NBC reports that a consumer advocacy group filed a lawsuit this week challenging global coffee chain Starbucks’ claims of ethical sourcing and suing them for false advertising. The suit alleges that the coffee and tea that Starbucks sources come from farms with known human rights and labor abuses. At the same time, Starbucks’ marketing touts its commitment to 100% ethical sourcing, thereby misleading the public.
Watchdog consumer group cries “foul”
According to reports, severe human rights and labor abuses were found on specific coffee and tea farms in Guatemala, Kenya and Brazil. The suit alleges that despite these findings, Starbucks has continued to purchase from these tainted suppliers, flying in the face of their much-touted claim of a commitment to “100% ethical” sourcing.
Sally Greenberg, CEO of the National Consumers League, the legal advocacy group bringing the case said:
“On every bag of coffee and box of K-cups that Starbucks sells, Starbucks is heralding its commitment to 100% ethical sourcing, but it’s pretty clear that there are significant human rights and labor abuses across Starbucks’ supply chain.”
Starbucks suppliers in Brazil were found by local labor inspectors to be engaging in “abusive and unsafe labor practices,” which included taking the cost of harvesting equipment out of workers’ pay and a lack of clean drinking water, personal protective equipment, and bathrooms, in addition to using child labor. In one case from 2022, a coffee roasting company that just a month earlier had received Starbucks seal of certification was found to have 17 employees, including three children, working under “modern slavery.”
Third party verification system “extremely flawed”
Most companies looking to verify clean supply-chains use a third-party verification system to ensure their claims of ethical sourcing for both a human rights and an environmental context. But these systems have repeatedly proved unreliable and sometimes outright corrupt. Starbucks created its own sourcing standards to oversee its coffee sourcing and claims to hold coffee suppliers to more than 200 environmental, labor, and quality standards. In theory, until farms found in violation take corrective action, they will be barred from supplying Starbucks with their product.
Genevieve LeBaron, director of the School of Public Policy at Canada’s Simon Fraser University said:
“There is this huge pile of evidence that shows that the mechanisms that [certifiers are] relying on to address problems like forced labor, child labor, gender-based violence, are extremely flawed and not working very well.”
The unreliability of third-party programs to verify ethical practices is not unique to Starbucks, says LeBaron. But due to their size and market share, if players like Starbucks did back up their ethical commitments with strong due diligence it could have a huge impact on the sector. A Starbucks spokesperson told Forbes that the company plans “to defend against the asserted claims that Starbucks has misrepresented its ethical sourcing commitments to consumers.” stating that they take the allegations seriously and are actively working with farms to “ensure they adhere to our standards.” Greenberg said the aim of the suit is to stop Starbucks from making claims that it is “Committed to 100% Ethical Coffee Sourcing” in advertising until labor practices in its supply chain are proven to accurately reflect that ethical standard.
Starbucks must be held morally accountable to its own ethical standards. Every company must do their due diligence in ensuring that they are always putting people before profit – Starbucks included. Sign our petition to hold companies truly accountable.