While online shopping on Amazon for some chocolate bars, I saw a suggestion for a Brazilian Coffee premium selection package from Starbucks. Since I was missing my home country’s coffee taste – Brazilians often joke that coffee in the United States is more water than actual coffee, and I strongly believe it – I decided to buy it. As you may have guessed, I am one of those people who claim not to be able to live without coffee, and I actually mean it. I usually take up to three cups daily, and if I do not drink it, I will undoubtedly feel sleepy the whole day. Therefore, putting the health aspects of this habit aside, when I am drinking or even buying coffee from Starbucks I do not stop to think about the possible harms that it can cause to myself or others around me. After all, it is just coffee, right? Well, yes and no. There is much more to it than we might think at first.
The Starbucks premium selection coffee that I bought came from Brazil, which is the largest coffee producer in the world (1). After I bought it, I decided to search for more information about its specific origins within the country, but even though I searched on both Amazon and Starbucks online stores, I could not find more details about it. Then, I moved to the Starbucks customer services online chat, but the only information that they were able to give me regarding the product origins was the one already disposed on their official site. After insisting that I wanted to know more details about the exact location from where the coffee beans came from, the employee told me to call them. I called their phone services, and again the only information that I received was the one on their official site – “Home to the Amazon rainforest and the greatest diversity of animal and plant species on earth, Brazil is celebrated for its deliciously consistent coffees.”
While on the phone with their customer services, they told me they were unable to find the information that I actually wanted, and they gave me two numbers to call. I called both of them, and one was “disconnected,” while the other did not answer. Then, I sent an email asking about the origins of both related to the package and the coffee beans, but I got no answer. After this event, I started to think about why was it so hard to find information about the origins of the coffee being sold at Starbucks. Not even their employees knew about it, but shouldn’t this information be public to the consumers?
In 2018, The Washington Post shared an article called “The hidden suffering behind the Brazilian coffee that jump-starts American mornings” (2). The first sentences in the text are about the rescue of Abelar Rebouças – which was bone thin ate the time of the rescue – from a coffee plantation in southern Brazil, in the state of Minas Gerais. “The 51-year-old worked long days for a month in the hot sun, hauling 15-gallon bags of coffee beans.” Usually, workers at these coffee farms make as little as $1-3 a day, with no contract and no benefits like health insurance, or even access to basic sanitation. Rebouças was just one of more than 800 workers under conditions analagous to slavery freed in 2016, according to the Brazilian Labor Ministry.
The coffee produced in these farms through demeaning labor conditions is the same one used in companies such as McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Nestle, and Starbucks (3). Today, most laborers come from the impoverished state of Bahia, which is located in the northeastern part of Brazil. They are often attracted to the plantations in the states of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, and São Paulo – the largest producers of coffee in the country – with fake promises of high wages and decent working conditions through the so-called gatos, which are labor brokers employed by farmers to recruit the workers.
In April of 2019, there were 48 new employers on Brazil’s “Dirty List” – a registry of employers found by inspectors at the country’s Ministry of Labor and Employment (MTE) to be employing workers under what Brazil calls “conditions analogous to slavery” (4). As we could see with Abelar’s example, this goes entirely against the principle 4 of the UN Global impact (5), which states that “Businesses should uphold the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour.” In this context, while searching more about this, I found that Starbucks had been issued the second time in a period of eight months for buying coffee from employers on this list. Also, in most of the cases relating to the coffee farms on the Dirty List, MTE auditors report that landowners employed the gatos to recruit farmworkers from poor communities far from the places that these workers are employed, such as in the state of Bahia that I mentioned earlier.
After accepting the job, the workers are transported by bus for over 1,000 kilometers to the farms where they end up being enslaved, with some of them traveling more than 2,000 kilometers to unfamiliar and remote parts of the country. Gatos often lure the workers with false promises of good profit, accommodation, and food. It is important to note that Brazil’s gatos are part of a much bigger system of labor brokerage in agriculture, which represents a leading source of risk for forced labor, human trafficking, and modern slavery. The payment system for labor brokerage can create structural pressure on worker rights and conditions. Since many brokers are paid a flat fee for their full range of services – including recruitment, transportation, lodging, food service, field supervision, and payroll – they can take with them what it is not spent on services, which is a massive encouragement for them to cut corners on the workers’ compensation, health, and safety (4).
