Is Starbucks Evil?

For years, dissing Starbucks has been a popular pastime among the coffee cognoscenti, but is Starbucks really the Evil Empire? Before you jump to conclusions, there are some things you should probably know.

Starbucks and Fair Trade

One of the biggest criticisms of Starbucks is that the coffee giant doesn’t do enough to support the Fair Trade movement, or that the percentage of Fair Trade coffee the chain sells is minuscule. That may have been a legitimate complaint in 2000, but a grassroots effort pressured Starbucks to carry Fair Trade coffee in 100% of their stores. Today, more than 7,500 Starbucks stores carry some Fair Trade coffee. Starbucks has long followed its own CAFÉ Practices to ethically source and import coffee, and has steadily increased the amount of Fair Trade and otherwise ethically sourced coffee it purchases.

While Starbucks only purchases about 8.1% of its coffee from Fair Trade certified sources, that amounted to 44.4 million pounds of coffee, making Starbucks the largest single purchaser of Fair Trade coffee in the world. Those numbers, however, only tell part of the story. For the past decade, Starbucks has worked directly in partnerships with coffee growers around the world to whom it offers a higher price than the Fair Trade floor price and has worked to promote sustainable growing practices and organic farming among the growers it buys from. The company also buys coffees that are certified by other third party certifiers. In all, Starbucks sourced about 93% of its coffee through ethical sources and paid an average price of $2.56 per pound. By contrast, the floor price for Fair Trade coffee in 2012 was $1.60 (which includes a 20 cent premium that goes to the coffee cooperative rather than to the individual farmer). In addition, more than 95% of coffee contracts included a financial transparency clause. Starbucks goal is 100% ethically sourced coffee by 2015.

Starbucks and Workers’ Rights

A second major criticism of Starbucks has been that it exploits employees and won’t allow them to unionize. As with the Fair Trade debate, the reality is far more complex. Starbucks has long offered full-time benefits – and quite generous ones, at that – even to part-time employees. Those benefits include health insurance and stock in the company. However, many baristas point out that the realities of working in a coffee shop – including a dependence on tips and insecure work hours – mean that it can be difficult to make ends meet working for Starbucks. In addition, unions do more than negotiate for better wages – they also represent workers in disputes with management, including unfair firings, and negotiate fair policies for scheduling and discipline.

What it comes down to, in the end, is that Starbucks works to treat its workers well – and has quite a reputation for doing so – but workers have no real representation to negotiate with management over the long term. While Starbucks under the current corporate leadership may treat its workers well, a leadership change could leave workers with no protection. That’s not being evil – just short-sighted.

Starbucks and Community Responsibility

Far from being the evil corporation driving other coffee shops and cafés out of business, Starbucks corporate policy includes nearly a dozen initiatives to support all of their various communities. Those initiatives include Create Jobs for USA, an initiative that provides capital grants to help support businesses in underserved communities. The grants may get small business loans, microfinance, community center financing or housing project financing. The Create Jobs program is not very different in scope and intent than many of the programs Starbucks operates in the communities where they source their coffee.

In addition, the company launched a Community Store program in 2012, where stores partner with the community in which they are located to invest in the community and provide benefits that the community actually needs. These are just a few of the initiatives and policies that are part of the Starbucks culture. That culture extends to every employee, with incentives for employees to become engaged in community service and bring their own ideas to the company’s attention.

Starbucks and Environmental Responsibility

From building greener stores to reducing waste and encouraging recycling, Starbucks takes the environment seriously. The company is on track to make 100% of their cups either reusable or recyclable by 2015, diverting tons of paper waste from landfills. In coffee-growing countries, Starbucks works with farmers to help them mitigate issues arising from the impact of climate change and encourages the use of sustainable farming practices, including shade coffee plantations and organic growing. From small efforts, such as making coffee grounds available to local gardeners to use in compost, to major initiatives, such as contributing to the development of renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Starbucks is a leader in environmental responsibility.

Obviously, no one will be referring to Saint Starbucks anytime soon. The company is in business to make money, after all, and has a responsibility to its corporate shareholders to make as much money as possible. Under the guidance of CEO Howard Schultz, Starbucks is, in many ways, a model for good corporate citizenship, and not the Evil Empire as it is often portrayed.

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We’ve all heard the anti-corporation brigade yelling about Starbucks and how it’s turning the world into a giant corporate generic mess, exploiting farm workers in the third world, driving small cafes out of business, and burning their beans to make them look darker. But Starbucks says they’re a model corporate citizen, donating large amounts of money to the third world, rejuvenating neighborhoods and employing thousands as they pay above market rates.

So who is right? Is Starbucks really evil? You decide.

The negatives:

* The Organic Consumers Association says Starbucks is lagging on using Fair Trade coffee, where the grower of the coffee bean itself is paid a living wage, no matter what the going rate of coffee is. “Despite repeated pledges, Starbucks is still buying coffee and chocolate produced under exploitative labor conditions, and in the case of cocoa plantations in Africa, workers who are actually slaves.” According to Global Exchange, Starbucks buys over 100 million pounds of coffee each year, yet less than 1% is purchased from coffee farmers who are guaranteed a living wage. Source: Scotland on Sunday, May 4, 2003

* Starbucks employees aren’t always happy with their bosses, and that’s why they formed the Starbucks Baristas Union. The union, along with fair trade outfit, Global Exchange, want Starbucks to increase the amount of fair trade coffee they purchase from 1% to 5%. Says the union leaders, “We see our struggles for humane wages and working conditions as united [with the coffee growers [-] No longer will Starbucks be allowed to run roughshod over its baristas or coffee farmers.” Source: Inter Press Service, July 7, 2004

* Starbucks was called to task by environmentalists “for failing to adhere to its Environmental Mission Statement by slipping from industry leader to laggard on Fair Trade, and for adopting a patchwork approach to sustainability through its “Commitment to Origins” line of coffees.” Source: The Green Life

* Though Starbucks makes claims of improving workers conditions in the third world, the company will not allow human rights monitors to verify their claims. Critics say that there is little evidence that any improvement programs have been implemented. Source: Biodemocracy News, March 2001

* Starbucks refuses to guarantee that milk, beverages, chocolate, ice cream, and baked goods sold in the company’s stores are free of genetically-modified ingredients, including recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), a Monsanto-produced cow steroid. The substance is banned in every industrialized nation besides the U.S., because it is known to cause health problems in dairy cows, and is “associated with a higher risk of cancer in humans.” Source: Biodemocracy News