corporate responsibility fair trade media websites

Choose your words carefully

I learned a few lessons about the internet recently:

There’s a Starbucks outside my window here at the office. I’m looking at it right now. A few weeks back I saw balloons up on my way in, enquired, and found that Starbucks had launched a new ethical espresso. I got into work and fired off a quick post. I wasn’t particularly complimentary. The line ‘good for Starbucks for smartening up their practices’ did appear in the post, but the overall tone was a little cynical.

However, because I wrote about it so quickly, and the press release came somewhat obscurely from Conservation International and nobody really picked up on it, we kind of broke the story. If you did a Google search for ‘Starbucks shared planet’ on the day of release, Make Wealth History came top, ahead of Starbucks’ own site. Because of this, as the story spread wider, we were repeatedly mentioned or quoted as a source. The Independent were the only major paper who reported it, calling it ‘Fairtrade-lite’, and so subsequent articles seemed to take their cue from those two.

This would have been some nice exposure for Make Wealth History, except that this was a two-minute off the cuff post, hardly a serious bit of journalism. If I were to choose a post to draw attention to the blog, it wouldn’t have been that one. Still, ‘new ethical espresso criticized’ said the headline at Drinks Business Review, using us and the Independent as sources. ‘Starbucks launch of ethical espresso draws criticism’ proclaimed Caterer Research: “Predictably,” writes Ian Boughton in the latter, “the world’s media and activist forums have had a field day. The Make Wealth History site complained that Starbucks was doing its best to avoid systems which required external monitoring of its concept of ‘ethical’, while the Independent said that the concept was a kind of ‘Fairtrade-Lite’”

What can I say? It’s flattering that between me and the Independent the ‘world’s media and activist forums’ managed to have ‘a field day’, but I was more raising an eyebrow than saying Starbucks were actively avoiding external monitoring. (They’re monitored by Rainforest Alliance and Conservation International, so it wouldn’t be true anyway.)

In the end it was only really a few catering websites and coffee bloggers, so it’s not so serious in the grand scheme of things. But, it’s a useful lesson for future posting, so here’s what I learned:

  • Internet content providers are lazy. They say journalists are lazy, and you only have to compare a press release and a selection of articles written from it to see that a lot of reporters don’t stray far from what’s given to them at face value. Internet content providers are even lazier it would seem – people quoting us about Starbucks were quoting the first thing that came up on google, and that’s pretty darn lazy.
  • Spin can be accidental as well as deliberate. The art of spin doctoring is to release a story with your particular slant on it, and hope that everyone else follows suit. Given the point above, the media often will. Unfortunately I feel like we accidentally ‘spun’ the Starbucks story. It’s a good thing, really, that Starbucks want to be more ethical.
  • Think before you post. This is the heart of it. It’s better to be last to post a story and have something useful to say about it than the first and contribute nothing to the debate.
  • Cynicism is easy. It’s also ugly, and if my first reaction is going to be cynicism than that’s all the more reason to wait a little bit before posting something.

I want Make Wealth History to be known for solutions as much as problems, for constructive posts as much as critiques. There are plenty of cynical blogs, and I’d like to hope that this one strives for something more positive. In future, if you think we’re being too cynical about something, please call us on it.


  1. Still pretty cool being quoted as an authority in the media! As they say, no publicity is bad, and hopefully people will be interested enough to visit the site and see the real spirit of it. I myself am always a little cynical about Rainforest Alliance, even though I don’t know much about them (oops!) because they are the ethical body of choice for the big companies like Starbucks, Typhoo, etc, and so I always assume they must be less stringent than Fairtrade. I might be wrong of course…..

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