Dan Welch asks which of the high street coffee chains can tell ethical standards from a frappuccino grande.
Walk down your local high street and you’re quite likely to be presented with a choice between the big three coffee shop chains in the UK – Starbucks, Costa or Caffè Nero. Their ubiquity is a classic example of what the New Economics Foundation calls Clone Town Britain, where the same corporate logos offer the same choice wherever you go. It’s easy to forget that the brand-name coffee shops only really took off in the UK in the mid '90s, with Whitbread acquiring Costa in 1995, Coffee Republic founded in 1995 and Caffè Nero in 1997.
Let’s be fair, these companies aimed to bring Italian style coffee to the British high street. And their espresso-based coffee, reliably decent snacks and faux-bohemian ethos were a welcome addition to many. The market doubled in value in the latter years of the last decade and bucked the recession with sales growth of 12.9% in 2010.(16) The march of the logos continues apace, with around 4,000 ‘brand’ coffee shops in the UK.
The market is dominated by Costa with a 37% share, Starbucks on 23% and Caffè Nero on 14%, with the rest a few per cent each.(16)
Of course these days there are plenty of other places to get a real coffee – McDonalds actually sells more coffee than any other company in the UK. Restaurants, pubs and in-store cafés like M&S Revive (which deserves a mention as an early adopter of exclusively Fairtrade coffee) vie for the caffeine pound. As do sandwich shops like Eat and Pret A Manger (readers might be interested to know McDonalds no longer has a stake in Pret – but Goldman Sachs does). If you can tear yourself away from their petit bourgeois allure, you could pop down the road to Greggs the bakers which, unlike Costa and Caffè Nero, sells 100% Fairtrade coffee. And just remember – a Greggs’ sausage roll has less calories than a Starbucks’ venti Dark Berry Mocha Frappuccino.(17) In this report though, we’ve stuck to rating the coffee shops proper that you’ll find in the high street or at the station.
Rating the Companies
All of the companies on the table have Habitats & Resources marks due to selling food containing tuna or other fish without sustainable sourcing policies. AMT Coffee told us their tuna was Earth Island Institute ‘dolphin-safe’ however as we reported in our Tinned Tuna buyers' guide (in EC124) this does not address wider sustainability concerns.
We are applying Genetic Engineering marks stringently where companies do not explicity source organic or have policies addressing the growing problem of Genetically Modified (GM) animal feed in their key dairy or meat supply chains (see Friends of the Earth’s contribution to Supermarkets buyers' guide, EC128). We have applied this even in the case of Whitbread, which has an explicit no-GM policy (but the issue of feed is not addressed). A 2008 Soil Association report estimated that around 60% of the maize and 30% of the soya in the animal feed used by non-organic dairy and pig farmers in the UK is GM.
The Animal Rights marks relate to the sale of meat products and all of the Human Rights marks on the table are due to companies having operations in Ethical Consumer’s ‘Oppressive Regime’ list.
With the honourable exception of Costa-owner Whitbread (and to a lesser extent Starbucks) the sector is notable for a lamentable lack of public policies on Environmental Reporting and labour rights in Supply Chain Management. For multi-billion pound operations like Arab Investments, SSP and the Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group, there is no excuse for this failure.
Fairtrade at Starbucks or Rainforest Alliance at Costa?
With Fairtrade coffee first launched in the UK in 1994, the lack of a sustained uptake by coffee chains (Best Buy AMT Coffee excepted) has been lamentable. Since the end of 2009 Starbucks has gone Fairtrade in the UK and Ireland, becoming the largest buyer of Fairtrade coffee in the world. And since last year all Costa’s coffee in the UK is Rainforest Alliance certified. The choice on your high street may very well be between the two.
Is Rainforest Alliance Fairtrade-lite? Or is that unfair? This is not the place for a detailed comparison but both schemes do involve minimum social, labour and environmental standards. The key difference is that Fairtrade guarantees a minimum price and tracks slightly above market rates (see diagram below), plus a ‘Fairtrade premium’ that can be invested in projects that enhance social, economic and environmental development. It does not guarantee an escape from poverty, but it has hugely helped millions of small-holding farmers. And in the case of coffee, small-scale farmers are organized into co-operatives which administer the Fairtrade premium (standards for hired plantation labour exist for other commodities such as tea).
Ethical Consumer considered giving Rainforest Alliance a half mark for Product Sustainability to differentiate it from coffee where no ethical standards are guaranteed. However, the Rainforest Alliance label only guarantees that 30% of coffee beans in a product have been certified and for this reason we decided a Product Sustainability mark was inappropriate.
