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Small roasters criticise Fairtrade as Starbucks goes ethical

04 September 2009 by
Small roasters criticise Fairtrade as Starbucks goes ethical

Starbucks announced at the beginning of September that all espresso-based drinks in its British and Irish coffee-houses will be made from Fairtrade coffee, and announced to the marketing press that it would be embarking on a ‘multi-million pound' billboard, poster and press campaign to reinforce its ethical values.

Curiously, at exactly the same time as Starbucks made its move, the Fairtrade Foundation came under criticism from British coffee roasters for increasing its administrative demands on them.

Costa scored a great deal of attention with its poster campaign claiming that surveys had proved consumers enjoyed its coffee more than Starbucks, the trade has been waiting to see what the 'green giant' would do to fight back. Word had already leaked out through the beverage trade that the Fairtrade move was coming.

Starbucks will now become the biggest buyer of Fairtrade coffee in the world, doubling the amount of certified coffee it bought in 2008 to a new total of 40 million pounds.

Colman Cuff, chief coffee buyer for Starbucks, was in the UK to make the announcement, and was invited by Coffee House magazine to address one of the major complaints raised by the coffee trade - that there just is not sufficient Fairtrade-certified coffee is satisfactory quality available for Starbucks, never mind the rest of the hospitality industry.

He replied that Starbucks has worked to have more farms certified, to make enough supplies available. Farms from which it previously bought uncertified coffee have now been brought under the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation regulations, so he can effectively keep buying the same coffee, which now qualifies for the Fairtrade Mark.

"We have brought several new co-ops into Fairtrade - they were existing suppliers of ours, which is how we have managed to keep consistency of the blend and enough quantity."

One sour comment from a small British roaster was that if Starbucks were to go all-Fairtrade, there would be none left for anyone else.

"I don't believe it," replied Colman Cuff. "The amount of Fairtrade coffee out there is huge, and we have brought more in - we're not taking it off the table for everybody else."

Immediately afterwards, Starbucks announced the advertising campaign promoting its ethical values. The artwork for this shows two themes - the very neat wordplay of 'we've always been crazy for coffee… now we're certified', and the one which is the nearest the chain has come to a direct response to the Costa campaign, 'if your coffee's not perfect… you're clearly not in Starbucks'.

However, elsewhere in the market, Starbucks was again reported as having hired a property company, CB Richard Ellis, to dispose of 50 unprofitable British sites.

By contrast, Costa's property director told Property Week that his chain was proposing to expand further. He pointed to Costa's 'meal deal' (a coffee and a panini for a set price of £4.95) as having set a new target in coffee-bar strategy.

Starbucks protested that is still expanding in the UK, especially in different formats - the drive-thru in Cardiff and its two 'drive-to' sites -former Little Chef sites or similar.

An interesting comment in Property Week said that 'as more pubs and greasy spoons disappear, the winners could be the clever coffee shops that offer a combination that pub, greasy spoon café and traditional coffee shop did not'.

As Starbucks fully embraced Fairtrade coffee, several roasters in the UK complained about the Fairtrade Foundation's proposed new administrative guidelines, which the roasters will complain puts too heavy a paperwork burden on them. Roasters have always complained that the Foundation is 'over-bureaucratic' - the Foundation in return always claims that its audit trail has to be absolutely accurate.

One small roaster in the north of England complained that big operations, such as Starbucks, can deploy dedicated staff to handling the Fairtrade paperwork, but that a tiny operation such as his cannot do so.

He said: "They are going to disqualify many small roasters from working with Fairtrade at all. Big roasters have the staff to handle this - but for the rest of us, this now gives the perverse situation of Fairtrade only wanting to work with little operators overseas, and big ones here."

By Ian Boughton

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