New Internationalist

The people vs Starbucks

Issue 410

Homely and caring is how the frothy coffee giant Starbucks likes to portray itself. So why are producers, consumers and workers blasting it? Rowenna Davis investigates.

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-With-Soya-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 Schultz, 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 corporation’s 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 corporation’s 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 sweat’s 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 $0.57 per pound of coffee sold – that’s 2.2 per cent of the $26 per pound it sells for in the United States.

This low price is a function of over-supply in the market. The world supply of coffee used to be controlled by the International Coffee Agreement until its collapse in 1989, but since then prices have been in almost constant decline. Starbucks may not have engineered this situation, but it has certainly benefited from it, growing by over five per cent per year since 1991.

There are those who argue that Starbucks’ growth has benefited the Majority World. ‘Starbucks has done more to lift coffee farmers out of poverty than almost anyone else – including Oxfam and the do-gooders,’ said Alex Singleton, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute. ‘The answer to development is not large amounts of foreign aid; it’s getting these countries to engage in the global market, and Starbucks helps that.’

This argument is not just supported by free-marketeers, as Seth Pitchers, Oxfam’s Lead on the Make Trade Fair campaign, explains: ‘Starbucks has been building demand around premium coffee, which holds profit for farmers because it sells at a premium price.’

It might be hard to believe that the generic white froth Starbucks serves is built on high quality coffee, but it’s true; in 2006 Starbucks boasted that it paid a ‘premium’ average price of $1.42 per pound, a figure 37 per cent above the New York commodity price. But quality coffee isn’t just likely to sell more – it is also likely to cost more to produce, and any extra the farmer does make may simply go on higher overheads. Furthermore, because Starbucks does not disclose whether this is the direct price paid to farmers or to middle men, we can’t say who the quality market boom is benefiting. If what the baristas discovered in Ethiopia is representative, it seems unlikely to be those at the bottom.

Starbucks claims that farmer welfare in the 24 countries it purchases from is guaranteed by its own Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFÉ) standards. However, look a little closer and the CAFÉ practices tell you more about the failures of Starbucks’ social responsibility than its achievements. Almost 70 per cent of Starbucks’ farmers fail to meet over half of the CAFÉ guidelines. Furthermore, these standards remain vague (‘manage waste’) or frighteningly insubstantial (‘fair and humane working conditions’ and ‘minimum child labour laws’) – one can’t help thinking what the 69 per cent of farmers who fail to meet the criteria are living like.

Of course, the problems faced by farmers in the Global South are much bigger than Starbucks alone. Farmers who want to move into processing and roasting are blocked by Western tarriffs, whilst their voices remain under-represented in world trade talks. National governments are susceptible to corruption. On the ground, farmers have little access to credit and technical assistance.

Yet that doesn’t mean that Starbucks doesn’t have a role to play in improving their lot – indeed, it may even be a self-interested one. Farmers who are struggling to survive are unlikely to invest in quality coffee, threatening the sustainability of Starbucks’ supply chains. Already the farmers in the video say they are switching to producing qat, a narcotic plant that sells for more money in local markets than coffee. Starbucks’ image of corporate social responsibility might have made a profit in the past, but it’s tempting to think that an irresponsible reality could contribute to making its future bankrupt.

Starbucks at a glance

12,440 stores in 37 countries.

2,199 stores opened in 2006 (6 stores a day).

145,000 baristas (waiters).

Net revenue $7.8 billion, making an annual profit of $564 million.

Starbucks has now posted 15 years of 5% growth.

In 2006 long-term store-count target was raised to 40,000 (20,000 US, 20,000 international).

In 2006, opened its first stores in Brazil and Egypt, and launched plans to expand to Russia and India.

Fair trade
Starbucks is the largest purchaser of Fairtrade labelled coffee in the world, buying 14% of the global supply.

This figure makes up 6% of the company’s total coffee purchases.

Estima, the fair trade coffee sold by Starbucks, is available to buy in packets in most stores, but very few of Starbucks’ in-house coffees come with a fair trade option.

Source: Starbucks 2006 Annual Report

Persona non grata: the protester

Photo: Fred Askew
Change-allujah! Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. Photo: Fred Askew

As Reverend Billy’s shocking blond hair and dog collar disappeared into the police car he was still preaching. ‘Starbucks is not a fair trade company!’ he shouted. ‘Ethiopian coffee farmers are starving!’

Reverend Billy, the quasi-ironic preacher from the Church of Stop Shopping in New York has been arrested twice for protesting against Starbucks, entering stores to ‘exorcize’ cash registers with his alternative gospel choir singing loudly in support.

‘The police would surround the cafés and I’d put one hand on the cash register while the choir would hand out leaflets,’ he said. ‘Change-allulah!’

This religious frenzy of protests was whipped up after Starbucks blocked Ethiopia’s attempts to trademark some of the country’s speciality coffee beans (Sidamo, Yirgecheffe and Harrar), a move that would have transferred money from company shareholders to Ethiopians. ‘Starbucks got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,’ said the Reverend. ‘They had Ethiopian graphics and the Sidamo label on their products but they were refusing to allow the country to benefit from them.’

Reverend Billy’s protests were just part of a huge movement in support of Ethiopia, backed by Oxfam and the global media. Facing international pressure, Starbucks was forced to capitulate, recognizing Ethiopia’s right to the trademarks last year.

As for the Reverend, he just seems proud that Starbucks appears to have acknowledged his role in the whole débâcle, saying with a grin: ‘I’ve been banned from all the Starbucks in the world.’

Lost in the supply chain: the worker

A year and a half ago, Betina (not her real name) left Lithuania to find work in Britain. Since then, she has been working at Food Partners, the Slough-based company Starbucks contracts to assemble sandwiches.

‘In the past I made sandwiches, putting cucumbers and tomatoes into rolls. Now I’m a supervisor and I have one line of workers – I make sure they work and that everything is ok. Some of the sandwiches we make go to Heathrow [airport], but most go to Starbucks and schools.

‘They pay £8.02 per hour ($16) for supervisors, £5.52 ($10.75) for the others. This is not enough money for the rent. Many of the workers here have families and need to support them.

‘Where we work is chilly – 9 or 10 degrees (Celsius) – and people stand all day packing tomatoes that come from freezers. They give us breaks but they don’t pay for them. Our canteen is also where we change our coats and boots.

‘You come to work in the morning and you don’t know when you’ll finish. We work sometimes for five or six hours and it is not enough – we need normal hours for this little money. Sometimes they don’t even give you all your hours – they say you worked less.

‘People take advantage of us because we are from other countries. There are a lot of Eastern Europeans here, but most workers are from India. The only British workers are office managers and they say, “If you don’t like it, you can go”. They know we can’t speak English and there are many migrants to replace us if we leave.

‘People don’t like talking much – they are scared of being sacked.

‘We’re glad for Starbucks to give us work; without them we have nothing. We just want to change conditions.’

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  1. #1 Natural_Boricua 19 Jul 11

    I am actually doing a report for a class based on Globalization. I decided to write about StarBucks and this article really does open my eyes about this company. This is sad because I myself am Latino and I know for a fact that the country my family is originally from is a supplier of coffee. It is sad to see all that goes on behind closed doors and the profits made and not shared equally.

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This article was originally published in issue 410

New Internationalist Magazine issue 410
Issue 410

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If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

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