Starbucks: people either love ’em or loathe ’em. My husband likes their coffee and admires their business brains. I, on the other hand, can’t stand them for their homogenized, yuppie style. Having grown up in grunge-era Seattle, once a land of artsy coffee shops crammed with kitschy sofas and local color, cookie-cutter Starbucks look to me like a department store: void of soul and chock-full of useless merchandise.
But how bad is Starbucks, really? I decided to find out.
1. Clean water is such a precious commodity in the world these days, but Starbucks didn’t seem to care. Their “leave the tap running all day” policy created an eco-scandal to the tune of 23 million litres wasted every day. Less than a year later, they’re installing water-saving faucets which purport to reduce water wastage by 150 gallons per day, per store. Note, they only changed their wasteful ways after they got caught.
2. Although some people claim that having a Starbucks in the neighborhood is actually good for local mom & pop cafes, the long-running belief is that Starbucks turns the uniquely local neighborhood vibe into cookie-cutter corporate…well, crap. Perhaps it’s really just a matter of taste, but most of your dollars spent at a Starbucks location will end up in the pockets of distant executives – and not circulate in your local economy.
3. Ever keen to new marketing strategies, Starbucks has decided to co-opt the unique neighborhood vibe. What you think is your local indie cafe might actually be a Starbucks in disguise. To try and get the business of economic locavores, Starbucks has sent out scouts to cop the look and feel of various neighborhoods, then create a “unique” coffeeshop under a different name. Some might call this a brilliant business strategy, but I think it’s pretty underhanded.
4. Then there was the Ethiopian coffee debacle. In 2006, the Ethiopian government attempted to trademark regional coffees such as Sidamo and Harar because these specialty brews sell for up to $26 a pound, with only about $1 getting back to the Ethiopian coffee farmers. Starbucks, working through the National Coffee Association, blocked Ethiopia’s trademark bid, helping ensure the continuation of poverty in an already impoverished region.
5. Did you hear about the tip scandal? A former (and clearly disgruntled) Starbucks barista successfully sued the corporation on behalf of all California baristas in a class action law suit. Starbucks was ordered to pay $100 million to baristas to make up for tips that had been given to shift supervisors. It sounds like the ultimate low blow, but there is a grey area here: although California law prohibits managers and supervisors from receiving tips, Starbucks’ shift supervisors do help customers and make coffee. They’re paid much more than the baristas; do they also deserve a cut of the tips?
6. After years of customers haggling them for recycling bins, or at least recyclable cups, Starbucks has finally launched a recycling pilot program. Puh-lease…coffee shops the world over have already had recycling and composting systems in place for years. Starbucks should have been able to do better, and faster – why has it taken them so long to jump on the greenwagon?
7. Starbucks has decided to increase their purchases of Fair Trade coffee – but that’s only after years of pressure from Fair Trade groups. Considering that the worldwide coffee trade is a huge source of oppression and poverty in third world countries, buying Fair Trade goes far to support better wages and working conditions for coffee farmers. So far, only a small percentage of Starbucks coffee will actually be Fair Trade Certified, but they’ve still created a marketing campaign around it. I’d expect better from a large corporation; since Starbucks is large enough for the world to pay attention to its products, they could push some powerful change by using their influence for the greater good.
8. No matter what they do to be a little more green, if Starbucks won’t pour coffee into a reusable mug, they’ll never win my heart. My husband informed me of his own infuriating Starbucks experience where they refused to fill his travel mug, instead handing him his latte in a disposable paper cup and telling him he could fill his travel mug himself. He’s not the only one who’s had eco efforts thwarted like this at Starbucks.
9. And besides, McDonald’s beat Starbucks in a coffee taste test. Ouch!
So what do you think? Personally, I think Starbucks can do better and set a positive example for the coffee business in general, but they won’t do that unless they feel the heat from customers.
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Image: D3 San Francisco