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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.

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I posed for a photo with my coffee bag and the sign. An old woman with butterfly earrings walked out and asked me what I was doing, as one is apt to do when a stranger poses for a picture with your home. I showed her my bag of Starbucks Colombian roast, pointed to the sign, and explained my mission.

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"I have no idea what that sign is," said the woman, who owns a small coffee farm. And she began a rant about how no one helps her. "I've never heard of Starbucks."

Once I had an eye for the plaque, I saw it on home after home. I would point to the Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices sign on the farmers' homes and find that many of them had never heard of Starbucks. The ones who had would say things like: "We were promised Starbucks was going to help us years ago. We're still waiting."

To be sure, some of the farmers had heard of Starbucks and had received assistance.

Mr. Ordonez, who agreed to let me molest his coffee trees, appreciated the technical assistance provided to him. Other farmers had even received coffee washing machines known as beneficios.

When Dub Hay, Starbucks senior vice present of global coffee procurement, came to the defense of C.A.F.E. Practices following a negative story on the program in Ethiopia in 2007, he responded: "You go to Nariño, Colombia. We built 1,800 [coffee] washing stations and sanitation facilities and homes.... It's literally changed the face of that whole area.... The same is true throughout Latin America. They call it the Starbucks effect."

No one I met called it the Starbucks effect. Even the farmers who sell knowingly to Starbucks and those who had received assistance prefer to get their beans certified by and sold to Nespresso, which pays 28 cents more per kilogram.

The consensus in this area is that not much has happened with the C.A.F.E. Practices program in the past seven years; but while the program appears to be missing on the ground, it is very present on the company's website, in marketing copy, and in any discussion about its corporate responsibility.

After I visited the farmers of Nariño, I talked with several officials of the region's coffee industry who confirmed the absence of Starbucks. A representative of the Colombia Coffee Growers Federation told me that all Starbucks does is buy coffee. I even met a technician who had hung some of the C.A.F.E. Practices signs but wasn't surprised that the farmers I met had never heard of Starbucks: "Certifications is a business for most people. You can sell more coffee if you have a particular logo."

I reached out to Starbucks after my visit here, and still haven't received a response. The silence, like their marketing copy, does little to enlighten consumers about the reality of the coffee farmers' lives.

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.

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