Starbucks: the marketing of ethics

Starbucks recently switched the majority of its coffee to Fairtrade in the UK and Ireland. After years of over-marketing their fair trade credentials in their stores and on their marketing and educational materials, the reality is catching up with the rhetoric.

Mind you, the rhetoric has stepped up another gear too, with a massive multimillion-pound ad campaign launched to squeeze out as much ethical mileage as possible. Like the big budget television ad focused on Fairtrade and Ghana currently being run by Cadbury, the Starbucks campaign marks an interesting point where, in this country at least, Fairtrade has become not so much a burdensome extra cost for companies as a powerful marketing tool.

Starbucks has always been a good target for fair trade campaigning. This leviathan of the coffee shop market markets itself very explicitly as an ethical corporation. They have their own in-house certification system through which they claim to pay higher than market prices for their coffee. And they are the world's largest single buyer of Fairtrade coffee.

Now that the company has converted all its espresso-based drinks in the UK and Ireland to Fairtrade, this is predicted to double their Fairtrade coffee purchasing, bringing the total to 12% of their global coffee purchases. The mighty corporate beasts can deliver substantial scale and impact: Starbucks will now be helping more than 100,000 coffee farmers and their communities. The company also continues to sell Fairtrade chocolate, as they have for a number of years.

The attractive new marketing campaign that trumpets the new deal features clever slogans on a burlap sack-style background.

picture of Starbucks Fairtrade coffee advert

They teeter on the edge of being misleading: a casual reading of the advert above might imply that Starbucks itself has become a “Fairtrade” company, with the smaller print admitting that of course it is actually a proportion of the company's products that are Fairtrade certified.

What's particularly interesting about this ad campaign is its scale – it's the biggest Starbucks has run in the UK and Ireland since it opened its first stores here in 1998 – and the centrality of the Fairtrade messaging. Fairtrade has emerged as a central plank in the company’s fightback from relatively dire financial woes in 2008 when profits ground to a halt and hundreds of stores were closed.

Although Fairtrade will be more expensive and more political for companies to undertake than most corporate social responsibility schemes or fluffy pieces of 'fairwash', the rate of return as a marketing expense is probably very good, especially in a climate of steadily increasing socially conscious consumerism.

Fairtrade has proven transformative power for producers, it is the only rigorously audited certification system out there that fundamentally addresses the terms of trade between the developed and developing world and, despite the best efforts of right wing think tanks and journalists, has proved pretty much unassailable. It is now a force that can help spearhead the triumphant return of Starbucks to profits and growth and re-position the company as the ethical option for coffee drinkers.

So although Fairtrade does a good job as a marketing or risk management tool for companies like Starbucks and Cadbury, it is important for progressive voices within the movement to keep re-stating Fairtrade’s core values and functions as a development system for producers and an education project for consumers.

We should also keep putting Fairtrade developments in context.

Starbucks’ increased commitment to ethical practices only extends so far. The company’s green logo – the mermaid with no nipples – and its 17,000 stores worldwide are synonymous with a particularly aggressive form of globalisation and cultural homogenisation. This has involved using unsavoury tactics to expand and maintain their market share, such as targeting successful independent stores, buying out competitors’ leases, operating at a loss, and saturating local markets.

The uncomfortable truth is that even a 100% Fairtrade Starbucks would be going ultimately against the grain of a sustainable economy. Starbucks’ number one top priority is rapacious growth, and this growth can never stop. We need sustainable communities on this side of the world as well as in developing countries.