Starbucks sued for allegedly misleading claims on ethical sourcing

The lawsuit questions Starbucks' claim of being "committed to 100% ethical coffee sourcing."
Starbucks sign hangs outside a coffee shop.
Posted at 4:27 PM, Jan 11, 2024

Starbucks faces a lawsuit for allegedly falsely advertising "ethically sourced” tea and coffee when it was allegedly obtained from farms accused of human rights violations in other countries. 

The National Consumers League, a consumer advocacy group, filed a lawsuit on Wednesday in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, accusing the coffee giant of sourcing “coffee beans and tea leaves from cooperatives and farms that have committed documented, severe human rights and labor abuses, including the use of child labor and forced labor as well as rampant and egregious sexual harassment and assault."

The group raised concerns about Starbucks' packaging, questioning the validity of the company's claim to be "committed to 100% ethical coffee sourcing."

The lawsuit referenced the following incidents from news reports in Kenya, Brazil, and Guatemala spanning from 2020 to 2023:

In 2020, the UK's Dispatches TV exposed widespread child labor in Guatemala on farms supplying beans to Starbucks, where children under 13 were found working.

Following this report, Starbucks launched an investigation and found that they did not purchase coffee from the farms in question during the harvest of that season.

Repórter Brasil reported on a case in which police rescued 17 workers, including three teenagers, from a Brazilian coffee farm after they were forced to work outdoors without protective gear and lift 130-pound coffee sacks in 2022. As a response to this, Starbucks says they are working with their partners on the ground to bring about positive change for farming communities in Brazil.

And in 2023, the BBC exposed widespread sexual abuse and harsh working conditions at the James Finlay tea plantation in Kenya. Following a further investigation on this case by the Rainforest Alliance, Starbucks ended all purchasing from the supplier in question. 

"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 Scripps 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." 

Starbucks purchases 3% of the world's coffee from over 400,000 farmers across over 30 countries, and says that the foundation of their "ethical coffee sourcing strategy" was launched in 2004, adding: "Developed in collaboration with Conservation International, C.A.F.E. Practices is a verification program that measures farms against economic, social and environmental criteria, all designed to promote transparent, profitable and sustainable coffee growing practices while also protecting the well-being of coffee farmers and workers, their families and their communities."