Yesterday’s Sunday Times (London) ran a story concerning McDonald’s UK’s announcement of a coffee supply partnership with the Rainforest Alliance: McDonald’s brews up £1m fair trade deal – Sunday Times – Times Online. At first read, I opted not to add a blog entry on how the Rainforest Alliance served as another alternative example to Fair Trade certification — to which some have errantly afforded an ethical monopoly status. I didn’t feel the need to add to what’s becoming a tedious Fair Trade debate. (Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade differ, for example, in that the former does not attempt to guarantee minimum wages for growers.)

But then the news really caught on in the U.S. today, and with a different competitive twist with regards to Starbucks: Marketplace: McDonald’s coffee one-ups Starbucks. McDonald’s UK is putting forth a nearly $1 million advertising campaign for their coffee supplies, highlighting that “our coffee doesn’t cost the earth”.

Greener Than Thou

This seems like another evolutionary stage in what many have considered the market perversion of Fair Trade coffee. Back in the 1980s, Fair Trade was envisioned as a means of protecting the small grower from big business interests who would steamroll over them faster than you can say “16¢-a-pound robusta”. After years of stiff resistance, many purveyors of Big Coffee changed their position and soon embraced Fair Trade. While some argued this was a positive step for the coffee trade overall, others would eventually go on to say that Big Coffee has since co-opted Fair Trade for their own purposes: using it to shield their corporate entities from unfair practice claims and ultimately altering its mission to support larger corporate goals.

For example, Kraft, one of coffee’s Big Four, began buying Rainforest Alliance Certified beans in 2003 for worldwide use in their consumer coffees, including Yubana mass-produced coffee that’s Kenneth Davids recently described as, “steamed to remove the sewery taints these coffees acquire through being dried inside the fruit in rotting heaps.” Mmmm, mmmm. Nothing says “good morning” like a steaming cup of sewery, rotting coffee. And a year ago, we also reported on Kraft’s Big Four brother, Nestlé, and their investments in sustainable coffee farming.

The quantum leap here? McDonald’s is now wielding their newly acquired badge of ethical behavior as a marketing weapon against the likes of Starbucks. “My coffee is more ethical than yours, and I’ve got friends to back me up. Nyeah.”

UPDATE: January 10, 2007
This story still has legs. This time, the question is whether or not McDonald’s tipped the balance — tarnishing and dragging down the image of fair trade coffees perhaps more than the coffee afforded McDonald’s a free pass on ethical standards: Who’s lovin’ it? McDonald’s splits opinion with fair trade coffee. To wit: “The fair trade movement was established to challenge the practices of companies like McDonald’s, a multinational with a notorious record on key issues such as decent pay and conditions for its workers.”