Starbucks Is In Hot Water Over Its Coffee Sourcing Claims

A consumer advocacy organization is suing Starbucks for allegedly engaging in false advertising while knowingly shirking its long-standing commitment to "100% ethical sourcing". The lawsuit, filed by the National Consumers League (NCL) on January 10, accuses the coffee retailer of collaborating with farms that "commit egregious labor and human rights violations," and actively "deceiving" consumers to believe otherwise, according to a statement released by NCL.

Starbucks has long centered its brand around ethical consumerism, touting social and environmental responsibility as the cornerstones of its enterprise. In 2004, the coffee retailer even developed Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, a set of verification standards designed to rigorously vet farms that provide the company's coffee and tea. NCL claims, however, to have "widespread evidence" that Starbucks has continued to purchase goods from farms in Kenya, Guatemala, and Brazil "with a documented history of child labor, forced labor, sexual harassment and assault and other human rights abuses."

"On every bag of coffee and box of K-cups sitting on grocery store shelves, Starbucks is telling consumers a lie," NCL CEO Sally Greenberg said in a press release. "Consumers have a right to know exactly what they're paying for."

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Starbucks denies the allegations

The fight against companies using deceptive advertising to sell products to socially and environmentally conscious consumers has taken center stage in recent years. To this point, Food Industry Executive reports that consumer class action filings within the food and beverage industry have increased by more than 100% in the last decade.

Regarding the recent filing against Starbucks, the NCL said in a statement that it aims to "protect consumers who may unknowingly be buying unethically sourced coffee or tea — and paying a premium for those products." While the consumer rights group suggests company reform would be a massive undertaking, it is calling on the coffee giant to cease deceptive advertising and take accountability for its missteps with a "corrective advertising campaign."

Starbucks, responding to an inquiry, told Tasting Table: "We are aware of the lawsuit, and plan to aggressively defend against the asserted claims that Starbucks has misrepresented its ethical sourcing commitments to customers. We take allegations like these extremely seriously and are actively engaged with farms to ensure they adhere to our standards. Each supply chain is required to undergo re-verification regularly and we remain committed to working with our business partners to meet the expectations detailed in our Global Human Rights Statement."

Michelle Burns, Executive Vice President of global coffee, social impact & sustainability at Starbucks, responded to NCL's allegations in a statement, saying the lawsuit felt like a personal attack. "And it is," Burns said, "Because our ethical sourcing program is best-in-class."

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