Ethical consumers will, of course, want to support coffee producers with Fairtrade, but they might want to spare a thought for the poverty wages and right to organise of the coffee shop worker too. If the choice on the high street was between a Fairtrade espresso from union-busting, US military-supplying, trademark colonialists Starbucks and a Rainforest Alliance espresso from Costa, I know which side of the street I’d choose.
It’s a sign of how Fairtrade has entered consumer consciousness that three of the brands reviewed felt the need to put ‘Fair Trade’ prominently on their websites without actually selling Fairtrade coffee.
Coffee Republic’s website states: “Is our Coffee Fair Trade or fairly traded? We offer a number of fair-trade products and our coffee is fairly traded.” Before offering a link asking, “What does this mean?” Ethical Consumer is still wondering.
The page goes on to say: “Coffee Republic maintains strong ethical trading links, including fair trade links” – noting …“independently audited”…“trade as fairly and ethically as possible”… “strictly monitored and reported”.(18) Coffee Republic does not sell Fairtrade certified coffee and was unable to clarify what any of these claims referred to. While it is possible for coffee companies to conduct ethical trade with coffee growers outside of Fairtrade the onus is on them to demonstrate how.
While Puccino’s also prominently use the term ‘Fair Trade’, it does have the good grace to acknowledge it does not source Fairtrade coffee (spot the difference?).(19)
Caffè Nero on the other hand not only doesn’t explain what it means putting Fair Trade Coffee as the top link on its main coffee page but actually acknowledges not all its coffee is even ‘traceable’ – in other words, it is bought on the open market with no way of knowing how it was produced.(23) Beyond noting that, no, it didn’t sell Fairtrade certified coffee, Caffè Nero also couldn’t provide us with any information regarding its spurious ‘Fair Trade’ claims.
We asked Richard Anstead, Head of Product Management at the Fairtrade Foundation, what he made of these weasel words. He replied diplomatically: “Our research shows consumers value clear information regarding the sourcing of their coffee. The value of the Fairtrade mark is to provide a clear indication to consumers that there is a transparent certification process guaranteeing the source of the product. We’d welcome the chance to work with Coffee Republic and Caffè Nero”.
BBs, Costa, Coffee Republic and Soho have a mix of direct-owned and franchise operations. All of Puccino’s are franchises.
Best Buy AMT Coffee was the first UK coffee shop to go 100% Fairtrade with its coffee and offer 100% organic milk. Founded in 1992 in Oxford, the company has over 70 sites in the UK, mainly in stations and airports, but also on the high street.
AMT Coffee’s Chief Operating Officer Jon Hassall told us: “We always source locally and ethically where we can and Fairtrade where quality products are available. We recently went to our supplier Cadburys and asked them to produce Fairtrade Hot Chocolate for us, which we’re now stocking”. They sell their own brand Fairtrade products (eccles cake and chocolate brownie recommended), as well as other brands, such as our Best Buy orange juice from the Natural Beverage Company.
Jon told Ethical Consumer that after a large number of customers told them they felt it was not appropriate for the company to stock Nestlé’s Kit Kat, AMT Coffee removed it from their coffee bars – and advertised the fact to their customers.
They even supplied a free coffee to any customers presenting them with a movie ticket for Black Gold, the documentary about the coffee trade Ethical Consumer reported on in 2009.
Sandwich ingredients include 100% free range eggs. The marks on the table are because the company doesn’t produce an environment report (we’re told it’s something they are working on) and because it does sell products containing meat (not guaranteed free range).
In 2009 BBs Coffee & Muffins went into administration and Kapelad Ltd was set up by BB’s previous directors to run around half of its coffee shops.
Caffè Ritazza is a brand of SSP Group (which also owns Upper Crust) with a turnover of £1.5bn and 2,000 outlets worldwide mainly at airports and railway stations. SSP in turn is owned by private equity group EQT Partners, which owns dozens of companies worldwide, including everything from a US power station, to Chinese pharmacies, and the world’s largest scientific publisher. SSP also owns the small but growing Soho Coffee Company chain which specialises in organic and Fairtrade.
Caffè Nero, the third largest chain in the UK, remains independent and is run by its founder, Gerry Ford, with around 500 outlets in the UK and £142m turnover. Caffè Nero’s parent company Saratoga Ltd is incorporated in the Isle of Man, which Ethical Consumer considers to be a tax haven.
Coffee Republic was founded by brother and sister Bobby and Sahar Hashemi who wrote a book, ‘Anyone Can Do It’, about the experience. The company also ran into problems in 2009 and was taken over by Arab Investments, the company behind the 945 foot ‘Pinnacle’ development in London, as well as owning office blocks in the City of London and Mayfair, and property throughout Europe.
