This is a slightly longer version of an op-ed piece I wrote that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post.
Backed by loyal legions of heavily caffeinated customers and battalions of bright-eyed baristas, Starbucks over the last two decades has planted its familiar green and white logo on Main Streets (sometimes twice) and mall parking lots from Maine to California. Not a single state was passed over by the imperial onslaught.
During the early years of conquest, Starbucks showed up everywhere to offer the caffeine-seeking middle-class masses their fix of its high-test, dark-roasted brew along with cushy couches, sparkling bathrooms, and smooth jazz. But now their customers want more than just the latest pumpkin-spiced concoction. They want the company to fix the economy, protect the environment, and solve the health care crisis. They used to look to the government to handle these kinds of matters. But faith in political institutions is collapsing everywhere. If Washington or state houses can’t or shouldn’t do the job, maybe the powerful and caring corporate can do the trick, or at least it can take our minds off of what ails us for a while.
To give their customers the solutions they want or at least the guiltless peace of mine they crave, Starbucks, a company never short on its own sense of self-importance, has set itself up as a sort of shadow government. Welcome to Starbucks USA.
Just last week, the head of Starbucks USA, company chief executive Howard Schultz, announced to the press a new customer-financed economic stimulus package to make up for the slack left by Barak Obama’s nearly one billion dollar plan from 2009. Except for the proposal itself, there is nothing new here. This is only the latest in a long-line of light blue-ish foreign and domestic policies rolled out by President Schultz in the last few years. All of them are aimed at making the United States, and the world, a safer and better place for sipping lattes.
“Love What You Do,” read the sign on the door going into a Starbucks on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in 2007. It introduced Matt, a square jawed early forty-something regional manager with fifteen years of service to the company. “Like a good cup of Sumatra, a job at Starbucks is likely to make you feel warm and inspired. It’s a great pleasure to connect with people.” But it probably wasn’t Matt’s story that got prospective partners – the word Starbucks uses for its workers – to fill out a job application. It was the last line on the poster that pushed them through the door, “With the health benefits we offer you can feel good about your future.”
From Schultz’s earliest days with the company, health care was what made Starbucks USA different from most other service-oriented corporate nations in America. McDonald’s didn’t offer many of its workers health benefits, and neither did Wal-Mart. As Hillary and Bill Clinton were trying to their own health care bill passed in 1994, they leaned on Schultz, like a visiting head of state, for advice.
Schultz at one point pushed for the US government to take over health care, pointing out that his company spent more on medical coverage for its workers than it did on coffee beans. Even with some stockholders grumbling about the costs, Schultz remains resolute: his company would offer part-time workers – and that just about everyone who works in the company’s coffee shops – access to health coverage. This is the essence of the social contract in Starbucks USA, and the anchor of its highly valued reputation as a corporate do-gooder in the marketplace.
The Bill of Rights has, of course, ten amendments. Echoing the Founding Fathers, Starbucks USA’s “Mission Statement” contains ten “Guiding Principles.” The 5th pledges that Starbucks will “contribute positively to our communities and our environment.”
Following up on this commitment, Starbucks set up an EPA-like division of Environmental Affairs. Over the years, the company has, among other things, donated money to the Earth Day Foundation to raise environmental awareness and altered its own energy policy and started to purchase alternative and wind-generated clean fuels. Looking for ways to lessen its environmental footprint even more, Starbucks cut the size of its napkins and the thickness of its plastic bags. Together these moves prevented 1.8 million pounds of waste from ending up in landfills each year. Most recently, Starbucks opened a green certified store in Seattle with tables made out of repurposed wood and the floor and ceiling preserved from existing buildings.
But the biggest environmental hurdle at Starbucks is the cups. Drip coffee and latte drinkers alone use more than 2 billion paper cups each year. Working over the last few years with the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, Starbucks developed new containers and sleeves made from recycled materials. By using these greener products, the company saved, by its own estimates, 78,000 trees, enough energy to supply 640 homes with electricity for an entire year, and enough water to fill 71 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The ministers of information of Starbucks USA – the marketers -- came up with a slogan to capture its overall environmental policy, the idea that companies and consumers could help to deal with climate change without having to rely on government intervention. On everyone of those white cups made from 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber, it says, “help us help the planet.”
