False Gold

The documentary Black Gold, which is touring the country and was shown in Denver and Boulder last month, fashions itself the Fast Food Nation of the coffee industry, contrasting the excesses of the western caffeine craze with the plight of Ethiopian coffee farmers to illustrate the inequities stirred into all those morning javas. Of course, such a positioning requires a McDonald's, a conveniently evil corporation the filmmakers can rail against for the benefit of much good PR. In this case, Starbucks seems to fit that role nicely.

"The $6 billion coffee giant Starbucks accused the Black Gold filmmakers of 'incompletely' representing the work of the company, as the critically acclaimed film opened in Los Angeles last night," read the indignant press release that appeared in my inbox a few days ago. The release went on to note that company representatives repeatedly refused to be interviewed during filming -- but since Black Gold's release, the Seattle execs have been broadcasting to journalists their commendable practices in Ethiopia while accusing the film of being "inaccurate." One can almost hear the giddy entertainment reporters scampering to their cubicles all over the country, pondering in their heads how to work a trite David-versus-Goliath reference into their leads.

In some regards, Starbucks deserves the media flack; the company, does, after all, make a good deal of money off something that some of the poorest people on earth make very little money producing. While in Ethiopia reporting on "Pot of Gold," a feature story that appeared in Westword's December 14, 2006, edition, I was told that Starbucks paid local farmers $1.60 a pound for sun-dried Sidamo, a high-quality and labor-intensive type of coffee. Starbucks would go on to sell those beans under its "Black Label Exclusives" line for $26 a pound. And when Ethiopian officials began attempting to trademark the names of their coffees so they could retain more financial control over them, Starbucks encouraged them not to do so.

But as in most real-life David-versus-Goliath scenarios, the David in this case appears far from faultless. Profit-engorged as it might be, Starbucks has a point about Black Gold, say many coffee industry experts and aficionados. While significant film venom is expended on peppy baristas at Starbucks, there's little rancor directed at the companies that, the movie admits, control the lion's share of the coffee industry: Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, Sara Lee and Kraft (compared to these guys, Starbucks is a bit player). And while the film dramatically contrasts the pennies-per-day earnings of subsistence coffee farmers with the sky-high price of cups of coffee, there's little elaboration on the many coffee middlemen that demand a share of the profits before whatever's left gets to the farmer -- middlemen who include the slickly earnest star of the film, the head of an Ethiopian union.

Most glaringly, although Black Gold does an admirable job highlighting the injustices inherent in the coffee industry, it provides few suggestions as to how to solve them. The film makes broad references to Fair Trade coffee as an alternative to costly and impractical foreign aid and subsidies, but many in the coffee industry point out that Fair Trade may be just as inefficient an approach. "Fair Trade is a scapegoat. It is not a solution. It is temporary," says Getinet Kelkle, the former secretary general of the Ethiopian Coffee Exporters' Association. "The solution is quality."

In other words, Ethiopia needs to inspire its farmers to create high-end, carefully produced coffees -- beans that won't be subjected to the fluctuating prices of the commodity coffee market. Fair Trade, which is essentially a subsidy (and not on coffee quality), doesn't provide such motivation. Others add that Fair Trade has gone corporate, threatening to become little more than a marketing ploy big coffee companies can use to jack their prices ever higher -- coffee companies including Starbucks.

If only coffee, like Black Gold wants it to be, was really as simple as black and white. -- Joel Warner

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts