Starbucks’ near monopoly bad for consumers, growers

Before you rush out to the nearest coffeehouse, please read this column. Never fear, for there are great health benefits of coffee — it’s just that the nearest coffeehouse is probably Starbucks, and it does not deserve one cent of your hard-earned cash.

Firstly, let’s look at the Starbucks issue from a globalization angle. From the day the company established its first coffee shop in the tourist area of Seattle in 1971, Starbucks had big plans. In the past 33 years, Starbucks has opened 8,119 stores worldwide, with almost 5,000 of those in North America.

Chairman Howard Schulz’s official position is “chief global strategist” — clearly implying a desire for total domination of the coffee industry.

I am not opposed to making it big. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, and Starbucks has gradually worked its way up to success. However, Starbucks has done so not just through expansion and fair competition, but also by devouring its opponents.

Once upon a time, Seattle was known for having a coffee shop on every block — you had a choice of Seattle’s Best Coffee, Starbucks, Tully’s, Espresso Roma, Cafe Ladro — the list went on and on.

Now Seattle has over 90 Starbucks locations, not including all the grocery stores and malls with booths. Tully’s is bankrupt, Seattle’s Best was just bought by Starbucks and many of the independent coffee shops have gone under.

There are many coffee drinkers who loyally drink only at independent shops. However, if you don’t know your way around the city and there’s a Starbucks on every corner, where will you realistically end up?

So, clearly, if you are a fan of small business and antitrust suits, you’ve realized that Starbucks is very threatening to the idealist dream of a non-corporate world. If you are more of the big business, capitalism-is-the-way-to-go type, you probably feel proud to be holding that venti Starbucks Frappuccino.

Regardless of your political stance, though, Starbucks coffee is worse for you than that made at most independent coffee shops. All those health benefits of coffee exist because of the way coffee beans are grown, which were originally planted in tropical rainforests, under the shade of large vitamin-filled tropical trees.

As researcher Brian Halweil said, “The coffee farm that resembles an intact forest costs less to maintain” because farmers don’t have to use pesticides or other tools; the forest provides protection for the plants.

Most coffee beans grown in the shade are known as fair trade coffee, meaning it costs $1.26 per pound, enough for farmers to subsist and maintain their farms.

However, a large company such as Starbucks that is bent on world domination doesn’t really want to deal with rainforests and fair trade. Instead, it buys the cheaper coffee, which is grown in areas where rainforests have been demolished in order to grow more coffee in a smaller space. This is convenient for the company, but not for Latin American and African farmers struggling to keep their plantations and families alive.

In addition to contributing to poverty, coffee beans grown without the shade of tropical trees lack many of the antioxidants and health values that coffee gains growing in its natural environment. And besides losing its many nutrients, non-fair trade coffee often tastes more bitter.

After years of customers, farmers and baristas complaining, Starbucks has introduced one line of fair trade coffee — that’s about one in 100. It’s a step forward, but not enough unless customers start demanding that the company practice better global business.

I hope that I’ve convinced you to go to independent stores instead of Schulz’s relentless corporation. But if not, please at least request the one line of fair trade coffee at Starbucks when you go — it’s better for you and for the people who grew it for you.

Elizabeth Leitzell Daily Trojan, University of Southern California