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Follow your labels: Starbucks coffee farmers who never heard of Starbucks

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When Starbucks wouldn't help me, I had acted on the only information I had to go on – the Starbucks 2011 C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices report in Nariño, Colombia. C.A.F.E. Practices is what Starbucks points to when customers ask why it doesn't buy more Fair Trade coffee. In 2010, the company reported that 8 percent of its coffee was Fair Trade Certified. A certification is granted by third-party certifiers such as Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International based on several principles: a set minimum price, a fair-trade premium that goes directly back to the producers, supply-chain transparency, and specific environmental and social standards. It is Starbucks's own set standards, but the company doesn't set minimum prices, or pay farmers anything resembling a "fair trade premium." The company launched its C.A.F.E. Practices in 2003, and by 2010 it said it was purchasing 86 percent of its coffee from certified farms.

The Starbucks report says there are 22,000 farms in Nariño participating in its program. Yet when I first asked around, no one had heard of Starbucks or recognized its siren logo. Then I caught a glimpse of the faded siren atop a white plaque high on the side of a home here. "C.A.F.E. Practices" was printed below the logo.

I posed for a photo with my coffee bag and the sign. An old woman with butterfly earrings walked out and asked me what I was doing, as one is apt to do when a stranger poses for a picture with your home. I showed her my bag of Starbucks Colombian roast, pointed to the sign, and explained my mission.

"I have no idea what that sign is," said the woman, who owns a small coffee farm. And she began a rant about how no one helps her. "I've never heard of Starbucks."

Once I had an eye for the plaque, I saw it on home after home. I would point to the Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices sign on the farmers' homes and find that many of them had never heard of Starbucks. The ones who had would say things like: "We were promised Starbucks was going to help us years ago. We're still waiting."

To be sure, some of the farmers had heard of Starbucks and had received assistance.

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