SAN FRANCISCO -- As far back as February 1998, executives at the mighty Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee Co. said they were "exploring the possibility" of offering customers coffee beans that meet international fair trade standards for nonexploitative labor.
Last week, exploration ended.
By autumn, Starbucks has promised, it will add "Fair Trade Certified" coffee to the inventories of its 2,000-plus retail stores and e-commerce Web site. Among other things, such certification means individual farmers are guaranteed a minimum of $1.26 per pound of beans.
That guarantee will triple the incomes of thousands of small-farm growers, mostly in Central America, who live below subsistence levels with their tiny shares of the volatile coffee bean market.
The promise is historic, even though it will affect only a small percentage of Starbucks' multibillion-dollar retail business. Despite years of lobbying by international labor-rights groups, no other major U.S. coffee company has made such a commitment.
"This is a great victory for the farmers," said Paul Rice, the executive director of TransFair USA, a nonprofit agency based in Oakland, Calif., that will certify the coffee. "We've been working on Starbucks for about eight months, trying to get them on board. The agreement they have made is truly visionary; it shows true leadership."
TransFair USA is a recent offshoot of a 12-year-old European fair trade organization and part of a 19-member international consortium. All are independent monitoring and information agencies that seek to protect and promote the livelihoods of some 500,000 small-farm coffee growers in Central America, Africa and Asia.
TransFair does this primarily by helping small-farm families establish large cooperatives to sell beans directly to huge coffee companies. Shut out are the commercial middlemen whose exorbitant fees reduce the farmers' per-pound price to about 50 cents.
So successful is TransFair USA's European parent that about $300 million in "Fair Trade Certified" coffee was sold on the continent just last year.
"Starbucks didn't just do something that would make the problem go away," said Rice. "They're making this coffee available in every store, every day for a full year. And they have promised to place the certification labels front-and-center and provide posters and brochures that will educate their customers about fair trade.
"It could have gone a different way. They could have dug in the way Nike did when their labor practices were challenged. But they decided instead to work with us."
Although Starbucks is hardly taking out thank-you ads, it's likely that some of the credit for the company's decision goes to the same labor rights groups that did indeed hound Nike into humiliation and eventual submission.
"We've been meeting with Starbucks for two years, and all we kept getting was how they were this big ship that just couldn't be 'instantly' turned around," said Medea Benjamin, founding director of the San Francisco-based human rights group, Global Exchange.
"After we addressed their board on Feb. 14 and met privately with their executives, we still felt they weren't taking us seriously."
So the Global Exchange folks told Starbucks that on April 13 they were organizing a 30-city protest in front of Starbucks stores from Buffalo to Berkeley.
On April 4, Starbucks senior vice president Dave Olsen sent Paul Rice a letter outlining the company's agreement with TransFair USA.
Global Exchange activists gladly called off the Starbucks action and redirected their freed-up energy to increase pressure on other coffee giants like Maxwell House (owned by Philip Morris), Folgers (owned by Procter and Gamble) and Peet's.
Meanwhile, timing of the Starbucks-TransFair agreement could not be better for workers' rights activists with a long view:
The annual Specialty Coffee Association of America trade show opened Saturday in San Francisco.
"The theme of this year's show is 'Quality, Sustainability and Social Responsibility,' " said Paul Rice. "Starbucks' decision to carry 'Fair Trade Certified' coffee sends a powerful message to the entire industry that this theme can be more than words on a banner."
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