economic and labor issues abound:
World coffee prices are at decade-low levels, prompting
concern that low-paid growers will abandon their crops for
Tropical rain forests continue to dwindle as farmers
clear-cut hillsides and fields to grow coffee in sunshine, a
faster process than shade-grown. Sun-grown coffee also
requires more pesticides, a greater concern for workers than
drinkers because processing removes most chemicals.
Clear-cutting in the highlands of Central and South America
also is removing traditional habitat for migratory songbirds
that spend the winter there.
"Coffee touches so many people, from the coffee plant to the
coffee cup," says Helen Ross, who runs the Seattle Audubon
Society's Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign. "People don't
realize the huge effect on birds, workers and forests."
Growers in decline No one is suffering more from the fall in
worldwide coffee prices than small-scale coffee farmers.
Even Juan Valdez is hurting.
The mythical coffee farmer who stars in Colombian Coffee
Federation ads with his sturdy mule Conchita has fallen
victim to the plummeting world price for beans. Federation
ads featuring him were cut almost in half this spring.
But the effect has been far more brutal elsewhere. In May,
14 migrant workers died in the heat of the Arizona desert
after crossing the border with Mexico. Half were identified
as coffee farmers who had left their jobs in Veracruz,
Mexico, in search of better-paying jobs in the United
"Prices are so low that we are at risk of having farmers opt
out, and we will be unable to get the quality we want,"
Starbucks CEO Smith says. "This is of grave concern to all
the specialty-coffee people." Suppliers, roasters and
retailers now have dozens of projects underway in South and
Central America to improve the lives of coffee farmers and
maintain quality supply lines.
Starbucks is working with the environmental group
Conservation International to improve shade-grown production
near Chiapas, Mexico. Other retailers on the bandwagon
include Seattle's Best Coffee, Bucks County Coffee Co. in
Philadelphia, Equal Exchange in Canton, Mass., and Taylor
Maid Farms in Sebastopol, Calif.
Consumers looking for independent evidence that these
coffees are organic, shade-grown or bought at a fair price
to farmers need only look on the back of packages in the
store. Some are certified by groups such as the Rainforest
Alliance, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and several
organizations that monitor organic farming.
What difference does all this make? Fair-Trade Certified
coffee, for example, guarantees farmers in cooperatives a
minimum $1.26 a pound, far more than the current world price
of 43 cents.
Fair-trade prices will give the typical Latin American
coffee farmer an annual income of about $2,000, compared
with the current $500, says Paul Rice, executive director of
TransFair USA, an Oakland non-profit group that certifies
fair-trade coffee in the United States.
"This is the difference between a small farmer carrying
sacks of coffee on his back, versus buying a mule," Rice
The fair-trade coffee movement is growing. TransFair USA
certified 2 million pounds in 1999, 4.3 million pounds in
2000 and "we project 9 million this year," Rice says.
Coffee seems an unlikely focus for rallies, protests and
benefit concerts featuring Bonnie Raitt. But not in Seattle,
where coffee is taken more seriously than almost anyplace
And that means Starbucks.
Starbucks was founded in 1971 in Seattle and named for the
first mate in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Thumbing its nose
at fast food in the fast lane, it pioneered the modern-day,
It has grown from 84 locations in 1990 to 4,435 stores in 39
states and 21 foreign countries. This month it reported $2
billion in sales for the last nine months -- up 23% from the
same period a year earlier.
Targeting Starbucks Starbucks' meteoric rise coincided with
increasing concern about coffee itself. The same affluent
baby boomer consumers who liked Starbucks' no-hassle
atmosphere grew more interested in the content of their
coffee. Soon after protests against the World Trade
Organization's summit meeting in November 1999 left downtown
Seattle trashed and hundreds arrested, Starbucks found
itself taking heat.
Starbucks says it was already planning to market fair-trade
and Earth-friendly brews when members of Global Exchange, a
San Francisco human-rights group, picketed the company's
annual stockholders meeting in March 2000, demanding that
the retailer sell fair-trade coffee.
Immediately, "I got involved," CEO Smith says.
Even as it moved to provide more Fair-Trade Certified
coffee, Starbucks encountered a new group of protesters at
this year's annual meeting.
This time, it was the Organic Consumers Association
targeting Starbucks' milk -- a major ingredient in lattes,
mochas and other espresso products. The chain's milk wasn't
guaranteed to be hormone-free. Starbucks said it offers the
same kind of milk sold in grocery stores, but only 25% is
guaranteed hormone-free. Later this month, it will offer an
organic, hormone-free milk alternative.
In the same vein, activists here have launched a major
education and advertising campaign to get people to buy more
sustainable coffees -- of any brand.
The highlight came in June when recording artists Raitt,
Jackson Browne and Keb' Mo' held a concert in Seattle to
benefit the Songbird Foundation, which seeks to protect
songbirds and their habitat. Nostalgic boomers in faded
jeans and long skirts packed the refurbished Paramount
Theater to hear the three mix politics with music.
Microbrews were everywhere, the aroma of marijuana
Browne, 52, his silky brown hair slung over his forehead,
told the audience to try sustainable coffee: "Being able to
change our lifestyle just a little will make a big
difference." The artists were there to support their
longtime friend, singer-songwriter Danny O'Keefe, who
founded the Songbird Foundation in 1997 and wrote and
recorded the 1972 hit, Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues.
"Quality is the bottom line," says O'Keefe, who roasts his
own coffee. But by buying sustainable coffees, he adds,
"consumers can have quality and really make a difference.
Every cup of coffee makes a difference." Not everybody
"The average American isn't ready for this," says Julie
Barrett, coffee director for Dunkin' Donuts. The chain
recently offered a "French Roast Eco-Blend" in Maine, Boston
and Chicago but decided not to go nationwide yet.
"They're not asking for it enough," Barrett says.
But for some, the message is catching on.
"Sometimes you'll ask for a cup of shade-grown or fair
trade, and people give you a blank look, but not so much
anymore," says Tom Keefe, a Spokane, Wash., lawyer who ran
unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000. "In the era after WTO,
especially in Seattle, it's not surprising to see consumers
asking more questions about the products they buy: Who makes
it, where did it come from and what's in it?"
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