Coffee Wars: Battle of the Beans

The Emory Wheel, Aug 23, 2010

As of Fall 2010, a war is set to begin on Emory’scampus, one between the David and the Goliath of the coffee industry.

Café Campesino, a Georgia-based, organic, shade-grown and Fair Trade Federation coffee roaster and retailer, will take on Starbucks in the new bookstore, which was constructed merely 100 yards away from another Starbucks in Emory Village. You might say the fight is between David and Goliath, plus Goliath’s twin brother.

Thus far, dedicated students and faculty members have put forth tremendous effort to make the most sustainable coffee in Georgia readily available on campus. The presence of educational gardens, regional/local food choices in Dobbs University Center and Cox Hall, a weekly farmers’ market and the continuous brewing of Café Campesino in multiple locales all attest to the administration’s dedication to creating a ‘green’ university.

But criticism of the administration also travels between students and over coffee tables. By giving Starbucks a physical presence within the confines of campus, Emory has risked undermining the very message they send to their students and the public.

For a majority of students, fair trade coffee serves as a rallying point for the uninitiated, those unfamiliar with the fair trade movement. Students, so often sleep deprived, drink coffee in mass quantities for most of the year. It is the energy boost at night and the much-needed wakeup in the morning. For the sake of context, coffee also happens to be the most popular commodity traded fairly.

But what exactly is “fair trade coffee?” Traditionally, coffee farmers live in the poorest regions of the poorest countries of the world. An overwhelming majority of coffee communities are plagued by crushing poverty and powerlessness. Because of political strife or racial discrimination, many farmers struggle to survive, unable to voice their problems to a concerned party.

Fair trade is an alternative movement that began about 30 years ago and aims to change the way international trade is executed. Whereas in free trade the social aspect of production is sacrificed in order to keep prices at the minimum, fair trade has prioritized environmental and humanitarian stewardship. The movement relies upon a direct, mutually beneficial partnership between a producer and a consumer that maintains transparency, dialogue and justice.

In the case of coffee, fair trade depends upon the equitable exchange of the highest quality coffee in return for financial security and the benefits of connections to an ethically engaged company. The fair trade premiums actually cover the cost of production for the coffee farmer and enable them to rise out of poverty. Because fair trade empowers community members, it facilitates local development in a way that can truly and substantially improve the quality of life for everyone.

Large corporations like Starbucks, who wield enormous amounts of power in the coffee industry when it comes to price-setting, have great influence over the abysmal conditions of the coffee world, but most opt to enlist the help of members of the communities, aptly called “coyotes,” to ensure that the coffee farmers receive the absolute lowest price for their coffee. It’s capitalism at its best and its worst.

In other cups, Café Campesino has taken the fair trade approach, one grounded in mutual benefits. And while Starbucks certainly does not have the best reputation in the fair trade coffee world for actively advocating fairness and justice, they have committed themselves to becoming responsible buyers through their “Café Practices” regulations.

It is because of pressure from the fair trade coffee pioneer Equal Exchange that Starbucks began purchasing certified fair trade beans, and because of their great size, the volume they purchase (which is only about 5 percent of their entire volume) has made a noticeable impact on the fair trade market.

So while Starbucks may not completely embrace the principles of the fair trade movement, their purchase of fair trade certified beans has undeniably made a prodigious impact on the lives of many, many farmers.

So the stage is set, and as freshmen take their first steps on campus, the battle between two ideals — one ground in capitalism, the other social responsibility — will begin. But this war has an interesting rule: a third party will decide the victor.

Students, professors and administrators — the people of Emory — will choose a side, aware or not. And which side they take will say much about how sustainable Emory truly is.

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