Making it Personal: CSR and Development

Let's not beat around the bush: corporations hold a major key to changing the face of development on an international scale.  The producing, buying and selling of goods internationally is both responsible for many of the issues that have suppressed countries' development, but also hold great potential for motivating it in the future. There are a plethora of opportunities for companies to embrace this role, and some are starting to in a truly admirable way.  A recent post I submitted regarding Starbuck's new locally-sourced and super green stores prompted a great discussion on how much CSR is actually enough, and whether companies are shirking responsibility when they publicize certain efforts and fail to embrace large scale change in their processes that could truly impact the lives of those who contribute to their product.

I recently visited a small coffee producing area in north eastern Kenya (where I photographed this child), and saw just how depressed the local conditions had become due to the coffee buying and selling structure that prevents farmers from maximizing profit of their crops.  Most local farmers (part of the estimated 6 million workers employed by the industry) cultivate plots of land around 1 square acre, but because they lack transport, are forced to sell at extremely low prices to coffee middlemen who then sell via the government regulated auction process.  More and more farmers are turning away from coffee crops, which used to provide a decent living, in order to provide the bare necessities for their families.  In Kenya, it is certainly not just companies who bear responsibility for changing the practices that keep workers and families struggling to survive - the government will necessarily play a large role.  But it reminds us that major buyers must be aware of and contribute to making changes as well.

As a leading coffee company, Starbucks faces such opportunities. When I lived in Costa Rica a number of years ago I remember Starbucks had a great reputation for identifying the highest quality beans and paying a top price - regardless of the size or scope of the producer.  This meant that even small coffee producers, if they created a high quality product, could count on a solid price for their crops.  Producers in Kenya and many other regions cannot say the same.

In recent discussions JustMeans members have questioned whether Starbucks has truly embraced their responsibility or whether they're overly focused on cause marketing for the sake of building their CSR reputation.  One member pointed out that while in the UK they've committed to serving entirely Fair Trade varieties, the commitment hasn't extended to the U.S.  However in poking around the website I found the company has set long-term goals to ensure that all their coffee is ethically grown and sourced by 2015 - which speaks to our members' ideals of embracing CSR on an in-depth, company wide scope.  We're seeing similar commitments from other previous offenders (JM Editorial member Dean Pflueger recently posted on Walmart's increasing commitment) and let's hope this is just the beginning of an era in which companies interpret CSR in the same way as proponents who recognize that sustainability, environmental stewardship and ethical sourcing are good for business, and good for development as a whole.