By Colleen J. Brisport, graduate of the MA in Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

My thesis explores current theories on business, fair trade and human rights developed by scholars such as John Ruggie and Laura Raynolds. These academics have articulated the difficulties and the improbabilities of corporations sincerely incorporating human rights within their business operations. Several scholars of human rights and business, such as Kenneth Roth, believe that the ‘naming and shaming’ tactics of non-profit organizations, voluntary industry standards and legal suits are ways in which we can pressure businesses to consider human rights in their business operations and hold them accountable for their actions. However, my thesis supports a different approach and illustrates how the Starbucks Coffee Company and Coopetarrazu Coffee Cooperative have worked cooperatively to make economic, social and cultural rights of the Tarrazú coffee farmers an important aspect of their business relationship.

I was fourteen years old when I participated in one of the most influential service projects of my life. This event was a day of service in which a small group of students planned youth service projects, ranging from park cleanups to visits to the elderly, for over 15,000 youth volunteers.

For the four years I was involved in planning the event, Starbucks provided the after-school caffeine necessary to plan this very large and demanding day of service. They would also provide breakfast and coffee for the day of the event so that our volunteers would be ready and energized to commit to a full day of service work.  Although many different experiences and academic pursuits have lead me to write my thesis on business and human rights, I am confident that my positive experience with corporations has made me a passionate advocate and believer for integrating human rights in the private sector.

Coffee Fields in Tarrazú (tall banana trees provide the shade for the coffee plants necessary for organic farming). Photo: Colleen Brisport

The reason I chose to study Tarrazú, Costa Rica and their relationship with Starbucks Coffee Corporation is because the people of Tarrazú truly identify as a coffee community and the cultivation of coffee is integral to their social, cultural and economic rights.

The Costa Rican Coffee Institute describes the country’s relationship with coffee as such: “To truly comprehend the meaning of coffee for Costa Rica, it is important to understand that for us it is an everyday matter, but that it also represents a great value for the country’s socio-economic and environmental system.”  As a result of this relationship to coffee production, I believed that they would be very sensitive and critical of any relationship they had with private companies.

The processing plant at Coopetarrazu Coffee Cooperative. Photo: Colleen Brisport.

I traveled to Tarrazú, Costa Rica during March 2012; I expected to find the coffee farmers discontented about their relationship with Starbucks.  One of the most interesting aspects of this relationship was that the coffee farmers did not identify as poor farmers who were victims of capitalism and globalization as described in the literature on coffee farming and human rights. For example, in Guatemala coffee farmers are not paid a minimum wage and child labor is rampant.  As noted in The Ecologist, typically coffee farmers only earn about 10% of the retail price of the coffee they produce.  It was made clear to me in my discussions with farmers and the cooperative staff that they regarded themselves as professional business people who desired to make a profit from a product they love.  They perceive their challenges as normal experiences of any entrepreneur and seek positive relationships with multinational companies, buyers and distributors of coffee to overcome these challenges. Starbucks acknowledged this and works to ensure predictable coffee production quantity and quality for the company and for Coopetarrazu.

Even before Starbucks offered their assistance, the Tarrazú farmers were aware that conventional agriculture was ruining the environment. They knew that there was both an environmental need (due to polluted water sources and soil dilution of nutrients) and an economic need (increasing consumer demand for organic coffee) to switch to organic coffee. Starbucks is the first company to come to the community and discuss issues of environmentalism and sustainability. The most significant contribution that Starbucks has made to the community is the involvement of Starbucks scientists and agronomists in assisting the Tarrazú coffee farmers’ switch to organic farming. This is accomplished through farmers support centers where coffee farmers are trained in sustainable farming techniques.

Starbucks supports human rights by paying a price for coffee that is high enough to maintain the livelihoods of the farmers and uses ILO guidelines to monitor working conditions for coffee pickers. However, the most important aspect of the relationship cited by both Starbucks and Coopetarrazu is the ability to maintain an open and transparent relationship between the two organizations. I could certainly tell there was an amicable relationship between the two, when a cooperative administrator told me to say hello to his friends in the Starbucks office in San Jose Costa Rica.

