by Vince Lau
There is not one place in Manhattan where one could not find coffee within a three-block radius. Whether it be at a coffeehouse, a deli, a diner, or at a company that demands a category of its own—Starbucks—Americans never seem to have enough of this versatile beverage. Often times, one can walk out of a Starbucks—after perusing the Sunday Life and Arts section, an overpriced cranberry orange scone, and a lackluster Americano—only to find another Starbucks wooing them across the street. As if we had already forgotten…and yet, we have. Both stores generate nearly the same amount of revenue, record-setting revenues. Many a time people have admitted their dependence on the espresso jolt, sharing how they schedule their entire morning around getting that cup of joe, just the thing to kick-start the day. And if it were merely that, just a means to an end—morning arousal—coffee would never be the superstar it is today. Americans have immortalized the image of coffee to be more than just a part-time treat. Coffee has been polished, laminated, and showcased as a cultural icon alongside the ranks of the Foxtrot, Run DMC, football jerseys, and weight-loss reality shows. Coffee is a fashion statement.
By tapping into this cultural segment, it seems as if companies have all unearthed the flawless profit recipe. But as with any product, even a cultural symbol like coffee, excessive competition calls for differentiation, in price or quality or any niche one can find. The popular dilemma concerns just that, a price race to the bottom, not in the retail prices for coffee, but in the prices those retailers pay for the coffee. Each time we wrap our hands around that warm brew, fork over the deceivingly inconsequential amount in return, we are perpetuating the unfair compensation and treatment of our international coffee-bean farming neighbors. Now if Starbucks, the corporate giant that dines on a full percent of the entire world’s coffee, refuses to pay a certain price for the coffee beans in Ecuador, what choice do the farmers barely scraping by have but to accede? Coffee is the world’s second-largest traded commodity in the world, and coffee wholesalers can choose to take their business anywhere. It is easy to see how this can quickly become a problem, with different countries declaring outrageously low quotes, saving companies like Starbucks millions of dollars a year, and exacerbating third-world crises.
A movement arose: companies and organizations recognized this monopoly and acted out to make coffee trading more “fair.” Europe had been trying the concept since the 1950’s, but the idea really took off in 1988, when fair trade organizations like TransFair were launched to label certain products, certifying them as approved “fair trade products.” The news spread, and consumers were made gradually aware of the ethical program. These past few years, we witnessed the bloom of “fair trade,” when a large section of the population began paying the premium for supporting international farmers, producers without a voice against monopolizing corporations. Fair trade guarantees that these farmers, now spanning over 58 developing countries, are receiving a minimum floor-price for their products, whether it be coffee, rice, fruits, herbs, chocolate, or sugar. Furthermore, the term “fair trade” does not only concern price, but it also promotes fair labor conditions, direct trade, democracy, community development, and environmental sustainability.
It is a great cause; we empower less fortunate farmers and pay them prices that are not “good”, but at least “less outrageous” for their products. But with every good intention in business, there is room for manipulation. Starbucks, responsive and intelligent, realized the redirected market focus, and acted quickly to maintain customer loyalty. After a few years, Starbucks introduced and publicized their new fair-trade certified product. Customers were enthralled, flocking back to the giant’s half-truth. Sure, fair trade coffee is attainable at Starbucks, but not without considerable effort. The company figured that by dedicating one day a month to sell fair trade coffee, they could rack up impressive numbers that demonstrate their “fair trade” participation, but far short of what they could potentially contribute. This strategy, appropriately dubbed “greenwashing,” gives corporations unfair credit for minimal participation. Fighting this is futile; corporations will carry on as they please, and personally, the public does not care enough to do anything about it. Not all customers are unaware that they purchase un-certified fair trade products, but the convenience of that grande caramel macchiato cup stamped with the cultural symbol, a green mermaid, outweighs remote humanity. Interestingly, many of those that have turned towards fair trade products are not consciously making the decision to support humanity, but instead, self-image. Right next to Tisch Hall is one of New York’s most popular fair trade coffee-shops, Think Coffee. Just as the green mermaid has stamped the cups of Americans, Think coffee fair trade labels are being sported by activists and non-activists alike. Greenwashing is frowned upon, but isn’t the manipulation of a humanitarian gesture into an accessory also just as bad? Have fair-trade and organic products already become fashion statements? Cultural ornaments? These trends are inevitable, but unlike the pretty green mermaid, at least this fashion statement has a purpose.