Starbucks sued over alleged use of coffee from farms with rights abuses despite ‘ethical’ sourcing claims

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By Carina

In a significant legal development, a consumer advocacy group has taken Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee brand, to court for alleged false advertising. 

The lawsuit, filed in a Washington, D.C. court on behalf of American consumers, claims that Starbucks falsely markets its coffee and tea products as “100% ethical” while knowingly sourcing from suppliers involved in documented human rights and labor abuses. 

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Specific allegations in Guatemala, Kenya, and Brazil

The lawsuit asserts that Starbucks engages in misleading marketing by prominently featuring its “100% ethical” sourcing commitment on its coffee and tea products. 

Sally Greenberg, CEO of the National Consumers League, the group behind the case, points out, “On every bag of coffee and box of K-cups that Starbucks sells, Starbucks is heralding its commitment to 100% ethical sourcing.” 

However, the lawsuit contends that Starbucks continues to purchase from suppliers with documented human rights and labor abuses.

The lawsuit highlights specific human rights and labor abuses on coffee and tea farms in Guatemala, Kenya, and Brazil. Despite reports of violations in these regions, Starbucks allegedly continued to source from these suppliers. 

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Brazilian labor officials take action against Starbucks 

Labor officials in Brazil have taken action against several Starbucks suppliers, including accusations of abusive labor practices and underaged workers.

In response to the allegations, Starbucks has stated, “We take allegations like these extremely seriously and are actively engaged with farms to ensure they adhere to our standards.” 

The company emphasizes that each supply chain undergoes regular re-verification to meet the expectations outlined in its Global Human Rights Statement. 

Starbucks maintains that corrective actions have been taken in Guatemala and Kenya.

Debating Starbucks’ ethical sourcing claims and certification programs

A central point of contention in this lawsuit is Starbucks’ promotion of its ethical sourcing practices. 

The company’s claim, as stated on its coffee academy website, is that it buys coffee that is “good for the planet and good for the people who produce it.” 

The lawsuit seeks to address concerns related to these claims and insists that Starbucks must improve labor practices within its supply chain.

Like many companies, Starbucks relies on third-party certification programs to ensure the integrity of its supply chains for tea and cocoa. 

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Starbucks’ challenges with certification programs

Starbucks introduced its own sourcing standards, known as C.A.F.E. Practices, in 2004. This program oversees coffee sourcing in over 30 countries and holds suppliers accountable to more than 200 environmental, labor, and quality standards.

However, experts point out that there have been persistent challenges with the effectiveness of such certification programs. 

In a case unrelated to Starbucks, Rainforest Alliance, a third-party certifier for Hershey’s cocoa, faced a lawsuit over “false and deceptive marketing.” 

These challenges raise questions about the reliability of certification processes in addressing issues like forced labor and child labor.

Industry-wide ethical challenges: Impact and transparency in supply chains

Genevieve LeBaron, director of the School of Public Policy at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, highlights that the problem is not unique to Starbucks but extends to the broader industry. 

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She emphasizes that ethical commitments from major players like Starbucks can significantly impact supply chain integrity if supported by action.

Starbucks operates ten “farmer support centers” in coffee-producing regions globally, including Brazil and Guatemala. 

However, the company does not publicly disclose lists of certified suppliers, making it challenging to monitor instances of labor abuses. 

Navigating complexity of ethical supply chains in agriculture

LeBaron concludes that establishing an ethical supply chain is a complex task, particularly in agriculture, where goods are often sourced below their production costs.

The lawsuit against Starbucks sheds light on the challenges of ensuring ethical sourcing in the global coffee and tea industry. 

As the legal battle unfolds, it prompts discussions about the effectiveness of certification programs and the responsibility of major companies to uphold ethical commitments in their supply chains. 

Starbucks, with its prominence in the industry, faces scrutiny and potential consequences for its advertising claims.

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