It’s all in the name – Coffee companies in hot water.

Starbucks. Star + bucks. It’s all in the name. Alongside the popular joke ‘COST-A-packet’ or ‘COST-A-fortune’, whichever you prefer, there is a deeply rooted problem in the coffee industry.

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, second only to crude oil, and the populations of the developed world depend on coffee to fuel their bodies just as much as they rely on petrol to fuel their cars.

With over two billion cups of coffee drank across the globe every day, coffee is big business. People have to pay a premium for such addictions – look at rising tobacco prices, the inflated illegal drugs markets, but as in these lucrative industries, the only people reaping the riches from the west’s fad-crazed obsession with coffee is those at the end of the production chain.

Ethiopia is one of many African countries dependent on coffee as a primary product for income. In Ethiopia fifteen million people rely on the industry for a living, and the production of coffee accounts for nearly 70% of the country’s GDP. After the International Coffee Agrment fell in 1989, the countries farmers have experienced a 30 year low in market prices that are decided from the stock exchanges of London and New York – worlds away from the glum reality of poverty that the coffee producers face.

Farmers are stuck in a poverty trap, mis/un-informed about the correct prices for their produce, and shocked to find out that an average cup of coffee in the west costs about £2.50+, of this figure they receive between 1-3%, with the retailers, roasters and importers keeping 90%. In real terms, this would mean that on average it would take a coffee farmer over a month to be able to afford a cup of coffee made with their beans.

The documentary film Black Gold, follows Tadesse Meskela, the manager of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union that represents over 74,000 farmers. Mr Meskela found that on a trip to a western supermarket, his coffee was misleadingly packaged, with the origin of production in very small print, and the fair-trade logo displayed on a supermarket’s own brand coffee – for which his beans were used. These beans were processed in a plant where hundreds of women are paid less than half a dollar a day to pick out the bad beans from the good before exportation. These women are one component of the six part chain that is the coffee industry, from farmer to you the consumer – capitalism at its best.

All of this is to facilitate the coffee dependency of the west and the culture that has sprung up around it thanks to transnational corporations like Starbucks. The pinnacle of this new culture is the World Barista Championships which is held annually to ‘promote excellence in coffee, advancing the barista profession, and engaging a worldwide audience’. This pretentious event idolises Ethiopian coffee as ‘the best in the business’. If this is the case, why can’t the people responsible for cultivating this magical product be paid a fair price so that rich western coffee-toffs can sup with a clear conscience – oh that’s right because they don’t have one.

Although Costa, and Starbucks may charge us the consumer a reasonable amount for a coffee, this money does not get back to the start of the chain no matter how much fair-trade marketing spiel is stuck on the label. It is all in the name: these companies are making star bucks off the backs of an exploited population and their clientele’s naivety. True fair trade will cost-a lot more, and without consumer action and international recognition through bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, it won’t be in the ne(a)r-o future.


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