According to the Fair Trade Federation, coffee is the world’s second-most valuable traded commodity, behind petroleum. It is also one of the most fairly traded products. Fair Trade refers to an equitable and fair partnership between businesses and organizations in North America and producers in the developing world.
Many educational institutions, places of worship and even towns currently pride themselves on their Fair Trade certification, but until recently, this has not been the case for Cornell. It was student organizing that took Cornell from a 0 percent Fair Trade campus to a majority Fair Trade campus.
“[The Cornell Organization for Labor Action] was the first to go to Cornell with the idea of Fair Trade,” said COLA member Nina Hudson Fixell ’07.
“Cornell Dining has offered some level of Fair Trade coffee since 2001. In the first year of this initiative, the offerings were quite limited because demand was low and there was a price differential for this coffee from our vendor,” said Colleen Wright-Riva, director of Cornell Dining and Retail Services.” Consumers did not want to pay extra for the Fair Trade coffee.”
Over time, Cornell Dining has worked with Seattle’s Best to add more varieties and to minimize any cost differential for Fair Trade coffee. Presently, Cornell Dining pays the same for Fair Trade coffee as it does for other coffee products.
“In large part this was possible because pressure from [COLA] forced Seattle’s Best to offer Cornell more Fair Trade coffee at the same price,” said Fixell. “Without the education campaigns, petitions collected and meetings held, this never would have been possible.”
According to Wright-Riva, Fair Trade coffee is currently available at all Cornell Dining locations across campus. Cornell has partnered with Pura Vida for coffee service at all eight residential dining halls and with Seattle’s Best for all retail dining locations or cafés.
“Currently, all coffee in dining halls is Fair Trade, all espresso drinks are made with Fair Trade, nearly all of the cafés are 100 percent Fair Trade [excluding Libe and Tower cafés] and, in the non-100 percent Fair Trade cafés, all but three blends of coffee are [certified],” said Fixell.
Josh Ogle ’08 explained that he did not consider Fair Trade as a factor when buying coffee at his favorite study location, Libe Café.
“I don’t choose where I buy coffee based on whether or not it’s Fair Trade; it’s more for the convenience factor,” said Ogle.
Seattle’s Best has been Cornell Dining's coffee provider since 2001, and the contract has been renewed several times.
“Cornell Dining will re-examine its coffee program during the fall semester of ’07,” said Wright-Reva.
When talking with possible vendors, Cornell Dining strives to find high quality coffee products, a commitment to exceptional service, a competitive price, the ability to meet very high supply levels, a commitment to Fair Trade products and outreach to students on issues around Fair Trade, such as grower practices and adequate wages.
According to Fixell, Seattle’s Best does not meet these requirements.
“We don’t want Seattle’s Best to continue as [Cornell’s] coffee provider because they are a subsidiary of Starbucks, a company whose public image is one of corporate social responsibility, but whose reality is something quite different,” Fixell said.
According to Oxfam, an international NGO dedicated to fighting poverty, Starbucks bullies the poor. Fixell cited instances of injustice abroad, at home and right here in Ithaca.
Oxfam has called on Starbucks to sign agreements recognizing Ethiopia’s right to control the use of their coffees’ trademarks — rights that will strengthen Ethiopia’s negotiating position with coffee buyers so that they can have a fairer share of profits from their coffee sales.
“Starbucks first blatantly opposed and then refused to sign the agreements, a measure which Oxfam estimates deprives Ethiopia of almost $90 million in coffee revenue a year,” Fixell said.
“Starbucks is the largest purchaser of coffee in the world, [yet] only six percent of the coffee it buys is Fair Trade. The remaining 94 percent of the coffee they buy is purchased at market prices which often are not enough for the production costs to the growers.”
With two new locations in The Commons and in Collegetown and further plans for growth, some feel Starbucks threatens to monopolize the coffee business in Ithaca.
“[In the U.S.] while Starbucks has convinced the nation they are a worker-friendly company … they have consistently broken the law with impunity to stop workers from organizing unions to improve their working conditions,” Fixell said.
Starbucks customer Eva Olesky ’09 discussed this allegation.
“I think that’s the mentality of Starbucks and big business everywhere,” said Olesky. “They can come in and easily wipe out the Gimme! Coffees of an area.”
When asked about their employers’ practices, Collegetown Starbucks baristas declined comment, explaining Starbucks’ employee practice of referring all media related questions to Alta Communications, the company’s public relations firm.
The firm was not immediately available for comment.
COLA would like to see Cornell replace Seattle’s Best with a new company that prioritizes Fair Trade concerns, such as Ithaca's own Gimme! Coffee.
Starbucks customer Stephanie Casella ’09 had no knowledge of the accusations brought against Starbucks; instead, she quickly suggested another coffee company.
“As a Vermonter, I think that Cornell should bring Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to campus,” said Casella.
Wright-Reva gave no indication of Cornell’s intent in regard to the approaching fall ’07 contract decision.
“Cornell Dining will continue to evaluate its existing program and any future programs to increase Fair Trade items whenever feasible,” said Wright-Reva. “[We must consider] client and customer preferences … when we determine whether a location will be exclusively Fair Trade or whether we will offer other items to compliment the Fair Trade selection."