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Monday, April 18, 2005; Page E02

Socially Conscious Debate Over Coffee at American U.

At a boisterous rally at American University on Friday, there were chants for fairness, handmade signs appealing for social justice and speeches demanding accountability.

The cause: coffee. And who gets to sell the beverage on the university's Northwest D.C. campus.

The closure of an Auntie Anne's pretzel shop in the university's student dining center has created an opening for a coffee house and triggered an emotionally charged debate over fair trade, corporate responsibility and the right to a good cup of java.

So far, there are two coffee contenders. In one corner: Starbucks Corp., the industry titan, with 8,500 outlets and one of the most visible brand names in the world.

In the other: Pura Vida, a division of a nonprofit, with about 140 locations and a brand name that's less than universally known.

University administrators will make the choice, but that has not stopped students and the coffee companies from pleading their cases.

For months, a coalition of student groups has lobbied for Pura Vida Coffee, arguing it is better suited to a school that claims social responsibility as a guiding principle. Pura Vida pours only "fair trade" coffee, a generally more expensive variety intended to return more profits to hardworking growers in coffee-growing countries.

Starbucks has its supporters as well. The student General Assembly backed the chain's bid to come to campus. Some students note that Starbucks also buys fair-trade coffee, which is certified by a third party. But at Starbucks, the fair-trade beans account for about 2 percent of what it sells. A company spokeswoman said the rest is bought using strict guidelines that take into account coffee growers' pay and health benefits.

Officials from both companies have visited campus to speak with students. But at the rally on Friday, attended by about 50 students, nobody spoke up for Starbucks. "I think a latte is more tasty if its grown by workers who made a living wage," shouted one student. Another waved a placard advocating "People Over Profit."

Nearby, students lounged on benches, indifferent to the coffee war percolating around them. "There is a small constituency who is worried about fair trade," said Robin Fulton, a 21-year-old junior. "The rest of us like Starbucks."

-- Michael Barbaro


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