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International Starbucks protest comes to town

David Scharfenberg
Thursday September 26, 2002

A dozen protesters picketed outside the Oxford Street Starbucks Wednesday as part of an international campaign urging the chain to buy more “Fair Trade” coffee from farmers. 

Under the Fair Trade system, designed to avoid exploitation of farmers, small coffee growers across the globe, organized into collectives, receive a minimum of $1.26 per pound regardless of the international price of coffee, which currently stands at 43 cents per pound. 

A Starbucks representative at the protest said the company has made significant progress on the issue, selling bags of Fair Trade coffee to customers since October 2000 and brewing it once a month in stores since May 2002. 

“To suggest we’re not doing something is not to acknowledge the facts,” said Gerry Argue, Starbucks’s regional director for the East Bay. 

Simon Harris of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association, a lead organizer of the international campaign, said he was “encouraged” by the move to brew Fair Trade coffee once a month, but said the chain has not fully implemented the policy. 

Harris also argued that Starbucks should increase its purchases of Fair Trade coffee and brew it more frequently – once a week. 

“Thousands of coffee farmers can’t support their families and companies like Starbucks are making billions of dollars,” he said. 

Argue acknowledged that only 1 percent of the coffee purchased by Starbucks is officially certified as Fair Trade, but said Starbuck’s pays an average of $1.20 per pund for its coffee, just below the Fair Trade rate. 

The Oxford Street picket, on the west end of the UC Berkeley campus, was one of 300 Starbucks protests planned this week by the Organic Consumers Association and other fair trade activist groups, including the San Francisco-based Global Exchange. 

Other protests were scheduled for San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C. and international cities like London, England and Vancouver, Canada. 

Activists also called for the removal of bovine growth hormone from Starbucks products Wednesday. 

“Better safe than sorry,” said Michael Paurel, a student at Solano Community College in Vallejo, arguing that bovine growth hormone could have unforeseen impacts on consumers. 

Starbucks literature notes that the company offers organic and soy milk as an alternative to milk with bovine growth hormone, even though there is low customer demand for the alternatives.  

But Harris complained that Starbucks charges up to 40 cents extra for these products, discouraging consumers from choosing them. 

Valerie Orth, Fair Trade organizer for Global Exchange, said Berkeley residents can take local action by voting for Measure O in November. The measure would require Berkeley coffee sellers to brew only Fair Trade, organic or shade-grown coffee. The measure does not affect sales of ground coffee or beans.  

“It’s the most responsible way to brew coffee because we’re supporting farmers all over,” said Orth. “Berkeley can set the standard.” 

But Starbucks’s Argue said the initiative would put small coffee shops out of business by forcing them to pay too much for beans. 

“We could comply with the measure, if you got right down to it, but so many operators in Berkeley could not,” he said. 

Amy Von Nordheim, a Berkeley resident who picked up literature from the protesters, said she would consider the concerns of small coffee shops in voting on Measure O. 

But she said she was happy to be educated about the Fair Trade issues and added that the protesters’ arguments had reinforced her habit of staying away from the sprawling Starbucks chain. 

“I just think of them as an evil empire,” Von Nordheim said.