Starbucks: Drink Deeply, Relax, and Be Inspired?

At the beginning of the 21st century, a new phenomenon was added to popular American culture: the Starbucks juggle. This act involves a tall paper cup of coffee and possibly other items on the way to the morning’s destination. More advanced jugglers try to manage the coffee cup, a cell phone, purse and brief case as well. Most of us “Starbuckers” buy the java to go, for we are a people on the go. The Starbucks phenomenon, though it requires some juggling, fits into our on-the-go-fast-food-and-drink culture.

Along with the amazing popularity and financial success of the Starbucks Corporation, there is a cluster of myths that should be dispelled. Some of the myths are innocent and silly, but some involve serious deception and grave environmental problems. Observing and critiquing corporations is absolutely necessary these days, as recent history has shown us. Enron, World Com, H.P. Fuller, Halliburton, McDonalds, Phillip Morris, Wal-Mart, and others have been scrutinized, and well they should. The gross corporate product of many individual corporations is now larger than the gross domestic product of entire nations. Their power is enormous.

Many Starbucks stores post a sign that reads: “Starbucks: Drink Deeply, Relax, and Be Inspired.” We are invited to “kick back” and un-stress. The inspiration aspect Starbucks offers is doubtless intended to include social and environmental values. On its website and in brochures, the corporation presents itself as socially responsible and environmentally friendly. Let us see to what extent Starbucks provides us with a deep drink, relaxation and inspiration.

Most Starbucks stores are small—not so much cozy, as cramped. The store near my house is only 1,450 square feet, allowing only enough space for a few small tables and chairs. Racks of coffee bean bags and CDs for sale take up space in the middle of the floor. Customers move in and out; they are in transit. I didn’t feel like lounging or lingering there, but I found a hard chair and gazed at the scene in wonder. The two soft lounge chairs in the corner looked out of place. The latte machines made a terrible racket in such close quarters. I sat there at a little table sipping coffee, feeling like I was in a train station. Who can relax and drink deeply in such hubbub?

Starbucks chief Howard Schultz has said he would like his stores to be our “third place,” after home and work. Starbucks would be a third place where we can “chat and connect.” Is Schultz serious, or is this just rhetoric? I have chatted and connected in kissaten (Japanese coffee houses) where customers enjoy three stories of comfortable seating; in such a place, people do feel like lingering for hours. But I don’t think Starbucks has created an atmosphere where we feel like chatting and connecting. Far from it; rather the stores are coffee convenience stores. Starbucks means fast drinks to go. Our on-the-go culture thrives on a quick fix, always the same product and same atmosphere—a clone, whether in Atlanta or Fargo. We can count on it to be the same everywhere, just like our Shell station and our McDonalds. The stores provide no respite from the on-the-go, all-the-same convenience culture that has come to define us.

If relaxing in the “third place” is a laughable myth, what about the inspiration provided by Starbucks’ social and environmental responsibility? The corporation’s public pronouncements clearly emphasize these responsibilities, and they show a remarkable awareness of important specifics, such as “post consumer recycled,” “trans fats,” and “CO2 equivalents.” In terms of updated scientific knowledge, Starbucks is on the cutting edge. Also laudable is the corporation’s contributions to traditional philanthropic benefits such as health clinics, schools and housing projects here and in foreign countries. Further, based on conversations with Starbucks employees, the corporation seems to provide excellent health benefits for part time and full time workers. And in this litany of praises, I include Starbucks’ desire for feedback; they want to know what people think: “How are we doing?” as they say. I hereby seize the opportunity to let them know.

The most important responsibility of large corporations concerns the way they impact fundamental economic and environmental patterns on a global scale. First, they must use much more post consumer recycled material. Second, they must switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Third, they must switch from “free trade” policies to “fair trade” policies. Free trade amounts to economic and environmental degradation because the unlimited power of big corporations forces poor peoples into desperation. Fair trade guarantees third world suppliers a decent price.

So how is Starbucks doing? Their published fiscal report says they were “planning to roll out new hot beverage cups containing 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber in the U.S. company-operated stores by the end of 2005.” (Delays have pushed the introduction date to 2006.) Soon we will be juggling 10 percent cups. But given the vast amount of fiber involved and the importance of this issue, 10 percent is pitifully low. Percentages of post-consumer fiber in most of the other paper products used by Starbucks are also low, except for the brochure entitled “Starbucks Commitment to Social Responsibility.” This brochure details ideas about responsibilities to communities and the environment, and the importance of feedback from customers. The irony is that the products used in enormous amounts, like the coffee cups, have low post-consumer recycled content, but the brochure that hardly anyone picks up has the full 100 percent! Where it really counts, Starbucks falls short.

Another case in point is switching from nonrenewable to renewable energy sources. The U.S. Department of Energy has a green power network that encourages and assists corporations who want to purchase renewable power. Plenty of renewable energy is available. However, Starbucks says it will only purchase five percent of its retail energy from renewable resources.

What about fair trade policies? Starbucks proudly advertises that it buys fair trade coffee. This means it pays a “decent” price for coffee in third world countries, meaning it pays on a scale that reflects the local cost of living, not just the going market price. In other words, “fair trade” disallows a corporation from using its power to take advantage of small third world farmers. This is indeed a highly praise-worthy policy.

I wanted to support Starbucks in this worthy cause, so I asked my local barista for a cup of fair trade coffee. She replied that Starbucks prefers to call it Café Estima. “O.K., I’ll have a cup.” But it turns out that Café Estima is only available in bags. You have to take it home, grind it, and brew it yourself. Starbucks is a store where people expect to buy a cup of quick satisfaction and leave. Imagine a woman telling her husband, “Honey, stop by Starbucks and buy a bag of beans. We’re going to grind and brew tonight.” It just doesn’t happen. Ninety five percent of the customers buy a fresh brew and go.

Starbucks claims that Café Estima is sometimes available as the hot brew of the week, but surveys suggest that’s rarely the case. Nationwide Internet surveys like one reported by Green L.A. Girl (http://greenlagirl.com) reveal that Café Estima is rarely available in a hot cup. Starbucks’ own statistics indicate how much fair trade coffee they buy: l.6 percent of their total coffee bean purchases are fair trade. Starbucks purchases a small amount of fair tra

de beans from some growers, roasts them, and bags them; but does anyone buy them? For all practical purposes, Starbucks is not engaged in fair trade.

When I first heard about Starbucks, a friend told me the chain had “coffee houses,” and that they were a green corporation “with a conscience.” Hearing this, I suppose I formed a myth in my mind. I imagined I could go to Starbucks and relax, finding it spacious enough and quiet enough to linger. I assumed I would be drinking from a ceramic mug or a paper cup made mostly from post-consumer recycled material. I imagined the coffee would be brewed with energy from renewable sources. I thought I would be inspired because the coffee would be fair trade coffee.

Having dispelled these myths, I am “disillusioned” in both senses of the word—free of illusions and saddened by my findings. But an avenue of hope has been opened by Starbucks: it professes to care about what we think. I think we should boycott the Big Star and let them know why. Starbucks is big and strong. Its large profits can take a setback while its directors decide what the term “social and environmental responsibility” really means. We expect a positive response from the top. We hope for a verbal and behavioral response that gives the words “corporate responsibility” real meaning.

Gene C. Sager is a professor of philosophy and environmental ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.

Editor’s note: For more detailed discussion of fair trade and the big footprint of the coffee industry, as well as the companies and leaders who are working hard to make a difference, check out E‘s November/December 2005 issue (http://www.emagazine.com/?issue=123&toc ).