Costa is owned by Whitbread the UK’s largest hotel and restaurant group, with a turnover of £1.4bn and over 880 Costas in the UK. Its brands – like Premier Inn, Beefeater and Table Table – aren’t those you’d immediately associate with ethical consumerism, so it’s a pleasant surprise that in 2009 the company launched a corporate responsibility programme. The new strategy demonstrates best practice in a number of areas, such as assessing supply chain impacts and including social and environmental indicators in incentives for staff. The company has solid environmental targets, such as to reduce CO2 emissions by 26% by 2020 with year on year reductions. Whitbread’s flagship green Premier Inn has a carbon footprint 81% lower and a water footprint 66% lower than average and serves as a test bed for company-wide improvements. Most impressive is its approach to the complex issues of labour rights in Supply Chain Management, which earns the company Best Rating under the new criteria Ethical Consumer has adopted. Since May 2010 100% of UK Costa’s coffee was Rainforest Alliance certified (and 70% in all international operations with a goal of 100%).
Puccino’s is a franchise operation owned by the largest private coffee company in the world, the Italian based Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group (MZBG). With a turnover of $1.2bn, MZBG sees fit to locate its holding company in the tax haven of Luxembourg. With plantations in Brazil and Costa Rica, MZBG also operates 11 roasting plants worldwide and a Swiss coffee trading company. Its Segafredo Zanetti espresso brand claims to be the most popular in the world with 50 million cups drunk daily. Family head Massimo Zanetti recently saved Bologna FC from bankruptcy.
Not for want of trying, Ethical Consumer could find no criticism of workers’ rights relating to MZBG. Nor could we obtain any policies safeguarding workers rights from the company that claims to own the largest coffee plantation in the world.
Starbucks (Or ‘America’s Favourite Drug Dealer’ as the ‘Starbucks Gossip’ website calls it). Despite providing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp with Starbucks coffee kiosks(1)...Despite what the US National Lawyers Guild called its “relentless and illegal anti-union campaign” and “retaliatory firing” of union organisers(2)...Despite six settlements in three years for complaints to the US National Labor Relations Board of violating workers’ rights(3)...Despite providing its US staff with worse health care coverage than Wal-Mart and recently doubling health insurance costs(4)...Despite refusing for six years to give in to pressure from campaigners to ban the genetically engineered artificial ‘recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone’ from its dairy supply chain(5)...Despite criticism for what the World Cancer Research Fund called the “alarming” sale of iced coffee containing over a quarter of a woman’s daily calorie requirement(6)...Despite what Oxfam claimed was obstruction by lobbying against Ethiopia’s trademark applications for its traditional coffee varieties to boost income for some of the world’s poorest coffee growers(7)...Despite increasing CEO Howard Schultz’s income by 25% in 2009, a year in which the company slashed costs by $580 million, partly by reducing its work force by 19%(8)...Despite a US court ordering the company to pay more than $100 million into the accounts of its low wage staff in California after ruling that it had improperly required the workers to share tips with their bosses(9)...Despite petitioning a US Federal Judge to allow the past sexual history of a 16 year old former employee to be revealed in court after she went public over the company’s alleged “failure to act” in a case of aggravated sexual harassment, before settling out of court(10)... Starbucks somehow manages to maintain an image amongst a considerable number of consumers that it is simply a scaled up version of a bohemian Seattle coffee shop selling fairly-traded artisan coffees.
And despite all of the above it took allegations in the Sun in 2008 that the company was wasting 23.4m litres of water every day (enough to fill the ubiquitous Olympic pool “every 83 minutes”)(11) due to running a tap in-store non-stop, to dent the brand’s reputation in the UK.
Since then, with a multi-million pound advertising campaign stressing the company’s ethical credentials, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the company had gone entirely Fairtrade. For the record, Starbucks is now the largest purchaser of Fairtrade certified coffee in the world and since the end of 2009 all of its espresso-based drinks (ie. the vast majority) in the UK and Ireland are 100% Fairtrade.
In the US, where consumers are far less attuned to the Fairtrade message, it’s another story. In the early 2000s the US Organic Consumers’ Association (OCA) was encouraging a boycott until the company stocked Fairtrade coffee in all its stores, improved working conditions for its coffee plantation workers and stopped “loading up its coffee drinks with bovine-growth-hormone-tainted milk”.(12) By 2006 the OCA was no longer calling for a boycott, instead calling on consumers to force Starbucks to stick to its offer of brewing a Fairtrade coffee in any of its stores on request.13 The OCA continues to criticise Starbucks for dragging its feet on Fairtrade on the American side of the Atlantic.(14)
The figure for the proportion of Fairtrade in the company’s overall coffee sourcing since its UK Fairtrade announcement was unavailable at the time of writing. In 2009, prior to the announcement, it was a little over 10%.(15)
Starbucks also has its own internal ‘ethical sourcing scheme’. The scheme, which it calls CAFE certification, was launched in 2004 and has measurable standards for: how much of the price Starbucks pays reaches the farmer; some minimal workers’ rights; and environmental criteria. It earns a ‘Worst’ in our updated Supply Chain Management category. In 2009, when it last reported, Starbucks had still only applied CAFE to 81% of its coffee purchases, and with a target of 100% by 2015 we’re unimpressed by its ambition to implement these weak standards.
