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A Fight Is Brewing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a city of strong convictions and stronger latte. Here in the cradle of the gourmet coffee movement, few things are dearer than the People’s caffeine. Berkeley is said to have one of the nation’s largest concentrations of coffeehouses. The underground comic hero “Too Much Coffee Man” was created by a graduate of UC Berkeley. The founders of Starbucks learned their trade at the locally based Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

So Rick Young expected some buzz when he strolled into the city clerk’s office with a citizen’s initiative restricting the sale of coffee to brew that is organic, fair-trade and/or shade-grown. He just didn’t think the jolt would be felt nationally.

“Man, people are e-mailing me from all over the country,” said Young, 36, a rookie lawyer, environmentalist and sometime gadfly who graduated a year ago from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.

“I’ve been on CNN and MSNBC and Fox. Somebody ran the address of my Web site (www.geo cities.com/coffeelawinfo/), and now I’m getting this outrageous hate mail--'You’re a fascist, get a job, thank God we don’t live in your freaky city with its politically correct coffee.’ I’m like, ‘You live in Kansas! What do you care?’ ”

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The initiative, which has qualified for the November ballot, would make Berkeley the first municipality in the nation to outlaw coffee that isn’t grown with guaranteed protections for workers and the environment. Coffeehouse owners caught selling “the bad coffee,” as Young calls it, could face a fine and up to six months in jail.

Critics have denounced the idea as unenforceable, overbearing and silly. (“Rick Young has got to be kidding,” one Berkeleyite wrote in a letter to the local paper. “Why, on this Earth should I rely upon a law to tell me how and where to purchase my coffee?”) Supporters compare it to bans--now taken for granted--on unleaded gas and Styrofoam coffee cups.

The fair-trade coffee movement, which started in Europe as a response to falling prices in the world coffee market, has only recently developed traction in the United States. Its proponents guarantee a minimum coffee price--and thus a living wage--to small Third World farmers who operate out of democratically organized cooperatives and submit to annual monitoring. Shade-grown coffee, meanwhile, is grown in a manner that protects rain-forest canopies that are habitat for migratory songbirds. Organic coffee is grown without pesticides.

These so-called sustainable beans and brews make up only a very small slice of the $18-billion U.S. coffee market but have been vigorously promoted by activists. They are now stocked at such outlets as Trader Joe’s, Borders Books, most gourmet coffee retailers, and some more mainstream vendors, such as Safeway markets and Hyatt hotels.

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Fair-trade, shade-grown and organic labels are “like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Jason Marks, spokesman for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that waged a successful campaign two years ago to persuade Starbucks to stock and sell fair-trade coffee beans.

“There’s a quantifiable standard, and for these farmers, it’s the difference between utter destitution and keeping their kids in school, say, or having a cement floor in their houses.” For months, he said, the market price for coffee has been depressed, hovering at around 50 cents per pound. Fair-trade certification more than doubles that price--but only if the farmer can be matched with a buyer. (The retail price for fair-trade coffee is comparable to the price for other high-end coffee--around $11 a pound.)

“The really sad thing right now is that there are far more farmers who are fair-trade certified than are benefiting from the system because we’ve only been pushing it for around three years,” Marks said. “Fair-trade coffee is available now in about 7,000 retail outlets around the country, and 2,000 of them are Starbucks. So the great thing about this initiative is that it’s a step toward filling the demand.”

Choking on

Social Responsibility

Critics of the initiative, however, complain that it forces social responsibility down the throats of consumers and merchants. (“A Great City’s People Forced to Stop Drinking Swill?” read a recent headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, a witty but pointed homage to its famous headline on an investigative probe that found the coffee in that “great city” to be subpar.)

The city of Berkeley already has an ordinance, passed three years ago, limiting city departmental purchasing to fair-trade, shade-grown, organic coffee. But Mayor Shirley Dean, who authored that law, says Young’s broader initiative would require battalions of inspectors to patrol the cafes. Moreover, she says, Berkeley’s customer base is so sensitive to social and environmental issues that most of the city’s coffeehouses already have to offer at least one kind of fair-trade coffee as an option, just to satisfy consumers.

“What I’m hearing from constituents is, ‘Hey, this is wonderful and environmentally and socially responsible, but don’t take our choice from us,’ ” said the mayor. “It’s one thing to put fair trade into the vendor bids for our city-operated camps and senior centers, but this is a huge, different step.”

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Moreover, coffeehouse owners say, the initiative could enrich one set of poor coffee farmers at the expense of another, limit choice and lower quality.

“The espresso I sell isn’t fair trade--it’s expensive, high-end coffee that doesn’t need to be fair trade because its farmers already get a lot of money for it,” said Daryl Ross, who owns four Berkeley coffeehouses, including the highly regarded Caffe Strada and the Boalt Hall coffee shop. “So why should I have to discontinue this great coffee on which I built my business and stock a lower-end coffee that’s the same price but not as good quality? Especially when I already offer a fair-trade option for all my non-espresso drinks?”

Young--a bachelor who, before he entered law school, traveled the world as an English teacher, bike tour leader and ski instructor--says the ordinance is necessary because, until fair-trade coffee becomes a mandate, too many consumers will forget to ask for it. For exploitation to end, he says, social responsibility has to happen en masse, something which he believes cannot happen solely through good intentions.

If They Can’t Buy It,

They Won’t Drink It

“People want to do the right thing, but to do it every single time is like being on a diet or something. If you can’t buy the bad coffee, it’s like padlocking your refrigerator,” he said.

This conclusion was cemented, he says, in his second year at Boalt Hall, when, as a co-chairman of the school’s environmental law club, he noticed a lack of fair-trade offerings at the law school coffee shop. Young says he went to Ross, the owner, and demanded that he offer more fair-trade coffee; Ross says that Young wanted him to exclusively offer fair-trade coffee.

The conversation ended with Young threatening to boycott the shop and pass out free coffee to his fellow, and famously caffeine-dependent, law students. Ross says the boycott failed to gain backers; Young says it was cut short because, on the morning the free coffee was to be distributed, Ross put out a pot of fair-trade brew.

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Young ended up using the experience in a class paper exploring the legality of a ban on non-fair-trade coffee, which he has given to the city in support of his initiative. He wrote it, he added, in the midst of yet another political battle--a one-man, three-week sit-in to halt construction of a university parking structure. (That protest, which ended with Young and some demonstrators taking sledgehammers to a 1979 Datsun, had no impact, except for Young getting arrested.)

“Compared with that,” he said, lounging in the $325-a-month room he has lived in since law school, “this coffee thing is way more mainstream. I went from breaking law to making law.”

Ross, the coffeehouse owner, says Young’s coffee initiative is merely an effort to “to fill out his activist resume” and burnish his Berkeley credentials. Young says he began gathering signatures only after failing to enlist several members of the Berkeley City Council in his cause. When they told him they didn’t think it had sufficient votes on the council, he says, he began passing petitions. The initiative, which qualified for the November ballot with about 300 signatures more than the 2,044 needed, will be forwarded to the City Council on Tuesday.

Under Berkeley’s charter, the council can enact it directly or refer it for a public vote in November. A study of its fiscal impact and legality is underway by city analysts.

“I’m not doing this for attention,” Young said. “I’m doing this because I drink a lot of coffee and I don’t want to exploit anyone while I’m drinking. Also, it’s a good thing.”


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