March 16, 2004
Starbucks Provides Loan Capital for Coffee Farmers
by William Baue
Starbucks is providing a $1 million loan to the Calvert Foundation to support microfinance to Latin
American coffee farmers, and it answers critics of its Fair Trade commitment.
Late last week, Starbucks (ticker: SBUX) announced its distribution of
a $1 million, 2-percent, 3-year loan to the Calvert Social Investment Foundation to support
microfinance to Latin American coffee farmers. The Calvert Foundation funneled this funding to
growers in two ways.
First, it disbursed some through EcoLogic Finance, a Massachusetts-based
nonprofit that provides microfinance loans to eco-enterprises in Latin America. Second, the
foundation provided financing to 3 cooperatives in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Nicaragua, which support
10,000 members collectively. The co-ops engage in Fair Trade certification, a program that
guarantees coffee farmers a fair price while also encouraging social and environmental
"Timely access to supplier credit is an essential ingredient to the
success of Fair Trade, and our collaboration with Starbucks helps us open the way for thousands of
small-scale farmers and their families to benefit from better schools, healthcare and social
services," said Shari Berenbach, executive director of the Calvert Foundation. "Starbucks has
taken a leadership position in corporate social responsibility by demonstrating what a company can
do to be a good global citizen."
In the months leading up to harvest, small-scale coffee
farmers' financial reserves from last harvest often fall short, impinging their ability to see
their crops through or feed their families. Typically, farmers must turn to local banks or money
lenders that often charge exorbitant interest rates. Fair Trade addresses this problem through
what is called prefinancing, whereby purchasers pay in advance a percentage of the price to the
grower to help them bridge the financial gap until harvest revenues arrive.
Starbucks loan seeks to address this problem in a slightly different way. Instead of directly
prefinancing its contracts with growers, it provides an infusion of capital into the microfinance
community, which in turn provides financing to farmers at more reasonable interest rates than they
could access on their local market--half-year, 5-percent loans (10 percent per annum), in this
"I applaud Starbucks, as any dollar that you give to a farmer at a time of crisis
is an important dollar," said Dean Cycon, CEO of Massachusetts-based Dean's Beans, a roaster that deals exclusively in organic
Fair Trade coffee. "However, I don't see this loan as a serious socially responsible commitment."
Dean's Beans is currently running an advertising campaign that calls into question large
coffee roasters such as Starbucks that devote relatively small percentages of the coffee they
purchase to Fair Trade. According to Starbucks spokesperson Megan Behrbaum, Starbucks has
purchased more than 4 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified coffee since 2000. According to Mr.
Cycon, approximately 1 percent of Starbucks coffee is Fair Trade certified.
"How do you
decide which farmer to treat fairly?" asked Mr. Cycon. "I see this phenomenon of paying only a
small percentage of your farmers a fair wage as a redistribution of wealth from the south to the
north: if you look at how much money Starbucks made by not paying a fair wage, then the $1
million looks like peanuts."
Fair Trade certification guarantees a price of $1.26 for
coffee, or $1.41 for organic coffee. Three years ago, Mr. Cycon points out, the market price for
specialty coffee was $2; now the price is 60 cents. So coffee companies can buy Fair Trade
certified coffee and still pay significantly less than they did three years for specialty coffee
that was not Fair Trade certified, Mr. Cycon reasons.
However, Ms. Behrbaum points out the
challenges of a large company like Starbucks buying Fair Trade certified coffee.
Trade system currently includes 670,000 farmers, out of an estimated 25 million farmers
worldwide--less than 3 percent of the world's coffee farmers," Ms. Behrbaum told SocialFunds.com.
"The certification is limited to small-scale farmer cooperatives and does not include many of the
farmers who produce Starbucks coffee."
Because most of the coffee Starbucks buys is not
eligible for Fair Trade certification, the company says it seeks to ensure fair prices in other
"Starbucks is engaged in a number of practices, from innovative ways to provide
access to credit for farmers to introducing Coffee Sourcing Guidelines that give financial
incentives for sustainable growing practices, which help ensure that we are trading fairly with all
of the farmers from whom we purchase coffee," said Ms. Behrbaum. "Starbucks pays premium prices
that are substantially over and above the prevailing commodity-grade coffee prices."
day after announcing the loan, Starbucks met with a wide variety of stakeholders to review its
Coffee Sourcing Guidelines and Preferred Supplier Program. Those present ranged from allies such
International to severe critics such as Global Exchange.
"I express my appreciation to
Starbucks for taking the risk of including several outside critics in the meeting," said Stephen
Coats, executive director of the U.S./Labor
Education in the Americas Project.