If you throw a rock into the street of any major city centre across the globe, there is a good chance you’ll hit a Starbucks. The Seattle-based multinational company, whose mission is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighbourhood at a time”, is the world’s largest chain of coffeehouses. With 32,600 stores in 83 countries, that’s a lot of paper cups to fill. 

To keep up their global demand, they source coffee from 30 countries in the 3 major growing regions of the world– Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Their breakfast and house blends come from all over Latin America and their most popular roast, Pike Place, comes mostly from Columbia and Brazil.

Coffee is the second most valuable commodity exported outside of the global south after petroleum. In some of the poorer countries Starbucks sources from such as Guatemala and Honduras, coffee accounts for upwards of 50% of their total exports. 

Pickers remove unripe or overripe coffee beans and foreign debris from their daily harvest to prepare it for weighing at the Mubuyu Farm, Zambia. (Photo by Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Sourcing coffee from a vast array of countries across the world is strategic. Not only does having a blend of beans in your brew give the product a constant flavour but it also protects Starbucks from risk and supply chain shortages. These risks include big infestations, political conflicts, pandemics, droughts, and flooding. 

What do a lot of these risks have incommon? 

The intersectional relationship of climate change and human rights. 

With Your Arbor values in place, let’s find out if Starbucks is making actionable strides to a more sustainable coffee industry or are they another example of corporate greenwashers ignoring the direct impact of global warming on the people that make up the fabric of their supply chain.

People

Community 3/5 
Human Rights 3/5 

Starbucks maintains that more than 99% of its beans are ethically sourced and fair-trade certified.  Sounds pretty good, right? But with an Arbor score of 3/5 it looks like everything isn’t what it seems. To find out, let’s dive into the world of Fair trade and see what we can find. 

According to Starbucks:

“Fairtrade certified coffee empowers small-scale farmers organized in cooperatives to invest in their farms and communities, protect the environment, and develop the business skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace.”

Fair trade is the granola lovechild of our capitalist global economy, and in theory, sounds pretty great. If a company based in the US wants to manufacture a product, but the costs are too high for production on home soil, they outsource production to a country to low-wage economies where labour costs are low and the margin for human exploitation is high. So what’s a brand with a conscience in an exploitive society going to do? Probably aim for the Fair trade marker on their products. Within the guidelines of fair-trade, farmers receive a "fair" price for products and must adhere to a set on international environmental and labour standards outlined by certification groups such as Fairtrade International, based in Bonn, Germany. Unions and cooperatives for small scale farmers are encouraged, they are paid above market “fair trade” price for their goods, and contracts for supplying beans are longer with the intent of heightened job security.

But in reality, these promises can fall short. The issue with farming cooperatives is that in order for them to be truly sustainable in the long term, they are usually formed by mid-sized farms and landowners who are already quite successful. This is because they already have the capital to invest in the expensive tools and equipment to meet the criteria. As many of these bigger farms and cooperatives already sell to mega-brands like Starbucks, they are also more likely to reap the rewards of additional financial assistance or investments from coffee companies. 

Also, landowners and coffee farms rely heavily on migrant workers from neighbouring poorer regions to pick beans during harvest season. However, because these workers fall outside of the designated model of the small-scale farmer within the Fair trade framework, they aren’t protected in the same way.  This means that these workers are subject to losing out on the higher/fairer wages that may be expected. Not to mention that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the local borders have faced closures and the bulk of the labourers were unable to travel to the more lucrative farming regions for work.

When it comes to Starbucks' role in paying the above market price that goes with fair trade, there is negligible amount of information on their site, with the most up-to-date pricing on coffee being from 2010. We reached out to Starbucks for some pricing info from at least this decade, and their response was painfully similar to the one we asked Aritzia about their supply chain: We are unable to provide information about the company beyond what we make publicly available.” 

Planet

Emissions 4/5
Environmental Care 3/5
Materials 3/5

There is no separating the human element of global warming from the coffee trade. And major corporations like Starbucks are guilty of leaving farmers high and dry – literally. Especially in the high altitude Triangle of Coffee in Columbia. Added as a UNESCO World heritage site as the “Coffee Cultural Landscape”, and where the majority of Columbian coffee was grown. We spoke to someone whose family has a coffee farm in the Triangle where they said that because of global warming, it is now too hot in the region to feasibly grow coffee beans. Their farm can only produce one sack of beans a year –a fraction of what they were producing before– and that it costs more to produce a bag of coffee than it does to sell it. Climate change has warmed the region so much that the harvesting window for their main crop now starts in February instead of April, making it increasingly too expensive to hire pickers. 

Columbia Coffee Triangle. Image via Wilderness Travel

What does this have to do with Starbucks? A lot. As global warming drives the coffee trade elsewhere, regions that relied heavily on producing for these mega buyers are left without options. Our coffee farming friend in Colombia has had to convert his land to grow avocados, but since the temperature is still too warm for avocados, he just feeds them to the pig as it is cheaper to grow them than it is to buy pig feed. 

