Why you should care

Starbucks is a good corporate citizen – and that speaks ill of us. 

For years, I avoided Starbucks. Not for the open-carry gun policy the company backtracked on only this week, but for the main reason many earnest liberals avoid Starbucks: a reflexive distrust of big corporations. I had aesthetic qualms, too. The coffee was often crappy, the size of the venti alarmed me, and the chain’s faux Kumbaya vibe made my soul cringe (remember those “The Way I See It” quotes?). Mostly, though, I was turned off by Starbucks’ ubiquity and power. I preferred to brew my own coffee or patronize a little cafe down the street.

Gradually, my attitude has changed. I realized it last month, when my huge extended family descended on a midtown Manhattan hotel for a wedding. I woke up early on the morning of the ceremony, angling for a coffee and a couple of stolen hours, but the options for escape dismayed me. The hotel restaurant charged brazen prices, libraries and bookstores hadn’t opened yet, and the independent cafes nearby looked dingy. In that desert, Starbucks glowed beacon-like, with its decent chairs, newspaper stacks, clean restroom and wireless. Where else, I thought, sipping my quite serviceable, $3 caffè misto, can you get such infrastructure for so little?

Starbucks

Source Getty

And so I began to think that maybe Starbucks isn’t so bad. Sure, it’s a huge corporation, but it gives its workers a modicum of respect, including health insurance for part-timers. (CEO Howard Schultz maintains that Starbucks, unlike other feel-good companies, won’t cut them off even if Obamacare makes insurance costlier.) Schultz finally did reverse his support for open carry, saying guns are no longer welcome in his stores. Starbucks doesn’t pit suppliers against one another like Wal-Mart does; instead it’s a massive buyer of Fair Trade beans and says it will “ethically source” all of its coffee by 2015. Early in the Starbucks boom, there was ample worry about the chain driving out local cafes. Surely that happened, but these days, boutique roasters are just as likely to credit the green mermaid for opening up a market of coffeephiles. And with respect to the coffee fetishists, lately I find a regular latte comforting compared to the endless array of pour-over gadgets, siphons and presses out there.

If Starbucks seems like a good corporate citizen, it’s largely because of the breakdown of our public institutions.

Wait — Starbucks good? The thought unmoored me. I called Bryant Simon, a historian at Temple University, who wrote Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks. The professor listened sympathetically and then said gently, even reassuringly: “That initial sense of Starbucks not being so bad wears thin after a while. Eventually you realize that almost all the things we think of as being not so bad about Starbucks are either worse than they appear or just a result of how low a bar we set.”

For example, he said, Starbucks may provide health care to part-time workers, but it doesn’t pay them enough to live on. It may source Fair Trade beans, but how much actually goes to the farmers, how much to middlemen and how much to marketing? And it has allegedly green stores, but many are drive-throughs.

That’s because Starbucks, no matter its aspirations, is ultimately accountable only to its shareholders, not the public. It might be more humane and thoughtful than most corporations, but that doesn’t say much. Starbucks could and should do more. It supports gay marriage, though it cost the company some investment. Similarly, it should join Peet’s and others companies in clearly banning guns in its stores, instead of a “respectful request” that owners keep their arms at home. It should lobby for better prices for Fair Trade farmers. And, most important, it should pay its workers more and take the hit to its massive returns.

Even that’s beside the point, he said. If Starbucks seems like a good corporate citizen, it’s largely because of the breakdown of our public institutions. “It’s not so much whether Starbucks is good or bad,” Simon said, “but that it’s indicative of the moment we live in, where so many of our institutions are in retreat: churches, communities, schools, government. In a lot of places, Starbucks has stepped into the void and benefited from it.” The company, he says, is “recreating itself in the image of the government,” but it “supplies only a partial answer in the midst of the economic crisis.”

And whether you like Frappuccinos or not — OK, I do — it’s worth asking the larger questions. Why can Starbucks afford decent public spaces, but the government cannot? What kind of a world do we live in when we applaud a corporation for providing basic benefits to its workers? And what is lost when we do?

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