He wants coffee with a conscience

Material World

July 14, 2002|By Evelyn Nieves | Evelyn Nieves,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BERKELEY, Calif. - In a city of one cafe after another, three to four to a block on some streets, Rick Young chooses his coffeehouses carefully. He takes his java strong, fresh and only with fair trade.

The way he sees it, the world, or at least Berkeley, would be closer to perfect if every restaurant, every 7-Eleven and every bake sale served only fair-trade-certified coffee - coffee that guarantees its suppliers provide a so-called living wage to small farmers in developing countries. Or that the coffee is shade-grown to protect sensitive environments. Or it would be grown without pesticides.

Young, a 36-year-old rookie lawyer out of the University of California at Berkeley law school, has made it a mission to make this happen.

After gathering 3,000 signatures, Young's voter initiative requiring that all cups of coffee sold in Berkeley can be described as fair trade, shade-grown or organic has qualified for the November ballot. If it passes, it would make this the only city in the nation with an official coffee policy.

"If there's an alternative to harming the environment and the coffee tastes just as great, why not?" he said one recent morning, sprawled in a chair outside A Cuppa Tea, which serves only fair-trade brews.

Naysayers are already repeating things like, "Only in Berzerkeley."

But even in Berkeley, Young's initiative is not guaranteed success. The City Council has been mumbling about the ordinance being too oppressive. Even the mayor, Shirley Dean, who wrote a 1999 regulation requiring that all coffee purchased by the city be fair trade, is skeptical.

"People feel torn," Dean said. "They like the idea of drinking an environmentally safe and socially responsible coffee. But there are questions over the restraint of trade."

Dean was clearly torn herself. She pushed for the rule on fair-trade coffee in city government after watching a documentary about South American growers.

"But how can we enforce such a law?" she said, in a city with more than 300 establishments that would be affected. "How will we tell which coffee is certified? You can't do a taste test. What would this law mean for our business inspectors? How do you balance the socially responsible against the practical?"

So far, specialty coffee chains, like Peet's (which was born in Berkeley) and Starbucks (whose founders learned the ropes at Peet's) have demurred from commenting on the initiative. Both offer fair-trade coffee beans to customers as options. Other cafe owners in Berkeley are annoyed, if not downright incensed, at Young's idea.

"The proposal seems fascist," said Darryl Ross, owner of several cafes, including one, across from the UC-Berkeley law school campus, that serves only fair trade coffee.

"No business wants to be forced to carry a specific brand," said Ross, who remembered when Young was a student and threatened a boycott of his cafe if he did not go the fair-trade-only route.

Samir Nassar, owner of Brewed Awakening, a family-run cafe that offers organic and fair-trade coffee as an option, said restricting the business would cost customers more because the coffee itself is pricier.

"I would say 99.9 percent of my customers are making fun of the petitioner," he said. "They think he has too much time on his hands."

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