Besides conditions analogous to slavery, we also have child labor in these coffee farms. In May of 2015, two boys, aged 15 and 14, arrived at a coffee plantation with their families in the southern state of Minas Gerais, in Brazil (6). The boys resided in a house that had no access to clean drinking water or overall sanitation, besides being too small for the seventeen children, women, and men living in the place during the coffee harvest. When the Brazilian authorities released the two boys in July 2015, they had been picking coffee without the proper protective equipment and without even receiving payment for their labor. In addition, they were missing school while working on the plantation. In this situation, the authorities concluded that the conditions within the farm resembled slavery and that the workers were victims of human trafficking. This also goes against the principle 5 from the UN Global Compact, which states that “Businesses should uphold the effective abolition of child labour.”
All of these issues often go unnoticed by the majority of the population that consume such products. As a personal example, some years ago I could not even think about a situation like the ones described in this paper since in my head there was no more slavery in the country. After all, I learned at school that slavery was abolished from the country in 1888! How could it be possible that we still have slavery even after more than 130 years since it was eradicated? Well, Brazil recognized the existence of modern slavery in 1995, which was then ratified in 2003, so this public fight against extreme harsh conditions for workers is relatively new under the name of modern slavery in the country.
However, even though I am now aware of its existence, when I drink the Brazilian coffee from Starbucks, it is such a normal experience to me that it is still challenging to connect what is inside my mug with all the degrading conditions related to the coffee production back in my country. This refers to the perspectives showed within the documentary “Blood in the Mobile” (7), in which even though we kind of know what is happening behind the production process of the products that we consume on a daily basis, we do not stop to think about it since we are not the ones going through such harsh conditions. When thinking both about the war on Congo or the modern slavery in Brazil along with child labour, I would never imagine how there is this possibility that I would be unknowingly contributing to all of this violence in such “a far away” region with the simple act of buying a phone or, in this case, a package of the Brazilian premium selection of roasted coffee from Starbucks.
In this context, this situation also correlates to the fact that we, as a society, are being passive regarding such issues because we cannot see it happening, which is all about the politics of sight discussed in Pachirat’s book “Every Twelve Seconds” (8). All of these farms are located in rural locations and places that are very hard to find, and one of the reasons behind it is because the landowners know that if all of these conditions were explicitly shown to society, a lot of the consumers would be outraged by it and would demand change within the companies regarding their supply chain.
As we saw in the documentary “Blood in the Mobile,” one of the solutions to stop such degrading situations would be for companies to be more transparent with their supply chains. As an example, instead of being so difficult for me to find the information regarding the origins of the coffee that I bought from Starbucks, there should be a place stating where their coffee came from with easy access for the employees and the consumers. However, this might not be the final solution since it will take a lot of time for companies to actually start doing it on a large scale.
The supply chain involved in coffee production and distribution is a very long process that requires raising it, harvesting, hulling, drying, packing, bulking, blending, and then finally roasting the beans before they are ready to be liquefied into drinks (9). Integrated into this system are several other intermediaries that the beans must go through, including the international transporters, export sellers, and retailers like grocery stores, coffee shops, and specialty shops. Therefore, even though it is not impossible to track every supplier, companies often argue that this is a complicated process, and they are already acting towards solutions regarding these circumstances without actually putting much effort into it. This explanation was the same in the movie, and it is the same for almost every product in our society.
Coming back to the life cycle of coffee, something interesting that I learned is that a coffee tree can take four to seven years before it yields its first crop of beans. After the beans are ready, the harvesting starts, which is a very labour intensive exercise. As discussed previously, the conditions within the harvest workers are terrible; they often work entirely exposed to the hot sun, with no access to proper water, food, healthcare, and overall basic needs. Most of these workers had no access to education, and they came from underprivileged or even immigrant communities, which is also the case at the slaughterhouse in Pachirat’s book. Therefore, in this case it is also true what Pachirat discusses in his book, in which in order to dissociate ourselves from all of these issues, we create physical, social, linguistic, and methodological distance “through walls, screens, catwalks, fences, security checkpoints, and geographic zones of isolation and confinement,” besides “reinforcing racial, gender, citizenship, and education hierarchies that coerce others into performing dangerous, demeaning, and violent talks from which we directly benefit” (Every Twelve Seconds, pg 7).
As Young exemplifies in her article “Responsibility and Global Justice” through the sweatshop system, I could also see how the coffee production and distribution process is a very complex one, and the workers who actually collaborate in harvesting the coffee are at the bottom of the chain, which is a similar condition to the sweatshops that she mentions. Therefore, these workers also suffer from what she calls “structural injustice” (pg 715) – which happens when “the combined operation of actions in institutions put large categories of persons under a systematic threat of domination or deprivation of the means to develop and exercise their capacities, at the same time as they enable others to dominate or give them access to an abundance of resources.” She also states that this structural injustice occurs as a result of the pursuit of individual goals, and for me it correlates to Diamond’s argument that companies are selfish in the sense that they rationalize their erratic behavior to the point in which – as Raj Patel argued – they have the same traits as sociopaths, which I will get into more detail later on in this paper.
