Starbucks sued for false advertising over sourcing from co-ops and coffee farms with alleged rights abuses

Starbucks says it plans to ‘aggressively defend against the asserted claims’

The National Consumers League (NCL), a US consumer group, is suing Starbucks for alleged false advertising.

A multinational chain of coffee houses headquartered in Seattle, Washington, Starbucks is being sued for sourcing coffee and tea from farms that NCL claims have human rights and labour abuses. The group argues the company, which says it is committed to “100% ethical sourcing”, has continued to buy from these suppliers despite the alleged violations.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, argues the company’s marketing “misleads consumers and fails to convey the rampant sourcing from coffee and tea farms and co-operatives with a documented history of child labour, forced labour, sexual harassment and assault and other human rights abuses.”

“On every bag of coffee and box of K-cups sitting on grocery store shelves, Starbucks is telling consumers a lie,” Sally Greenberg, chief executive officer of the National Consumers League, said in a statement. “The facts are clear: there are significant human rights and labour 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.”

NCL points to a range of recent investigations by government agencies and journalists which found labour and human rights abuses at some of Starbucks’ farms and co-operatives – including those that have received the company’s Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices certification.

“Starbucks’ failure to adopt meaningful reforms to its coffee and tea sourcing practices in the face of these critiques and documented labour 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,” the NCL complaint reads. “Similarly, Starbucks’ failure to disclose to consumers the unreliability of these certification programmes and their limitations as a guarantee of ethical sourcing are misleading omissions material to the decision-making of a reasonable consumer.”

One of the examples given by NCL is the complaint filed by Brazilian Ministry of Labour and Employment inspectors against Starbucks’ largest Brazilian supplier, the Cooxupé co-operative, in 2021. The inspectors found irregularities at the farm run by Carlos Augusto Rodrigues de Melo, at the time the president of Cooxupé, who deducted almost one third of the wages of 19 coffee harvest workers to pay for the purchase of machinery and fuel to be used in the harvest. The Labour Prosecution Service and the Public Defender’s Office ordered de Melo to return the money wrongly deducted and pay each worker R$2,000 as compensation for moral damages.

“Starbucks misleadingly fails to disclose facts material to consumer purchasing decisions, including that many of its supposedly ethical suppliers have, in fact, relied on forced and/or child labour, i.e. that C.A.F.E. Practices certification does not guarantee the absence of forced and child labour,” the NCL complaint reads.

Meanwhile, Starbucks says it remains committed to ethically sourced coffee through its C.A.F.E. Practices certification.

“We are aware of the lawsuit, and plan to aggressively defend against the asserted claims that Starbucks has misrepresented its ethical sourcing commitments to customers,” a Starbucks spokesperson told Co-op News.

“We take allegations like these extremely seriously and are actively engaged with farms to ensure they adhere to our standards. Each supply chain is required to undergo reverification regularly and we remain committed to working with our business partners to meet the expectations detailed in our Global Human Rights Statement,” they added.

In a message published on 10 January, Michelle Burns, Starbucks evp of global coffee, social impact & sustainability, described C.A.F.E. Practices as a verification programme, not a one-time certification system.

“To maintain an active status in the program, each supply chain is required to undergo reverification regularly with frequency dictated by their performance in the program and the size of the farm,” she wrote.

“Starbucks relies on SCS Global Services (SCS) to ensure the quality and integrity of the third-party auditing for C.A.F.E. Practices. Evaluation criteria are open-sourced and publicly available, consisting of more than 200 indicators across four criteria areas: economic transparency, social responsibility, environmental leadership and quality,” she added.

Burns argued that in instances where Starbucks is notified of alleged violations, it takes immediate action. “We conduct an investigation that may lead to suspending the commercial relationship with a farm, or asking the farm to create a plan describing how the issue will be corrected,” she wrote.

Starbucks suspended the purchase of tea from James Finlay & Co in 2023, following a BBC Africa investigation that found sexual abuse of women by senior managers in exchange for work opportunities. Similarly, in 2020, the company also stopped sourcing coffee from Guatemalan farms featured in Channel 4 documentary that showed they used child labour.

In addition to C.A.F.E. Practices, Starbucks works alongside existing local organisation partners on the ground. Since 2020, it has supported the Global Coffee Platform’s Social Well-Being Collective Action Initiative, Verite’s Promoting Ethical Recruitment with a focus on the Brazilian Coffee Sector COFFEE Project, and a monitor skill-building project with Rainforest Alliance.

According to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a UK-based alliance of companies, trade unions and non-governmental organisations, human rights abuse occurs in supply chains worldwide, including the coffee industry.

ETI works with a range of companies to ensure compliance with international labour standards in the global supply chains of member companies.

“While there is real value in working with independent, democratic and member-run co-operatives, businesses have a responsibility to address these issues in their supply chain, in line with the UN Guiding Principles, and existing and emerging legislation,” said Peter McAllister, executive director, ETI.

ETI also warns that relying on certification schemes or social auditing to identify human rights risks can lead to a box-ticking exercise and risk representing a snapshot of a given point in time rather than the reality of daily working conditions, detect more hidden human rights violations, or discover their root causes.

“Proactive and continuous human rights due diligence and meaningful engagement with workers and their representatives are crucial to understanding, mitigating and preventing human rights abuse, at its root,” added McAllister. “At ETI we work directly with companies, trade unions and NGOs to take practical action to resolve human rights issues in global supply chains. We support businesses to identify and mitigate specific risks, driving respect for human rights and better business.”

NCL was contacted for further comments.