Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino

Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino

Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino

Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino


You can find a Starbucks coffeehouse almost anywhere, from Paris, France to Paducah, Kentucky, from the crowded streets of Thailand to shopping malls in Qatar. With nearly 200 of them in New York City alone, this coffee retail giant with humble beginnings has become an actor and icon in the global economy. As we sip our cappuccinos, frappuccinos, and our double half-caf venti low-fat mochaccinos, many of us wonder if Starbucks is a haven of civilization or a cultural predator, a good or bad employer, a fair trader or a global menace. In this entertaining and provocative ramble through Starbucks's ethos and actions, Kim Fellner asks how a coffeehouse chain with a liberal reputation came to symbolize, for some, the ills of globalization.

Armed with an open mind and a sense of humor, Fellner takes readers on an expedition into the muscle and soul of the coffee company. She finds a corporation filled with contradictions: between employee-friendly processes and anti-union practices; between an internationalist vision and a longing for global dominance; between community individuality and cultural hegemony. On a daily basis Starbucks walks a fine line. It must be profitable enough to please Wall Street and principled enough to please social justice advocates. Although observers might argue that the company has done well at achieving a balance, Starbucks's leaders run the risk of satisfying neither constituency and must constantly justify themselves to both.

Through the voices of Central American coffee farmers, officers at corporate headquarters, independent café owners, unionists, baristas, traders, global justice activists, and consumers, Fellner explores the forces that affect Starbucks's worth and worthiness. Along the way, she subjects her own unabashedly progressive perspective to scrutiny and emerges with a compelling and unexpected look at Starbucks, the global economy, our economic convictions, and the values behind our morning cup of joe.


It was November 30, 1999. I was standing amid a horde of demonstrators at what was about to be dubbed “the Battle of Seattle,” the protest against the World Trade Organization (WTO) that hurled global justice into the headlines and gave new meaning to our macchiatos. Suddenly there was a crash not twenty feet from where I stood, and the Starbucks window collapsed in a hail of glass. “Hey,” I said to my husband, Alec, “That’s our coffee store!”

Right there, on a cool November day, near the intersection of Fifth and Pine in downtown Seattle, our parallel universes—as consumers, global justice activists, and union members—collided. the global economy had come home to roost. and apparently, to roast.

Howard Schultz, the dynamic and driven founder of Starbucks as we know it, later recalled that the impending protests were not even a blip on his radar screen, although they were soon to rumble his world. “I don’t recall any structured meeting whatsoever about the wto here at Starbucks,” he told me. “I don’t remember any preparation, sensitivity, or concern. Maybe that speaks to us being naïve about our own place in the world. So I was so surprised and horrified to, in a matter of minutes, be in the eye of the hurricane. I was watching tv, and it kept rewinding on someone throwing something through a Starbucks window, people running into the store. Starbucks became sort of the . . .

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