Of course coffee isn’t the only thing the biggest coffee shop chain in the world buys. With a turnover around £6.8bn it could be a significant force in pushing up standards. Instead, its ‘Social Responsibility Standards,’ applied to all the goods and services it sources, is rudimentary, offering even weaker protection of workers than its CAFE standards.
Starbucks rates better in our Environmental Reporting category narrowly missing getting a best rating because no independent verification of its report was evidenced.
Church of Life After Shopping reverend jailed for exorcising Starbucks cash till
The Reverend Billy’s Church of Life After Shopping – a radical gospel choir lead by an anti-consumerist preacher – certainly puts the fear of God into Starbucks. Starbucks supposedly circulated a memo to US managers titled “What should I do if Reverend Billy is in my store?” after the Church targeted it with ‘retail interventions’.
The coffee shop behemoth took umbrage at the Reverend’s impromptu in-store sermons. And in 2004 the subversive preacher was prosecuted after he exorcised a Starbucks cash register in an attempt to, as he put it, “reverse its flow” and send its “sinful cash back to the coffee families in Guatemala and sourthern Mexico”.(21)
Offered a $100 fine if he pleaded guilty to “obstructing a lawful business” the Rev Billy opted for a baptism of fire (and media attention for the cause) with three days in the notoriously violent LA County Correctional Facility. According to the Reverend, perplexed gang members interviewed him about his crime, at first suspecting the ‘blond-Elvis’ performance-activist was a cop. But when he explained to them his protest against corporate greed and the poverty of Latin American coffee farmers he was assigned a gang bodyguard to protect him from other inmates and the nickname ‘Starbuck’. “I wasn’t telling them something they didn’t know,” according to the Rev. Billy, who speculated that some of the gang members probably had relatives working in those very coffee bean fields.(22)
Reverend Billy is apparently banned by the company from every Starbucks in the world, as well as being subject to a court ruling specifying a 250 yard exclusion zone from every Starbucks in California – which, anti-corporate activists www.starbuckscoffee.org.uk note is “a land mass the size of the Island of Hawaii, and effectively eliminates passage through Los Angeles International Airport”.(21)
References 1 Nick Turse, ‘The Complex: How the military invades our everyday lives’ (Faber, 2008) 2 www.nlg.org/news/statements/StarbucksUnion2006.htm (viewed 25/01/07) 3 www.starbucksunion.org/node/2130 (viewed 15/01/11) 4 www.starbucksunion.org/node/1173 (viewed 15/01/11) 5 www.organicconsumers.org/bytes/ob117.cfm#5 (viewed 15/01/11) 6 BBC www.bbc.co.uk:Iced coffees ‘a meal in a drink’ (26 July 2009) 7 www.bbc.co.uk:Starbucks strikes Ethiopia deal (3 March 2007) 8 Seattle Times:Howard Schultz’s pay increased 25 percent in 2009 (22 January 2010) 9 San Francisco Chronicle: ‘ $100 million tip for Starbucks servers’ (12 June 2008) 10 ww.starbucksunion.org:www.starbucksunion.org/node/712 (viewed 15/01/11) 11 www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/oct/06/water.drought 12 Ecologist, The:33/4 (1 May 2003) 13 www.organicconsumers.org/starbucks/index.cfm (15 December 2006) 14 www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_22327.cfm (viewed 15/01/11) 15 www.starbucks.com/responsibility (viewed 15/01/11) 16 www.allegrastrategies.com 17 Greggs’ sausage roll 320 calories sources; Starbucks’ ‘venti’ Dark Berry Mocha Frappuccino 561 calories: www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/aug/11/greggs-the-bakers; news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8168142.stm 18 www.coffeerepublic.co.uk/our-coffee.php 19 www.puccinosworldwide.com/puccinos_fair_trade_coffee_shop_franchise.asp 20 ‘Silent invasion: the hidden use of GM crops in livestock feed’ 21 www.starbuckscoffee.org.uk/sos/revbilly 22 www.thevillager.com/villager_81/whythismanhatesstarbucks.htm 23 www.Caffènero.com/NeroCoffee.asp?Section=FairTradeCoffee.