Why Starbucks’ Ethically-Sourced Coffee Matters

Starbucks is no longer the small, specialty coffee shop that came to be in 1971. With over 21,000 stores spread across 65 countries, the company is a global behemoth with a lot of coffee-slinging power, complete with questionable marketing stunts (#RaceTogether anyone?) and criticism for doing away with the little guys.

But sometimes, they still act like that idealistic small coffee shop. Today, Starbucks announced that they've reached a point where 99 percent of their coffee beans are now ethically sourced, the result of a fifteen-year program with Conservation International (CI). To do this, the company and CI worked up an internal standard, the Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) program which teaches farmers to use environmentally responsible growing methods, ensures fair pay and working conditions, and improves local communities' infrastructure. They then were able to purchase equipment needed to implement better growing practices, purchase conservation easements around farms, and capital to expand. All this wasn't cheap: "To date, Starbucks has invested more than $70 million in its comprehensive approach to ethical sourcing," says Craig Russell, executive vice president of global coffee for Starbucks. 

This is no marketing stunt — and the impact is much more than feel-good. First, it allows small farmers to thrive for big business. "A vast majority of the farmers in the system are small operations. This means more local jobs, and offers them the ability to grow higher-quality coffees that have a much smaller ecological footprint," says Bambi Semroc of Conservation International. This, in turn has big environmental consequences, including less pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers used, the restoration of natural forest cover through replanting, and old-growth forests avoiding the slash and burn that comes as a consequence of mismanaged farmland.

The hope is that this more sustainable system spreads beyond Starbucks to coffee everywhere. So far, it's shown promise. "This changes the whole supply chain," says Semroc. "Other farmers see their success and start adopting their methods, and pretty soon whole regions have changed."