Once the beans are harvested, they are dried and then packaged into large sacks and passed onto the exporters. Then, they are distributed to the big companies in the coffee business, which take these beans and place them in industrial roasting and distribution centers. Through a web of transport, these coffee beans are finally delivered to thousands of cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, and large chain retailers.
After the coffee is distributed to the stores and used by its consumers – in this case, me – we now have to deal with the problem related to its disposal. As I mentioned previously, besides the social issues related to its production, the coffee itself can be a massive environmental issue regarding the waste of the coffee grounds that are dumped into landfills. Because of the fact that they are very rich in nitrogen when the coffee grounds are thrown away along with landfills, they create methane, which is a greenhouse gas. Methane is known to be even more harmful than carbon dioxide, which is another greenhouse gas that also causes global warming (10).
Coffee in Brazil is also a cause of deforestation, pollution, and lack of biodiversity in the plantations. At this point in our global addiction, much of the coffee beans that we consume are grown on farms with no shade. But what does it mean? Well, coffee plants have traditionally grown under a canopy of assorted shade trees. Therefore, shade-grown coffee farms utilize different types and heights of trees to create an environment that is ecologically diverse and responsible. On the other hand, the sun-grown (no shade) coffee is responsible for removing the natural protective barrier of trees, which means that a much higher number of chemical pesticides will end up being used to prevent pests and disease. Also, with sun-grown coffee, the farmers are able to plant crops at a higher density, which helps to increase the stress surrounding the ecosystem and encourages deforestation. This situation goes against principles 7 and 8 of the UN Global Compact, in which Businesses should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges and undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility. These principles are definitely not being applied in the cases discussed here, and my product – along with its company – has a lot to do with it.
The increased demand from consumers in the coffee market has motivated farmers to utilize the sun-growing method, where they are able to increase their output of coffee. However, while full-sun coffee farms drastically increase yield, they cause a lack of biodiversity. In this context, the insect-killing birds that would typically flock around the foliage in a coffee farm are no longer present, and then pesticides will take their place. Research shows that more than two-thirds of the coffee grown in Vietnam and Brazil – the two biggest coffee producers in the world – is grown without shade (11). In this context, for me, it is clear that, as mentioned in “Collapse” (12), these companies – such as Starbucks – are rationalizing their behavior and thinking only about their short-term goal. Through what Diamond called “tragedy of commons” (Collapse, 428), the organizations behind coffee production, and, in this specific case, Starbucks, is not thinking in their common interest of taking care of Brazil’s environment since it is their vital source of resources. Instead, they are thinking of how to maximize their harvest even though it can generate massive consequences in the future. Therefore, as Raj Patel discussed in his book “The Value of Nothing,” (13), these companies have the same traits as sociopaths (pg 42) since they do not care about norms, consequences, and they totally lack remorse, which I agree. In addition to this issue, Patel also discusses the metaphor regarding Anton’s Blindness, in which we are delusional in the way the market works, besides seeing fellow humans as mere co-consumers without actually recognizing a deeper connection between ourselves. He also states that our problem is related to our blind trust in a market that continually betray us through its “false promise that profit-driven markets can point to true value” (pg 22).
Within all of this context related to the one package of the Brazilian coffee premium select colletion that I bought from Starbucks, I wonder if we, as consumers, have a real responsibility for these social and environmental damages involved in the production and disposal of it. When I bought this product, I was not asking for slavery, child labour, pollution, or environmental damages, but that is part of what I got along with the coffee that I am used to drinking over three times a day. However, even though I did not ask for it, as Young described in her article “Responsibility and Global Justice” (14) by discussing the social connection model of responsibility, everybody who contributes through their actions to the promotion of structural processes that produce injustice has obligations to work towards the remediation of these injustices. Therefore, we all have a responsibility to solve this problem, and we need to start taking action towards it.
While searching for some possible solutions to decrease the social and environmental impact of the Brazilian coffee related to the Starbucks product that I bought, I decided to research more about the so-called coffee capsules. At first, I thought that they would not be a good alternative because of its material, but my findings surprised me. According to a study by KTH in Stockholm (15), filtered coffee has the worst environmental impact when compared to coffee capsules. This happens because, cup for cup, filter coffee uses more beans to prepare a single container – about 7 grams, compared to 5.7 grams for capsule coffee. If you add that up to billions of cups of coffee drunk around the world each year, it quickly creates a massive increase in the number of coffee beans that have to be grown, harvested, processed and transported, plus all the energy needed to heat the water when making the cup.
