Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ethiopia, Starbucks and a preacher named Billy

One of the things that I've learned, since we met and adopted our daughter in Ethiopia in 2003, is that we are all implicated in what is happening in that place. Just as certainly as people are dying in mines and rebel wars in the Congo to produce the coltan and tantalum in your cel phone, so too are Ethiopian coffee farmers earning pennies on the dollar so that Starbucks can sell you a cup of Sidamo for $4.

For nearly two years now, Starbucks, one of the world's most successful corporations, has been blocking efforts by Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries, to trademark the names of their coffees. According to Oxfam, trademarking could help Ethiopian farmers get as much as $88 million a year more for their coffee. As one farmers' co-op in Ethiopia puts it,"We don't want help. We want a good price for the coffee."

But Starbucks wants to keep the trademark of Shirkina Sun-Dried Sidamo coffee for itself. Not because it's right, but because they can.

Enter the right Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. Billy is the activist alter ego of Bill Talen, a preacher with little actual theological training in his past but lots of Elvis in his hips. For the past few months, Reverend Billy and his choir have been protesting Starbucks' bullying of Ethiopia by exorcising Starbucks cafes in New York City--that is to say, staging sit-ins there and then getting arrested for it.

As the Reverend puts it, he believes that "Consumerism is overwhelming our lives. The corporations want us to have experiences only through their products....But if we "back away from the product" - even a little bit, well then we Put The Odd Back In God! The supermodels fly away and we're left with our original sensuality. So we are singing and preaching for local economies and real - not mediated through products -- experience."

I've met Billy and he's a very intense (and funny) guy. He's way more righteous than me, and I don't think I could do what he has done, and give up all my transnational corporate shopping. I would also like to give you, dear reader, a well-reasoned and provocative critique of why Starbucks insists on treating Ethiopia as if it were a wealthy transnational corporation. Or at least make a good, stinging joke about their ethics. But I have to go pick up the kid at Kindergarten, and it would all boil down to this anyway:

You know what? Fuck a buncha Starbucks. I think I can quit Starbucks for awhile. Or forever.


Swerl said...

I loooove Rev. Billy.

The mis/dis/mixed-information campaign around this issue has been very intense.

I do a blog aimed at the Ethiopian Adoption community in the US, primarily. Lots of religious conservatives seem drawn to that particular experience. Although I am not conservative, I struggle to find ways to communicate in a non-inflammatory way. I'm not quite Rev. Billy. How do you explain the Starbucks situation to a bunch of free-market-leaning folks?

I can be found at:

pat said...

Just a note on my way over to your blog: Yeah, the non-inflammatory comm is hard. I don't do it well. Billy is funny, and that's important. The blogger Angry Black Bitch is also very funny and very politically on-point.
My feeling about the Starbucks situation is that this corporation is dealing with a very poor country as if it were another corporation. I think that is illogical even if you believe in a "free market" (I don't.) From an ethical point of view, it seems wrong, and from a pragamatic point of view, it seems like a public relations liability.
That's just my two cents, though.
Thanks for the contact and the smart comment. Where in Ethiopia is your child from, BTW? Adinah was born near Adwa.....