Published on Sunday, March 17, 2002 in the Seattle Times
Coffee in Good Conscience
Students Campaign for Roasters to Provide Only 'Fair-Trade' Beans
by Jake Batsell
BELLINGHAM, Washington The papers in Colin McDonald's satchel provide a glimpse into a piping-hot campus cause, one that links the well-being of indigenous coffee farmers to good, old American purchasing power.
McDonald pulls out sheet after sheet of names scrawled in black, red, pink and purple. This winter, he and other students at Western Washington University have gathered more than 2,000 signatures on a petition urging campus food-service officials to re-examine where the university's coffee comes from.
Starbucks serves fair-trade certified drip coffee on campus through Sodexho, the food-services vendor. But with the school considering bids for a new 10-year food-services contract, McDonald and the group he leads, Students for Fair Trade, are pushing for all coffee including decaf and espresso drinks on campus to be fair-trade certified. To be certified, third-party monitors must have confirmed that farmers were paid a fair price for their beans.
Western is one of a growing number of campuses to take up the cause. In the past year, student groups at the University of Puget Sound, the University of Washington and the University of California, Los Angeles, have successfully prodded coffee companies and school officials to brew more fair-trade coffee on campus.
"We're not rallying against (Starbucks) we're not trying to stick it to the man or anything," said McDonald, a sophomore at WWU's Fairhaven College. "We just want the best coffee for people and the environment on campus."
Students who support the fair-trade cause don't have to take part in marches or sit-ins to make their voice heard. They can simply choose to buy coffee that bears the fair-trade certified label or not to buy it if it doesn't.
"This is easy activism," said Matt Warning, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Puget Sound who advised students in their effort last year to persuade Fonté Coffee to switch to fair-trade coffee at the campus cafe.
"A big part of this to me is the political activism, but you also have to recognize the power (students) have through market demand," Warning said. "They are buying a lot of coffee, and they're saying, 'If you can't accommodate us, we'll find another roaster.' "
A glut in the worldwide coffee market has sent prices tumbling in recent years. In coffee-producing countries such as Nicaragua, beans that once sold for $3 a pound now go for less than 50 cents a pound, translating to paltry wages for many farmers.
With fair-trade coffee, farmers are guaranteed a minimum price for their product, currently $1.26 a pound for gourmet arabica beans.
As activists have spotlighted the issue recently, specialty coffee retailers including Starbucks, Seattle's Best and Tully's have increased their fair-trade offerings in the U.S.
At Western, Students for Fair Trade is pressing school officials to pick a vendor that will serve fair-trade decaf and espresso drinks, so all coffee served on campus is fair-trade certified. A decision on the food-services contract is due in April.
McDonald said his group has asked Sodexho and Starbucks to provide fair-trade decaf and espresso, but they aren't available on campus. In January, students threw a "coffee fair" on campus, collecting signatures and inviting eight roasters to brew fair-trade coffee for students.
The fair-trade campaign has resonated with students the 2,123 signatures on the petition amount to more than one-sixth of Western's student body of 12,409. As a comparison, about 900 students voted in last spring's student-body elections.
Nori Yamashita, Sodexho's food-services director at Western, said a January taste test found that customers preferred regular espresso beans to the fair-trade alternative. The company is working with Starbucks and the students on fair trade but has to balance the student group's demands with customer preferences, he said.
"We want to make sure we support their cause, but at the same time, as a service provider, we have to serve everybody," Yamashita said.
Starbucks spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff said Starbucks is working on a decaf version of one of its shade-grown coffees which, while not fair-trade certified, are bought at comparable prices, she said. Once Starbucks begins selling shade-grown decaf, perhaps as early as this summer, the company will make it available to Western.
Last fall, Starbucks said it would encourage college accounts to convert to fair-trade drip coffee by allowing them to switch at no price premium. (Fair-trade coffee is often a few cents more per cup than regular specialty blends.) So far, 46 have converted, bringing Starbucks' tally of fair-trade college accounts to 105 about 25 percent of its total campus accounts, Lincoff said.
Kay Rich, who as director of university residences helps oversee Western Washington's food services, said the decision on the new contract will not hinge on fair-trade. But Rich said the committee awarding the contract will consider each vendor's environmental and human-rights records.
A rising number of student groups across the country are mobilizing around fair-trade coffee. Oakland, Calif.-based TransFair USA, which works with U.S. coffee companies to verify that farmers have received fair-trade wages, has teamed up with Boston-based Oxfam International to publish a fair-trade resource and action guide for campus organizers.
"I think it's a natural fit, when they understand the situation of farmers, for students to want to do something," said Kimberly Easson, TransFair's marketing director.
Warning, the University of Puget Sound professor, said students at the Tacoma campus gathered 700 signatures in three days last spring, representing more than one-fourth of the school's 2,500 students. The campus cafe now sells only fair-trade coffee, including decaf and espresso.
Last fall at the University of Washington, after a group called Students Advocating for Global Equality approached Seattle's Best Coffee and school food-service officials, Seattle's Best came to campus for a pair of promotional fair-trade samplings. The company now offers its fair-trade drip coffee on campus.
"A lot of (students) turn to the fair-trade coffee thing as something concrete that they can do that's not just anti-corporate, but it's also pro, a positive step that they can do," said Deborah James of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based activist group. "It's pro-fair-trade it's not just beating up on somebody."
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company