Starbucks is currently conducting research on which coffee plants grow best in the various climates in the regions of Costa Rica where they source their coffee. The most significant aspect of the Starbucks-Coopetarrazu partnership is that Costa Rica is a country that is very environmentally conscious, believes in labor rights, is the most developed in comparison to its neighbors and still welcomes the suggestions and regulations of a private company. This suggests that the private sector can provide services, knowledge and a relationship to agricultural workers that is necessary for them to sustain their livelihoods, societies and cultures.

Sign outside the Costa Rican Coffee Institute in Tarrazú, Costa Rica.  Photo: Colleen Brisport.

It is very easy to become frustrated and irate about the egregious human rights violations of corporations. It is even more daunting when human rights advocates realize there are little legal tools or international agreements to protect individuals from corporate human rights abuses. As a result, I hope my thesis can inspire both businesses and advocates to seriously explore ways in which profits, business models, employees, producers and consumers can combine efforts to make human rights an important internal matter for private corporations. The case of Starbucks and Coopetarrazu is one example of this type of relationship.


Colleen Brisport graduated from the MA in Human Rights Studies program in October 2012 and is currently enrolled at New England School of Law in Boston. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career in business and legal consulting for organizations interested in social entrepreneurship, human rights and corporate social responsibility.  She would like to thank the community of Tarrazú, Costa Rica for participating in her research program and providing her with an invaluable life and learning experience.


  • Jeff Schneider

    That is only one study. What of the people in Ethiopia? Currently, according to the Kenan Institute, the century old coffee plantations are being burned down because Starbucks corp doesn’t pay a premium, and the government was forced to sell the marketing rights to stay in the global market. Starbucks corp theartened to block Ethiopia from the international trade market if the Ethiopian people didn’t comply with this transaction. So how is Starbucks corp fulfilling its end to human rights when Starbucks violates the rights of the Ethiopian people? Not a very comorehensive study.

    • Colleen Brisport

      Jeff Schneider, thank you for your comments. I have acknowledged the issues you have raised in my final thesis. Specifically, I have addressed the human rights violations that Starbucks has committed in Ethiopia. I think it is important to highlight what companies do well, as an example of “best practices” instead of just highlighting negative issues. The human rights community does a great job of evaluating what companies do negatively. I believe that now we need to work to see what positive policies that protect human rights exist and encourage companies to implement those policies.

  • Tamara

    Hi Colleen,

    I really enjoyed reading this because I used to live in Tarrazu and spent a lot of time working with coffee farmers there. I hate the “helping poor coffee farmers” mentality. As you mentioned, they are entrepreneurs, and they are doing their best to survive in a challenging, and often ruthless international market. A lot of the farmers in Tarrazu acknowledge that Starbucks helped the community overcome prior local economic depression, which was caused by a push for quantity over quality and a depreciation in coffee prices.

    However, I am curious about who you spoke with, because at the time of your thesis, there were and still are mixed feelings about Coopetarrazu, the criticism being around the cooperative functioning more like a corporation than a cooperative, and losing sight of its community responsibility. I’d also be curious to hear your thoughts around Starbucks shifting to a vertical supply chain model in Costa Rica and how that impacts the farmers.

  • Hello Tamara.

    Thank you for your insights. There were definitely an array of opinions among the coffee farmers and cooperative leadership regarding Starbucks’ involvement in the area.

    My intent was and my intent with any research is to identify what corporate practices are WORKING for the community. This is because there is a lot of research regarding what is NOT working for the community. I hope to create a collection of best practices for other companies in the coffee industry to follow.

    As of yet I have not evaluated Starbucks’ shift to the vertical supply chain, but I do appreciate your suggestion for further research.

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