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Coffee Giant Starbucks faces lawsuit for claiming coffee is ‘Ethically Sourced’

An American consumer advocacy group called the National Consumers League (NCL) is suing Starbucks for alleged false advertising over the company’s claims that all its coffee is 100% ethically sourced.

The Lawsuit, filed in a Washington DC court, claims widespread evidence that Starbucks relies on farms and cooperatives that commit egregious labor and human rights violations.

In previous years, Starbucks has responded to consumer demands for more ethical supply chains by branding itself as a leader in ethical tea and coffee sourcing. The company has developed its own set of “Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices” to verify supply chains are free from Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. However, NCL contests these standards as misleading.

Specific examples in the court documents cite a 2022 case in which the Brazilian labour prosecutor filed complaint against Starbucks’ largest Brazilian supplier. They claim workers endure conditions “analogous to slavery”, and that the company’s workforce contains more than 30 illegally trafficked migrant workers. Investigators found workers putting in excessive hours, and carrying coffee sacks weighing over 100 pounds (45Kg) on their backs. The Cooxupé collective, which accounts for 40% of Starbucks’ Brazilian coffee supply, had previously attained the “C.A.F.E. Practices” certification.

In a quote via press release, Sally Greenberg, CEO of the National Consumers League had this to say:

“On every bag of coffee and box of K-cups sitting on grocery store shelves, Starbucks is telling consumers a lie. The facts are clear: there are significant human rights and labor abuses across Starbucks’ supply chain, and consumers have a right to know exactly what they’re paying for. NCL is committed to exposing and reining in these deceptive practices and holding Starbucks accountable for living up to its claims.”

The NCL complaint reads:

“Starbucks’ failure to adopt meaningful reforms to its coffee and tea sourcing practices in the face of these critiques and documented labor abuses on its source farms is wholly inconsistent with a reasonable consumer’s understanding of what it means to be ‘committed to 100% ethical’ sourcing.”

Starbucks has released a statement, denying the allegations and expressing its intention to vigorously fight against the charges. Michelle Burns, Starbucks’ Executive Vice President of Global Coffee, Social Impact and Sustainability, describes the C.A.F.E. Practices programme as “best-in-class”.

Whether or not Starbucks is found guilty of misleading consumers remains for the District of Columbia Superior Court to decide. Initial dates for a hearing have yet to be set.