But what if there were designer trees that were bred to withstand some of the effects of global warming? Well according to Starbucks, to date, they have provided up to 50 million coffee trees to farmers across Latin America, with 10 million distributed to farmers in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The company has pledged to increase their commitment to 100 million-tree by 2025. 

Coffee trees are shown at ECOM's Jaltenango, Chiapas, Mexico coffee tree nursery. Nearly 3.5 million coffee trees are growing at the nursery for distribution to coffee farmers in the area. Photographed on May 18, 2016. (Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks)

Taken from Starbucks’ Global Responsibility Goals & Progress Report

“These new trees are bred to be resistant to coffee rust, a disease associated with climate change, and they’re replacing trees declining in productivity, which can, in turn, help farmers improve the quality and yields of their harvest and improve their revenue.”

This tidbit of information would have fooled us if we hadn’t already talked to a source in the coffee industry.

According to our source, we will call them Zoe, who works directly with a farmer who received these trees, this gift comes with a caveat. The beans produced by the Starbucks branded trees are so small that they fall through the holes in the perforated screens of the standard-sized grading machines used by most small-scale producers to sort their recently harvested beans. 

Watch this video for a visual:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wN1Lh_LUmp4

So where do the farmers have to go to find the proper grading machines? Full circle back to Starbucks who just happens to have the perfectly sized and designed machines to sort these tiny beans.

To spoon feed you some irony here –this is a similar parallel to the late 1990s when Monsanto provided disease-resistant cotton seeds to farmers but also genetically modified them to be “terminator seeds”. The crops planted from sterile seeds produced their own viable offspring for the farmers to save a store for another season, they are forced to buy new seeds from Monsanto every season. Adding an extra hurtle to farmers who are already mitigating the normal challenges of farming topped with the devastating impact of climate change is blatantly callous.  It’s like supplying the bandaid when you’re the one that caused the wound.

Starbucks received an Arbor score of 3/5 is a direct reflection of corporate narrative versus corporate actions. (Image from the Starbucks 2020 Global Environmental & Social Impact Report)

Starbucks’ 4/5 Emissions score is where we can give them a bit of credit –but just a little bit. By 2030, they aim to cut their total carbon, water, and waste footprints by 50%. From their 2019-2020 fiscal year they nailed an 11% reduction in carbon emissions against their 2030 carbon goal. In 2020, Starbucks, along with partnering companies, launched Transform to Net Zero with the goal to collectively head towards a net-zero global economy by 2050. 

One of the principles of the Transform to Net Zero: “We know that marginalised groups and low-income communities bear the greatest impacts of climate change. Therefore, we will help enable conditions needed to achieve effective, just, and sustainable climate solutions for people of all gender, race, or skills.” How much of this is going to trickle down to the farmers in their supply chain is really hard to say (jk, it’s probably not much).

Employees

Corporate Ethics 3/5
Diversity 3/5 
Job Quality 3/5 

Starbucks has been pretty successful at controlling the narrative around their corporate governance and has peppered the face of the company in equal opportunity. In 2020, and for the eighth year in a row, Starbucks achieved a 100% rating from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index based on their policies and practices for LGBTQIA2+ equality.

And according to their Global Environmental & Social Impact Report, as of August 2020, here are their diversity stats:

  •  69% female and 47% BIPOC at the store and partner level
    • BIPOC representation:  8% Black, 27% Hispanic or Latinx, 6% Asian, 5% Multiracial
  • Senior leadership consisted of 51% women and 19% BIPOC

Worth noting that these stats are slightly skewed as customer service jobs tend to be primarily filled by BIPOC female-identifying individuals and tend to be pretty low paying.

Starbucks made headlines in 2018, when an employee at a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, who were waiting in one of their coffee shops to conduct a business meeting. Within minutes of sitting down and waiting for their white business associate to arrive, the two men were arrested and escorted away in handcuffs. The incident was spurred when one of the men asked to use the washroom and was denied access because he had yet to make a purchase. In response to the incident of racial profiling, Starbucks shut down 8,000 stores for a day of mandatory unconscious bias training. 

Protesters gather on April 16, 2018 for ongoing protest at the Starbucks location in Center City Philadelphia, PA where days earlier two black men were arrested. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The data doesn’t lie and Starbucks opens itself up to scrutiny with bold claims about sustainable farming practices and environmental efforts. They are powerful enough to spin tails of greenwashing to hide socially and environmentally destructive actions from the public. But as conscious consumers, if we keep on demanding for transparency and legitimacy we can help drive change within the industry. 

Not sure where to start? Head over the Arbor Marketplace or support your local roasters and coffee shops who work and trade directly with small scale farms across the world.