Follow your labels: Starbucks coffee farmers who never heard of Starbucks
Despite the siren logo on their property, some Colombian coffee farmers receive no benefit from Starbucks' sustainability program.
EL TABLóN DE GOMEZ, Colombia
"How far do we go for a better cup of Colombian coffee?" Starbucks asks on its website. "Six thousand feet – straight up. Sounds extreme, we know. But high atop the majestic Andes, in a rugged landscape of simmering volcanoes, is where the finest coffee beans in Colombia like to grow."Skip to next paragraph
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Not only did I want to drink this coffee after reading that narrative, I wanted to visit. I wanted to meet the people who grow my coffee. So in the spring of 2012, I contacted the Starbucks public relations and customer service departments repeatedly, telling them I was working on a book about the global food economy and asking them to point me in the right direction. I finally received an answer from a customer service agent: "Unfortunately, the information you are requesting is proprietary."
So I went to Colombia and found the farmers on my own. Starbucks was right; it was extreme. High atop the majestic Andes in a rugged landscape of simmering volcanoes, I straddled a coffee tree as if it were a fireman's pole and hung on for dear life. The shivering trunk was the only thing keeping me from falling thousands of feet down the volcanic slope.
Meanwhile, Felipe Ordonez, a Colombian coffee farmer who tends 4,000 trees near the village of El Tablón de Gomez stood in the loose volcanic soil as if he were watching grass grow, probably questioning his decision to hire me as a coffee worker for the day.
When Starbucks wouldn't help me, I had acted on the only information I had to go on – the Starbucks 2011 C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices report in Nariño, Colombia. C.A.F.E. Practices is what Starbucks points to when customers ask why it doesn't buy more Fair Trade coffee. In 2010, the company reported that 8 percent of its coffee was Fair Trade Certified. 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. It is Starbucks's own set standards, but the company doesn't set minimum prices, or pay farmers anything resembling a "fair trade premium." 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.
The Starbucks report says there are 22,000 farms in Nariño participating in its program. Yet when I first asked around, no one had heard of Starbucks or recognized its siren logo. Then I caught a glimpse of the faded siren atop a white plaque high on the side of a home here. "C.A.F.E. Practices" was printed below the logo.
Kelsey Timmerman has made it his business to follow the labels on his food and clothing straight to their source – the people who sew his family’s clothes and grow the food on his kitchen table. This cover project is adapted from his books – ‘Where Am I Wearing?’ and ‘Where Am I Eating’ – for which he traveled the globe to tell the stories of the food and clothing economies – including human rights, rural poverty, the loss of cultural diversity and biodiversity, climate change, and fair trade – through the lives of the workers he met along the way.