Starbucks Logo - © Starbucks

Starbuck’s ‘Ethical Sourcing’ Claim Under Scrutiny

Starbucks had prided itself on the ‘ethical sourcing’ of its coffee. But a leading US consumer coalition is questioning that commitment. And showcasing what it calls ‘documented, severe human rights and labour abuses’.

Starbuck's Coffee Farmer - © Starbuck'sA Starbuck’s coffee farmer.

Starbucks has long claimed it is supporting coffee producers and suppliers it uses. Every bag of Starbuck’s coffee bears the words: “Committed to 100% ethical coffee sourcing.”

But, as my mother has been telling me my whole life: “Simply saying a thing is so doesn’t make it so!”

A gauntlet thrown down

The US National Consumers League (NCL), claims that consumers have been mislead. And according to NBC News it’s filed a major lawsuit in Washington, DC, claiming, “human rights and labor abuses on specific coffee and tea farms in Guatemala, Kenya and Brazil, and alleges that Starbucks has continued to purchase from these suppliers in spite of the documented violations.”

“On every bag of coffee and box of K-cups that Starbucks sells, Starbucks is heralding its commitment to 100% ethical sourcing,” said NCL CEO Sally Greenberg. “But it’s pretty clear that there are significant human rights and labor abuses across Starbucks’ supply chain.”

The gauntlet picked up

The company is pushing back on NCL’s claims, saying it takes the allegations very seriously. “We are aware of the lawsuit, and plan to aggressively defend against the asserted claims that Starbucks has misrepresented its ethical sourcing commitments to customers,” a Starbucks spokesperson said.

“Each supply chain is required to undergo reverification regularly and we remain committed to working with our business partners to meet the expectations detailed in our Global Human Rights Statement, (GHRS)” Starbucks said, in a separate statement.

The commitment

In 2020, Starbuck’s President and CEO Kevin Johnson signed the GHRS, laying out in detail the company’s commitment to support human rights everywhere it does business.

The statement’s preamble sets the tone of the entire 5-page, single-spaced document: “At Starbucks, we’ve always been about more than just the coffee. We are about humanity. It is a fundamental belief at the heart of Our Mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

In the GHRS, itself, the commitment is further defined: “Aligned with this belief, we are committed to ongoing human rights due diligence and assessing and reporting our continuous improvement transparently through publicly available documents, such as our Global Social Impact Reports, our Civil Rights Assessments and our Environmental Impact Analysis.”

Not just Starbuck’s

Rainforest Alliance, one of the third-party groups that certifies Starbuck’s tea and coca supply chains as ethical and sustainable, was sued in D.C. in 2021 by another wathdog group, claiming, “false and deceptive marketing,” of Hershey’s cocoa as, “100 percent certified and sustainable.”

“There is this huge pile of evidence that shows that the mechanisms that [certifiers are] relying on to address problems like forced labor, child labor, gender based violence, are extremely flawed and not working very well,” Genevieve LeBaron, Director of the School of Public Policy at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, told NBC.

We have incident after incident that’s uncovered in these supply chains. And still, companies go around and make these kinds of claims that they have 100 percent sustainable or ethical sourcing” LeBaron added, whose research into cocoa and tea has shown that the prevalence and severity of labor violations on certified and uncertified farms was ‘basically identical’.

My take

It appears that breaches of human rights commitments are a much bigger problem than the retailers who front them would have us believe.

It’s definitely an issue we’ll be following more closely in future…

~ Maggie J.