Starbucks trades in fair-trade for 'Shared Planet': Worth your money?

Starbucks' announcement today that it was launching its own fairly-traded coffee label, "Shared Planet," had me buzzing. My favorite coffee roaster is a local company called Stumptown Coffee, and one of the reasons I love the coffee so much is that I can trust the business' founder to deal fairly with the suppliers. He travels to every country from which the beans come, often tasting each batch himself, and is famous for having paid the highest price ever for an especially eloquent crop of beans. I know Starbucks works hard to pay more for coffee than other coffee big boys -- Folgers and Maxwell House come to mind -- but the average price the coffee giant pays, $1.42 a pound, is probably about a third of Stumptown's price.

Interestingly, Starbucks is still quoting that $1.42/pound, the average price from 2006. It appears that 2007 and 2008 have been lower, as worldwide commodity prices have decreased, but Starbucks has stopped talking price (even its SEC filings are mum on unit pricing). The company is dropping the talks of dollars and cents and is now controlling the messaging around its coffees. It's important to note that Starbucks is not doing anything new; it's just creating a brand around its practices (not necessarily a bad thing). Today, 65% of the coffee beans it purchases fit the Shared Planet description; they're "ethically traded" and "responsibly grown." The Shared Planet web site indicates Starbucks hopes to eventually buy 100% of its coffee in this ethical, responsible manner.

Fairtrade coffee is a brand, too -- and according to Angry African, Starbucks has, on average, paid more per pound than Fairtrade for its coffee (and there are some other arguments to be had with Fairtrade -- he says they lag behind Rainforest Alliance with their sustainability requirements and farmer assistance). By creating its own branding and messaging around the principles it already believes in and supports, Starbucks is making a smart move.

Is it worth your money? I'd say "yes," unequivocally it's worth your money to buy coffee that's been grown in an environmentally-healthy way. It will directly impact the planet's future (a little less so today than bananas or corn for ethanol grown in the rainforest, but that's another topic), as conventional commodity coffee beans are grown by cutting down rainforests and deploying heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. I'd argue that even more needs to be done. But if you're choosing between Starbucks Shared Planet and the conventionally-traded Dunkin Donuts or grocery store brand: the extra price is worth it.
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