A while ago I watched a documentary called Black Gold (2006) and have been meaning to write a post about how the film made me think about coffee production and the thoughtlessness of those of us in the West when it comes to purchasing coffee. I was particularly struck by the reaction of the Starbucks company to this documentary.
The documentary follows the efforts of an Ethiopian Coffee Union manager, Tadesse, as he travels around the world trying to obtain a better price for his workers’ coffee beans.
In the documentary we see footage from the New York Board of Trade, a trading floor where the international benchmark of coffee is set each day based on supply and demand. Here the traders have no thought for how this price will affect coffee growers in Ethiopia. There were also interviews with Ethiopian coffee farmers who explained that they would like more money for their coffee in order to build a better school for their children.
The film’s impact
The film had a huge impact on its release. Tadesse’s coffee increased in price from $1.45/lb to a minimum of $2.30/lb, and his Union tripled the amount of money being paid back to 130,000 farmers. The run down school featured in the film was built through donations generated upon the film’s release, approximately $25,000.
The reaction of Starbucks
Starbucks declined to make an executive available for interviews for the film and, when the film premiered in London, Starbucks HQ sent a memo to employees stating that Black Gold was “incomplete and inaccurate”. Thankfully, the memo was leaked, which is how we know about it.
Starbucks and Ethiopian coffee farmers
Through conducting a bit of reading it seems that Starbucks has a history of manipulating and underpaying coffee farmers in developing countries. In 2007, after Black Gold was released, Starbucks tried to use its muscle to block an attempt by Ethiopia’s coffee farmers to copyright their most famous coffee bean types, which denied them potential earnings of £47 million a year. It turns out that whilst Starbucks have now increased their purchase of fair trade coffee, this was only after years of pressure from fair trade groups. Starbucks seem less concerned with the continued poverty brought about through buying non fair trade coffee and more concerned with their own profits.
Other interesting facts about Starbucks and its ethics
There are plenty of ways to buy ethical coffee: