Magazine article New Internationalist

The People vs Starbucks

Magazine article New Internationalist

The People vs Starbucks

Article excerpt

I'm writing this in Starbucks, but it's hard to concentrate. The guy behind the counter keeps bellowing incomprehensible orders, ('Extra-hot-Signature-Spiced-Pumpkin-Latte-WithSoya-Milk!"Skinny-White-Choc-Mocha-No-Cream!') while the muffins behind the counter wink at me distractingly. On the wall a grinning Latino farmer supports the proclamation: 'Good Coffee Can Do Good Things.'

The entire store is saturated with branding and subconscious images - even the tissues have been stamped:'Less napkins [sic]. More plants. More planet.'

More than any other mainstream multinational, Starbucks tries to present itself as ethically virtuous: the company knows that corporate social responsibility (CSR) sells. The first page of Starbucks' 2006 CSR report reads: 'For us, corporate social responsibility is not just a programme or a donation or a press release. It's the way we do business every day.' In an interview with 60 Minutes Howard Schulte, the company's CEO, evangelized:'We're in the business of human connection and humanity. We set out to become a company that would create and achieve the balance between profitability and... a love of benevolence.' A corporation that profits from such statements must not be surprised when consumers seek to hold them accountable to their promises or when the reality behind their rhetoric gets questioned.

Taking a sip from the cup of frothy white stuff by my side, I think about the 40 million Starbucks customers around the world who will do the same this week. The store I'm sitting at in North London is packed: it's just one of Starbucks' 12,440 stores situated across 37 countries (at the time of writing). In 2006, this global empire delivered the corporation a net revenue of $7.8 billion - a figure over three times the size of Liberia's GDP. Not bad for a company that came into existence in 1971.

Starbucks' titanic rise doesn't just say something about consumer preferences; it also says something about global society. The corporations green and white logo - the mermaid with no nipples stamped on the cup by my side - has come to represent more than Starbucks' stores; it has become an icon of globalization itself. Starbucks symbolizes the rising role of corporations, service industries and flexible wage schedules. It fits into a bigger pattern that has developed between consumption in the West and exploitation in the Majority World, making it a strategic target for anti-globalization protesters. It is also symptomatic of a rising culture of consumption; no longer are our coffee shops smoky hubs of political activism. It seems that the Bohemians have been replaced by yuppies and the revolution substituted by extra cream.

But just as Starbucks' rise says something about our society, so too may its decline. The number of store transactions was down in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year 2007 for the first time in the company's history, prompting Schultz to fire his top dog and resume his position as CEO after a gap of almost eight years. The stores, he says, are suffering from the McDonald's effect, with the corporations huge expansion draining away the romance and theatre' of older outlets which no longer have the soul of the past'. Schultz's re-ascension to CEO is unlikely to transport Starbucks into the romantic, socially responsible reality he projects. People around the world are reacting against Starbucks, not just by withdrawing their custom, but by outright protest.

By fair means or foul

In February 2007, a delegation of Starbucks baristas (waiters) from New York flew to Ethiopia to meet the people producing the coffee they sold. They returned with a video of interviews with the coffee farmers.

'We work hard, we labour hard, but we do not get our sweats worth,' said Tedasse, a farmer from Fero Co-operative. "They deceive us by telling us that they're going to help us grow, but they are the ones that are growing.'

The farmers told the delegation that they were being paid $0. …

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