Starbucks USA doesn’t wage war or build overseas bases, at least not yet, but it has issued passports and it does wade into global markets and local communities.
Rwanda is a case in point. This land-locked central African nation had not only to have suffered from a gruesome genocide but it had the right climate for growing high-quality coffee beans. Beginning in 2005, Starbucks began to import Rwandan coffee to the US.
“Taste a special coffee,” an in-store sign suggested, “that’s helping transform farmers lives.” “A Promising Future in Every Pound,” a company press release heralded. “Following the devastating events of 1994,” a brochure added only vaguely mentioning the country’s troubled past, “this new cash crop has given Rwandan farmers hope for a better future and helped them afford better education, medicine, and housing.”
The company did the same thing in Colombia. By paying “better prices” for coffee, Starbucks claimed in a short documentary on its web-page, a sort “white paper” for the video age, that it was aiding in the “the fight against drug trafficking” by providing students with math books, healthy lunches, and desktop computers and “creating more economic stability and a better life for the farmers.”
But Starbucks’ policies in Rwanda and Columbia were not, just like US foreign policy isn’t, self-less acts. According to a Starbucks sign, “A Better Living for Farmers” translated into “Better Coffee for You.” (See, like the FDA, it does quality control as well.)
“The country,” Howard Schultz declared earlier this month in speech on unemployment, “is not in a crisis. This an emergency.”
Unlike Washington, Starbucks USA, Schultz said, was doing its part, hiring 200 workers a day to remodel existing stores and staff new ones. But he insisted it was time to put aside partisan squabbling and do more to get the economy moving. Backing another end-run around the federal government, he still remained sensitive to the current political moment. He pledged to kick-start the nation’s economy without raising taxes.
Starting on November 1, Starbucks will begin to collect donations of $5 or more from customers – that is just about the price of a grande mocha frappuccino – to build its “Jobs for USA” program. With the funds, Starbucks, working with its nonprofit partner the Opportunity Finance Network, will provide loans to small businesses and community groups around the country. Everyone who chips in will get a red, white, and blue wristband that says “Indivisible” and broadcasts their allegiance to the Starbucks, USA flag.
Governing with Band-Aides
“I would beg [Washington],” Howard Schultz pleaded when he announced his jobs stimulus package, “[to] wake up and understand you took an oath of office to represent the country, not personal ideology.”
Many share Schultz’s frustrations. That’s why people they are listening to him and looking to Starbucks to save us.
Every recent opinion poll shows that Americans, like Schultz, have lost faith in the ability of Washington and State Houses, Congress and the president, Republicans and Democrats to tackle the problems we face at home and around the world. Yet we still want solutions. We haven’t given up trying to fix things. That is what Starbucks is offering -- solutions to the deep-seated problems that used to be solved by government. Citizens have responded, in turn, by out-sourcing their politics to the companies they do business with.
But neither Starbucks nor the Gap or Ben and Jerry’s can’t solve the big problems, no matter how hard it hard tries. They can barely cover them up with band-aids. Schultz’s five-dollar donations will surely help a few entrepreneurs create jobs, perhaps hundreds of jobs, but they can’t make up the 7.9 million jobs lost since 2008. A few pennies more for a pound of Rwanda coffee will help some growers there, but it won’t get this country back on track or make up for decades of imperial plunder. And those Starbucks coffee cups made out of recycled fibers can’t stop climate change. They can’t even be recycled.
What Starbucks USA’s policies do offer us is a chance to feel better, to see ourselves as not as part of the problem, but as part of the solution. We are willing to pay the latte tax for this pat on the back. To quote a Starbucks sign, “Way to Go You!”
Bryant Simon is professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America Through Starbucks.