PC coffee 'brewhaha' spineless in Seattle

Posted: Jul 26, 2002 12:00 AM
So here I am in Seattle, America's coffee capital, and the flacks at Starbucks won't even talk to me about the measure on Berkeley's November ballot that would require coffeehouses to sell only Fair Trade, organic or shade-grown coffee. (Fair Trade means the importers paid growers at least $1.26 cents per pound for coffee beans. Shade-grown coffee, the measure explains, "is planted in a shaded, forest-like setting created by a canopy of trees," which provides habitat for native songbirds.) Violators would be subject to a $100 fine, six months behind steel bars or both. Tully's and Seattle's Best Coffee wouldn't talk, either. What is happening to capitalism in America? Even the capitalists act as if capitalism is a dirty word. Berkeley could approve a measure that would create Coffee Police -- someone would have to make sure the coffeehouses were only selling PC coffee -- and the coffee people are too cowed to speak out. Their people could face jail time for serving plain old coffee, and they don't want to answer questions about the measure? They're PC businesses in PC cities. Apparently, they're more afraid of looking mean to songbirds than being hyper-regulated. Starbucks and Tully's -- which both have shops in Berkeley -- sent me statements. Tully's statement called for the marketplace to decide. Choice, after all, is PC. Starbucks noted that it sees "Fair Trade Certified coffee as one component of our commitment to addressing the issue of the sustainability of the lives of coffee farmers as well as the supply of high quality coffee." It should be noted that all three companies sell PC-coffee beans. Starbucks serves a PC Coffee of the Day once a month. Store brochures tout Fair Trade coffee as "supporting a better life for coffee farmers." And what does Starbucks get for giving a nod to people dedicated to driving up the cost of its business? "Now we need to demand that they offer brewed Fair Trade Coffee of the Day every week," says TransFair USA, the nonprofit group that certifies Fair Trade coffee. A Seattle group is gathering signatures for a measure to levy a 10-cent city tax on cups of espresso -- to fund childcare. There is, of course, no correlation between espresso and childcare costs. The appeal of the measure is that it would allow the majority -- to wit, non-espresso drinkers -- to pass a tax that other people, presumably yuppies, will pay. Why not, when Big Caffeine has made itself an easy target that won't fight back? A friend in Seattle PR tells me that the local style is to be more "collaborative." Sounds nice, but activists aren't "collaborative" -- which makes a "collaborative" industry the corporate equivalent of a doormat. You can't feel badly for these businesses when they won't, well, wake up and smell the coffee. Their silence speaks against them. These companies live off of free-trade coffee, not PC fair-trade coffee. If the java princes don't want to get in a public-spirited defense of free trade, maybe it isn't a good thing. If the Berkeley PC-coffee bill passes, it can only lead to more laws. There could be proposals to outlaw the sale of any chocolate, cocoa or honey that is not "socially responsible." No doubt the chocolate, cocoa and honey companies would respond lamely, with a half-hearted statement. The stock market's long downward slide has followed revelations of sleazy accounting gimmicks for companies that were more hype than assets. Here's the other crisis facing capitalism: There is no shortage of U.S. corporations that are basically, well, gutless.