Oxfam calls on Starbucks to stop bullying the poor

Published: 3 November 2006

Global coffee giant Starbucks has refused to move forward in negotiations with Ethiopia unless it’s on the company’s own terms, according to international agency Oxfam. Oxfam is calling on Starbucks to stop forcing an alternate agreement on Ethiopia, and come to the table – open and willing to negotiate.

Last year the Ethiopian government filed applications to trademark its most famous coffee names, Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe. Securing the rights to these names would enable Ethiopia to capture more value from the trade, by controlling their use in the market and thereby enabling farmers to receive a greater share of the retail price. Ethiopia’s coffee industry and farmers could earn an estimated $88 million (USD) extra per year.

Over the course of the last week, Oxfam has spoken out publicly regarding Starbucks’ opposition to the Ethiopia’s trademarking project.

“Starbucks has engaged in some positive initial steps in helping coffee farmers living in poverty – I don’t understand why they won’t take the next step and come to the table to discuss Ethiopia’s proposal in good faith,” said Seth Petchers, Oxfam International’s Make Trade Fair campaign coffee lead.

Ethiopia has chosen a strategy that best meets its needs, and in consultation with intellectual property experts and legal counsel, has asked Starbucks to sign an agreement that acknowledges Ethiopia’s ownership of its coffee names. If Starbucks is genuine in its commitment to farmers it will sign the licensing agreement Ethiopia has offered it, Oxfam says.

Ethiopia’s motivations for this project are clear:

  • Coffee makes up 40-50% of Ethiopia’s export income;

  • 15 million Ethiopians are dependent on the coffee trade;

  • One in four people live on less than $1 a day and 80% of its people live on less than $2 a day; and

  • Ethiopia ranks in the bottom 10 of the UN human development index of income, health and education.

In a statement released yesterday, Starbucks called on Oxfam to end its campaign.

“Starbucks’ position on this is deflecting focus from its responsibilities to Ethiopian farmers. We want to work to find a win-win solution,” said Petchers. “Oxfam believes it is critical to engage with corporations in order to achieve long-term sustainable solutions for alleviating poverty.” Oxfam has engaged with Starbucks for over a year on this issue.

“However, engaging the public is also a critical element in creating real long-term change, and Oxfam will continue to do this,” Petchers continued. Since last Thursday, over 60,000 concerned consumers have faxed or called Starbucks to express their support for Ethiopian coffee farmers.

In the same statement, Starbucks claimed the trademarking initiative might hurt farmers if “roasters stop purchasing Ethiopian coffees.” The suggestion that Ethiopia’s request for Starbucks and other companies to recognize the country’s rights to its coffee names could result in punishment suggests an unwillingness to work in true partnership with farmers.

“Ethiopia wants to continue in its role as a growing source of coffees for the world market – it’s in our own interest. We have 15 million poor people who depend on income from coffee every single day. Our goal for this project, which was developed in consultation with the farmers unions, is to help improve conditions for poor coffee growers,” said Getachew Mengiste, Director General, Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office. Mengiste will formally respond to Starbucks’ recent offer Friday, November 3.

If Ethiopia secures the ownership of its coffee names in the US, as it has in the European Union and Canada, it hopes to work with the coffee industry to build its coffee brands and the value associated with them. Ultimately this will result in a greater portion of the profits to be shared more fairly among farmers and the global coffee industry.

Contact Information

For more information please contact:
Helen DaSilva at hdasilva@oxfamamerica.org or at (617) 728-2409 (office) or (617) 331-2984 (cell).