The Fair Trade campaign hosted an event Tuesday evening where representatives from Starbucks and Pura Vida gathered to discuss and answer questions about their respective Fair Trade and sustainability policies.

The Fair Trade campaign is a joint campaign between Students for Social Justice and Grassroots. Its focus is to improve the Fair Trade options available at UR, primarily by providing students with Fair Trade-certified products such as coffee. The certification ensures that these products follow stringent purchasing practices and protect poor farmers, mostly in Central and Latin America, but also in Africa.

SSJ Executive Board member Abigail Conrad, who moderated the meeting along with SSJ member Daniel Mueller, said that it is important for students to understand the new coffee options, Pura Vida and Starbucks, which are available this year.

“We wanted students to have the chance to learn about the effects that their daily purchases have on the individuals and communities that produce the goods that they buy on campus,” Conrad said. “We think that it is important to be a conscious consumer.”

According to Conrad, SSJ was involved in bringing Pura Vida to Rochester by bringing the students’ support to the attention of the administration. Pura Vida is a relatively new company dedicated to Fair Trade and organic coffee, as well as to building up health and education in the poor areas where it buys its products.

Northeast Sales Manager for Pura Vida John Gruosso said that the company thrives because of colleges. Pura Vida has doubled in size over the past three years, mostly thanks to students who demanded the company’s socially-conscious policies on their campuses.

“Your support helped us get a caf here,” Gruosso said. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for students.”

Conrad said that her group is concerned with Starbucks’ purchasing policies. The company uses a third-party firm, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), to certify its coffee instead of Fair Trade, and uses a purchasing guideline called Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices, or C.A.F.E. According to SCS’s Web site, the firm was hired to refine C.A.F.E. in order to ensure “consistent and verifiable standards for high quality sustainable coffee production.”

However, SSJ worries that Starbucks values quality over sustainability, a practice that ultimately hurts poor farmers and farming communities.

“The C.A.F.E. practices are very vague and seem to be more focused on guaranteeing high quality coffee,” she said. “[That goal] is fine in and of itself; however, Starbucks markets C.A.F.E. as if it encompasses stringent labor and social standards, but it is not clear that that is the case.”

Starbucks, which only buys five percent of its coffee Fair Trade-certified, stands in stark contrast to Pura Vida, which purchases 100 percent Fair Trade-certified products.

At the meeting, representatives of each company spoke shortly about their purchasing policies. This was followed by a question and answer session in which the audience’s queries were overwhelmingly addressed to the Starbucks employees, questioning aspects of their sustainability policies.

Starbucks District Manager Rick Boleto tried to dispel some of the bias against Starbucks. He said that Starbucks takes a holistic approach to purchasing its coffee. The company is concerned with quality over anything else, often donating entire crops that do not meet quality standards. However, Boleto showed that sustainability is an important and consistent goal.

“We continue to buy as much Free Trade coffee as we can,” he said. “But you have to remember, we start with quality. Not all Free Trade coffee is going to meet the quality standards that Starbucks has.” He pointed out that the five percent of coffee that Starbucks buys Fairtrade-certified translated to approximately 18 million pounds in 2007, a substantial portion of the 40 million pounds of coffee that get Fairtrade-certified every year.

Boleto also discussed how Starbucks works in other ways to help out farmers in developing countries. He said that the company builds a certain amount of money – for example, five cents per pound – into certain contracts that are devoted to social development projects. For instance, he recounted a story about a Starbucks-hired dentist who roamed around a coffee plantation in a Winnebago giving free dental care.

Boleto said that Starbucks’ social awareness – combined with other sustainability practices such as environmental improvements, reforms on child labor practices and discrimination practices on farms, economic transparency and programs such as the Continuing Education Initiative – shows Starbucks’ dedication to helping its poorer suppliers.

“All of these work together to generate a system that is beneficial to us because we have a high-quality product, as well as beneficial to the farmers,” he said.

In response to questions about C.A.F.E., Boleto insisted that SCS is as strict as any other certifying firm.

“There are over 100 certifying organizations that verify that farms [use appropriate practices],” he said.

When a student asked about the specific developing regions that Starbucks purchases from, Boleto said that 85 percent of purchased coffee is imported from Latin or Central America. He explained that in African countries like Kenya or Ethiopia, doing deals is more difficult because the coffee trade is controlled by the government. However, he remained optimistic.

“It is likely that soon we will see social development projects in countries like Ethiopia,” he said.

Boleto concluded that Starbucks differs from Pura Vida in that it is a profit-driven business, but it also works to help change the world.

“We are in it for profit and for good,” he said.

Conrad said that she personally would have liked to hear more concrete answers about C.A.F.E. practices and the amount of time and money that Starbucks invests into communities and the farmers that produce its coffee.

“The Starbucks representatives presented the information well and addressed all of the questions that they were asked,” Conrad said. “I just would have liked to get more detailed answers.”

Wrobel is a member of the class of 2010.

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