Furthermore, recyclable aluminum pods are more environmentally friendly than all the other capsules available in the market, whether they are made from plastic or compostable materials. Alf Hill, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Bath, decided to research all the stages involved in coffee production, from the process of growing the beans to the disposal of waste, besides assessing the impact on ecosystems, climate change, and water (16). According to his findings, “Capsules tend to need less coffee input to make a single drink, and so their overall impact can be lower even though we see more waste when we throw them away.” Therefore, what I once thought to be a problem might actually be part of the solution. I still do not believe that this is the final step since we still produce a lot of waste and environmental damages with coffee capsules. However, this new data made me think that we are moving in the right direction; we just need to do it faster, which can be conquered through social pressure within the consumers and authorities for the company’s social, economic, and environmental responsibilities (which is now the so-called integrated responsibility within the Babson curriculum).
We also have the compostable coffee pods, which can be even less damaging to the environment than the aluminum or plastic capsules if they are thrown away correctly in special bins that are taken to compost or to biomethanisation facilities. However, this is rarely the case, and if these compostable pods end up in a landfill, they will degrade – producing methane that will end up in the atmosphere the same as the coffee grounds discussed earlier (16).
In this context, I believe that, as consumers, we need to start understanding more about the background behind our products in order to be better prepared to deal with the problems related to its consumption and future disposal. We already have some alternatives to handle the problems caused by coffee grounds such as composting, and we also have the compostable capsules that would be much better for the environment if the consumers actually engaged in their correct disposal. Now, we must also think of further activities to increase social pressure regarding Starbucks’ operations – and, specifically in this case – regarding its product “Brazil Coffe Premium Select” connection to modern slavery and child labour in Brazil.
- Szenthe, Adrianna. “Top Coffee Producing Countries.” WorldAtlas, 8 Mar. 2015, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/top-coffee-producing-countries.html
- Lopes, Marina. “The Hidden Suffering behind the Brazilian Coffee That Jump-Starts American Mornings.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Sept. 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/the-hidden-suffering-behind-the-brazilian-coffee-that-jump-starts-american-mornings/2018/08/30/e5e5a59a-8ad4-11e8-9d59-dccc2c0cabcf_story.html
- “SLAVE LABOUR ON COFFEE FARMS DENOUNCED AT THE OECD.” Conectas, Development and Socioenvironmental Rights, https://www.conectas.org/en/news/slave-labour-coffee-farms-minas-gerais-denounced-oecd.
- “EXPLORING ISOLATED CASES OF MODERN SLAVERY: Farmworker Protections and Labor Conditions in Brazil’s Coffee Sector.” Coffeeland.crs.org, REPÓRTER BRASIL, https://coffeelands.crs.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/CRS-Policy-Brief-Farmworker-Protections-and-Labor-Conditions-in-Brazil’s-Coffee-Sector.pdf.
- “The Ten Principles: UN Global Compact.” The Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact, United Nations, https://www.unglobalcompact.org/what-is-gc/mission/principles
- “Children Pick Coffee on Brazilian Plantations.” Danwatch, https://old.danwatch.dk/en/undersogelseskapitel/children-pick-coffee-on-brazilian/.
- Poulsen, Frank Piasecki, director. Blood in the Mobile: Mining in the Congo.
- Pachirat, Timothy. Every Twelve Seconds Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Yale University Press, 2014.
- “The Remarkable Supply Chain of the Coffee Bean.” Unleashed Software, 15 Dec. 2017, https://www.unleashedsoftware.com/blog/remarkable-supply-chain-coffee-bean
- Crumbley, Loreal. “Climate for Action: New Uses for Used Coffee Grounds.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 24 Feb. 2009, https://blog.epa.gov/2009/02/24/climate-for-action/
- “Shade Grown Coffee Shrinking as a Proportion of Global Coffee Production.” UT News, 7 Aug. 2018, https://news.utexas.edu/2014/04/16/global-production-of-shade-grown-coffee-shrinking
- Diamond, Jared Mason. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin, 2011.
- Patel, Raj. Value of Nothing. GRANTA Books, 2011.
- Young, Iris. Responsibility and Global Justice: a social connection model. Social Philosophy and Policy, 2011.
- Moskvitch, Katia. “Turns out Coffee Pods Are Actually Pretty Good for the Environment.” WIRED, WIRED UK, 3 May 2019, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/coffee-pods-nespresso-recycling
- Nohr, Katlyn. “Are Coffee Pods as Bad for the Environment as You Think?” Medium, Wisconsin Engineer Magazine, 7 June 2018, https://read.wisconsinengineer.com/are-coffee-pods-as-bad-for-the-environment-as-you-think-f2f339493ba6