The Coffee Harvest, Costa Rica

It’s hard to peer into Starbucks’ notoriously opaque coffee sourcing standards. In a Sunday article in the Seattle Times — Changing the Way Costa Rican Farmers Grow Coffee – and Live — writer Manuel Valdes offers a glimpse, through the eyes of Rodrigo Vargas of Santa Eduviges — one of Costa Rica’s largest family-owned coffee-farming operations.

Vargas is one of the hundreds of farmers — large and small — in Costa Rica who have benefited from Starbucks’ arrival after an influx of cheap beans from Brazil and Vietnam saturated the market and sent prices tumbling in the late 1990s, creating a crisis for coffee growers.

As Starbucks’ presence grew in Costa Rica, Vargas’ relationship with the Seattle specialty coffee-shop chain tightened. He replaced 25 percent of his coffee plants with better breeds of arabica beans to keep up with Starbucks’ growing demand and quality standards.

By 1998, he sold 1.2 million pounds of coffee to Starbucks. In 2002, Vargas visited Seattle, met CEO Howard Schultz and sat courtside at a then-Schultz-owned Seattle Sonics basketball game.

Should you unwittingly get the impression that Starbucks’ coffee growers were all new-found members of the Seattle jet-set, chomping cigars and playing poker with Howard, the article further suggests that Starbucks still must wag the occasional disapproving finger at their naughty kids coffee suppliers…

Much like his boss, Yeiner Chacón’s life revolves around coffee. As head agronomist for Santa Eduviges, he knows coffee. He’s a fan of Café Practices, but he no longer deals with the certifiers that visit the farms.

“I almost killed the last guy,” Chacón says half-jokingly. But his attitude reflects the disagreements farmers have with the standards.


But eventually, farmers began to see the benefits of the program.

“The plants are healthier; they produce better,” says Oscar Andres Quiros, a CoopeTarrazú member.

Well of course… it’s for their own good, after all.

But the most nettlesome quote from the entire rosy article is this beauty — a standard company talking point that is unquestioned and unrefuted by the author:

Peter Torrebiarte, Starbucks’ point man in Latin America, says any farm certified by Café Practices meets other certification-program standards, including those of Rainforest Alliance, which companies such as food conglomerate Nestlé use.

First of all, I don’t know that I’d use Nestlé as a standard for good practices in certification and corporate social responsibility. Second, the whole “one certification is as good as any other” line is tired, wrong-headed, and the basis for corporate greenwashing of the worst sort.

The article — and make no mistake, it’s a towering, sugary puff pastry — comes on the heels of Starbucks’ announcement of an expanded relationship with Conservation International, with whom it has partnered to develop a new mark for its coffee. Starbucks’ stated intent is to reinforce and expand its “Coffee and Farmer Equity” (C.A.F.E.) principles and practices.

That’s good, because those practices need some propping up. In September, 2007 the Sacramento Bee penned a stinging investigative report1; an exposé on Starbucks’ failures to meet its own C.A.F.E. standards — standards for fair wages, environmental protection, decent housing and working conditions — in the production of one of its vaunted and pricey “Black Apron” exclusive coffees. A coffee that Starbucks offered at $26 a pound, and that put a mere 66 cents a day in the pocket of the farmers who produced it. A coffee grown on land recently deforested and replanted to better support coffee production.

My worry is that the new mark that Starbucks and Conservation International create will prove a meaningless stamp of approval; one with lots of marketing upside, and little to show for it in terms of environmental or social impact in coffee-growing communities. Starbucks has won an enviable position in the specialty coffee marketplace; they are the $12 billion gorilla in the room. With that sort of purchasing and marketing power, everything they do — unwitting or not — creates a benchmark, a measure by which all other coffee companies will be judged.

Starbucks has manufactured a great opportunity to raise the bar. I hope they’ll use it.

  1. Hat tip to Siel at Green LA Girl for the link []

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