Sept. 7 2011 12:00 AM


If it were true that Wal-Mart had “always low prices,” would people shop anywhere else? Given the thousands of other retail outlets, I guess the answer is yes. Which might indicate that things other than price matter to consumers and/or that Wal-Mart doesn’t always have low prices. But this column isn’t about Wal-Mart. It’s about finding values beyond price that matter to us as consumers —values that may include an item’s impact on the environment or the workers or the community or even on future generations. 

Polls show that these kinds of things do matter to us, but the marketplace has not generally provided the information that can help us align our values with our purchases. So let’s kick off this discussion with a cup of coffee. 

Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world. What do we look for in that purchase? Well, besides taste and cost, location is important. On Grand River in East Lansing  the choices include a Starbucks, Espresso Royale, Biggby’s (MSU Union), Bruegger’s Bagels, Barnes & Noble Café, Cosi and Grand River Coffee, all close together and all selling tasty coffee. Decor and ambience differ slightly, as do prices, which are roughly within 25 cents of each other.

But, of course, this is only the retail cost. What about the less visible costs that get passed along to others? If they were more visible would it shift where we buy our coffee?

Almost a decade ago I learned about the fair trade movement and decided that, where I had an option, I would pay a premium, if necessary, to support the principles of fair trade — environmentally sensitive growing practices, decent wages for labor throughout the production chain, etc. Coffee shops and retailers were slow to pick up on this and sell (let alone promote) certified “fair trade” coffee. I was thrilled when, working at MSU, the Sparty coffee shops on campus became early adopters of fair trade Rwanda coffee and among the earliest practitioners of serving ONLY fair trade coffee.  They didn’t stop there; they added fair trade teas and sugar. It became a marketing advantage among people who feel good about supporting others with their purchases. I became an unpaid marketer of Sparty’s myself. 

A few years ago the wholesale difference of fair trade vs. non-fair trade coffee was about a $1/pound. Since a pound makes about 40 cups, that’s a $0.025/cup increase.  Why would retailers not want to offer the fair trade variety even if they had to lose that amount (though it is more likely they could raise the cost a nickel and increase their profit)? Wouldn’t the owners/managers want to identify the positive elements that could help distinguish their products?

In my walking tour of the coffee shops, I observed that only Bruegger’s sells only fair trade coffee. Grand River Coffee offers fair trade for non-flavored coffees. Cosi, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble offer none (although Starbucks, which is also the coffee brand sold at Barnes & Noble, claims that it buys “responsibly grown” coffee, meaning it includes some third-party certification). Espresso Royale and Biggby’s typically offer at least one fair trade option daily. Disappointingly, none market their coffee around fair trade or other forms of corporate responsibility. 

Other variations I observed between shops include lighting choices — incandescent vs. LED vs. CFL — and disposable paper cups only versus reusable mugs. But other less visible business practices interest me more: Do they pay their help a living wage? Are they reducing waste through reuse or recycling or composting?

I’d love to walk through the door of a business that proclaims it is attempting to be a “zero waste” entity or that “we are proud to pay even our lowest paid employee a living wage.” I’d walk an extra mile to support that kind of business. Interestingly, Paramount Coffee, one of the region’s largest coffee roasters and wholesalers, is an employee-owned business. There’s a start.