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the cult of starbucks August 10, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in business.
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It is admittedly easier to hate some corporations more than others. It is one thing to actually investigate the dirty side of the capitalist system, and quite another to actually feel it. Two examples: Walmart and Nike. Those that care already know all about the corporate evils committed by those two companies. It is not until you walk into a monolithic Walmart store that you start feeling disgusted. The maltreatment of Walmart’s employees by their slave drivers are passed down to the average customer. Service for the most part is horrendous, the elevator music is interrupted every five seconds by an announcement, and the clerk at the till cannot be bothered to smile. Ever. It is easy to hate Walmart because there is not much to love about them. Saving a couple pennies on the lowest-end products per $100 is hardly reason for me to jump up and down with glee. Nike on the other hand at least appears to be “cool”. However, once you realize you are paying an extra 200% for the brand name, you feel duped as you realize that the quality of the product leaves much to be desired. I feel bad for saying this since I hate to reprimand the labours of children, but I am sure that if they were given a break after ten hours they could do a better job.

I admit, however, that there are certain brands that I feel conflicted. Not so much of an ethical conflict either. the priests of starbucksEven as I know that a corporate is deeply unethical, I am far too attached to the product that they deliver. I am, in fact, admitting my own servitude to “the man”. Let us focus on one of the two that I am deeply concerned about: Starbucks. I happen to love coffee. Much of my love for coffee is not so much the taste, but the atmosphere of being in a coffee shop. My issue with Starbucks is that it really does have the some of the best tasting coffee, yet it’s fabled “third place” (between home and work as they say) is just that: a fable. It would be like saying that McDonald’s is similar to eating at home. It just is not. I find it difficult at times to write papers at home so I often escape to the local coffee shop. This rarely, if ever, includes Starbucks. You do not exactly get the feeling that you are welcomed to stay for several hours when you are at Starbucks. The seating is limited, and that which you can find is usually uncomfortable and does not offer free wireless service like most local coffee shops. But it has darn good coffee. So when my wife and I are enjoying a day to ourselves and feel like a good cup of coffee, we often drive (not walk) to one of our local three (yes, that is a small number) Starbucks and sip our non-fair trade coffee in our 10% recycled cups.

Why? Why do I continue to resort to Starbucks? Maybe it is the same reason as everyone else. Sure, it is actually very good coffee, but is it worth the ethical dilemma? Probably not. The reason, I believe, is that it encompasses a cult of personality that we are drawn to. Germany had its Hitler, Russia had its Stalin, but we have our Starbucks. Coffee has replaced the role of religion in much of our daily lives. Even growing up in an evangelical family, I still recall my father’s religious attachment to his morning cup of coffee much more than recall a morning prayer. We may miss a day of prayer, but God forgives right? But heavens, to miss our morning coffee is dastardly and dangerous to our mental health. If we do not get our coffee in the morning we may snap. I have always liked my comparison of coffee and religion because it works so well. Yes, yes, there are some atheists… I mean, non-coffee drinkers, out there but the cult of Starbucks has much to offer them as well: Chai Lattes, and non-coffee blended Frappuccinos. Starbucks is like the Catholic church of coffee. I was once a barista… I mean, priest, of Starbucks and the first thing you learn is that Pope Howard Schultz is the greatest man alive. You hear of how he connects with even the lowliest of priests and is the humblest rich man on earth. When a newly-indicted priest inquires to their Bishop (Manager) about the ethics of their cult, he or she will quickly inform you that Starbucks does indeed sell fair-trade coffee and is constantly looking for ways to better the local community. This is excellent spin, for we know that only 1.6% of Starbuck’s total coffee purchases are fair trade (“Café Estima”).

That said, I am not endorsing an outright boycott of Starbucks (nor am I dismissing one). I am simply pointing out that we should maybe think before we buy. Why not try that local café down the street (unless the four Starbucks one your road has put it out of business already)? Ask them for some fair-trade coffee. Sit back and relax. They probably are not as busy or loud and are probably a lot more comfortable than the nearest Starbucks, or the one, two, or three down the street. Or if you have to go to Starbucks, just ask them if you can have hot cup of fair trade coffee, or fair trade espresso, since, according to their company factsheet, they are the largest importer of Fair Trade coffee.
Sources and more info:

P.S. I was not comparing the actions of Starbucks to that of Hitler or Stalin, only the idea of a cult of personality.

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Comments»

1. stephenHUBBARD - August 11, 2006

first off: good post.

i heard once from a good source that it may be possible that places like starbucks are buying fair trade coffee without knowing it. a lot of farms (source from south america/equador) make coffee in a fair trade manner. only they can’t afford to register themselves as “fair trade”. maybe you can investigate this end of things more.

2. brichert - August 12, 2006

Reply to stephenHUBBARD:
Thanks for the comment. That is actually what Starbucks partners are told if they inquire into fair trade pricing. However, this is most likely not the case since Starbucks actually drives much of the market and has been pushing down coffee prices. The industry at the present time is at the most critical stage in third world countries while first world consumers are buying coffee in record numbers. Of course, this is only speculation based on my own limited research. Starbucks has actually been doing better than most large corporations, that I will admit. I would, however, be skeptical of the whole not registering thing, since I am sure that Starbucks would compensate the coffee plantations if it was just a registration fee so that they could advertise it.

3. Anonymous - August 5, 2007

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