Brewing a greener cuppa joe at Starbucks and Thanksgiving Coffee

Aside from being in the coffee trade, Starbucks and Thanksgiving Coffee would appear to have little in common.

Seattle-based Starbucks is a FORTUNE 500 company (2011 revenues: $11.7 billion) that sells its brews all over the world, pursues global dominance (its latest outpost is Helsinki) and owns an iconic brand. The company bought about 428 million pounds of coffee last year.

Thanksgiving Coffee is a family-owned, artisan roaster that sells most of its coffee to grocers, specialty stores and restaurants near its home base in Mendocino County, CA, where the other popular crop is often smoked. Thanksgiving bought about 500,000 pounds of coffee last year.

Yet the big coffee company and the little one share a couple of important goals.

First, they want to win the trust of their customers and, of course, their own employees. One way to do that is by showing them that their coffee is ethically sourced. Starbucks talks about responsibly grown coffee, citing its Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices, a set of social, economic, environmental and quality guidelines. Thanksgiving's slogan is "Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup." Reputation matters, whether you are big or small.

But, even if reputation didn't matter (and to most customers, it probably doesn't), Starbucks and Thanksgiving need to devote their attention to the social and environmental practices of their growers, upon whom they depend for a reliable supply of high-quality coffee. If their coffee farmers run into trouble -- because of low coffee prices, poor environmental practices or climate change -- Starbucks and Thanksgiving will struggle, too.

The other day, I wrote about the Fair Trade movement and its efforts to improve the lives of coffee growers. (See my blog post, A Schism over Fair Trade.) About 9 percent of the coffee sold by Starbucks in the U.S. is certified as Fair Trade; all of Thanksgiving's coffee is Fair Trade certified. Today, I'll dig a bit deeper into the ways Starbucks and Thanksgiving work with growers.

By way of background, coffee, as you may know, is the most widely traded agricultural commodity in the tropics, providing a livelihood to tends of millions of farmers. (Brazil and Vietnam are the largest exporters, followed by Colombia, Ethiopia and Indonesia.) Historically, the relationship between buyers and growers has been transactional; prices paid to farmers sometimes didn't cover their costs, forcing them into cycles of debt and poverty. Cheap, low-grade coffee known as robusta is still traded as global commodity, with wildly fluctuating prices, sometimes less than $1 a pound.