As Starbucks‘ future looks ever bleaker and bleaker, CEO Howard Schultz continues his maniacal lever-pulling atop Starbucks’ runaway corporate bulldozer. After shedding themselves of music, movies, and books, they’ve tried everything from an online suggestion box and free coffee promotions to membership cards to less expensive (“daily”) roasts and smoothies. Mr. Schultz’s latest lever pull du jour seems to be coffee ethics, as this week Starbucks announced plans to source Fair Trade beans for all the espresso drinks they serve in the UK by the end of 2009: All Starbucks’ coffee to be Fairtrade – News, Food & Drink – The Independent.

This is hardly a new angle. Nearly two years ago, we wrote about McDonald’s announcement that they would source Rainforest Alliance coffee in the UK to ethically one-up Starbucks. But it was only less than a month ago that Starbucks announced that they were committed to doubling their sourcing of Fair Trade beans — albeit from less than 4% of their total coffee purchases to a whopping 6%. That makes this week’s announcement for the UK market appear to be a rapid escalation in retail coffee’s ethics wars.

The British already appear to be viewing Starbucks’ “100% Fair Trade” announcement with a surprising degree of suspicion and cynicism. And although Starbucks stated that they ultimately want to switch to 100% Fair Trade beans around the world, they would be far from the first of the major chains to do so in America. Tully’s Coffee, for example, switched to 100% Fair Trade beans over a year ago. Looking at Tully’s recent earnings statements, the move clearly hasn’t hurt Tully’s growth. But it’s hard to say if such a strategy will help pull Starbucks out of their retail funk, given that Tully’s is far from the only major coffee chain that is profiting this year while Starbucks ails.

The bigger question for us, as always, regards the legitimacy of Fair Trade and what Starbucks’ actions do to its public perception. Despite intentions, Fair Trade falls short of its goals on many levels — many of them publicized by Intelligentsia‘s rather public break-up with TransFair USA in 2006. An even bigger concern is how Fair Trade is being given an undeserved monopoly status on ethical sourcing. This issue was recently best described by Sam Mogannam, a good-friend-of-a-good-friend and owner of the Mission‘s Bi-Rite Market, at August’s “Building a Slow Food Nation” panel discussion (which was held at the the Commonwealth Club for Slow Food Nation ’08):

Anya [to Anya Fernald, Executive Director of Slow Food Nation ’08], you were talking about labels: fair-trade, organic. As important as they are, those labels were designed for the big box stores — so when you walk into a supermarket and you see an organic or a fair-trade label, you have some sense of provenance, some sense of pedigree, for those products. But there are many products that don’t have a certified organic label on them that go way beyond what an organic grower does.