Saturday, October 09, 2004


Confessions of a coffee drinker

In the spirit of The Weblog's Friday Afternoon Confessional, I have a confession to make. (I started this post on Friday afternoon, and the confessional mood has carried over to today.) I am a regular Starbucks patron. And I have been for some time.

I remember when the first Starbucks I ever knew opened, next door to a new Barnes and Noble (also the first in my experience) at the intersection of Interstate 10 and De Zavala Road in San Antonio. Since I lived just down the street, and since books, music and coffee are a large part of my joie de vivre, I became a frequent customer. In high school, my biggest complaint about Starbucks was the feeling of indignation I got when the employees starting locking the door and mopping up before the posted closing time, making it impossible for me to get a late-night mocha fix before studying Calculus into the wee hours. I don't remember for sure, but it's quite possible that I even wrote a letter to corporate HQ. It might have been filled with vehement outrage about my right to buy expensive coffee right up to the 59th second of the 59th minute of the ten o'clock hour. But again, I don't remember for sure. In fact, maybe it was a friend of mine.

College, of course, has a way of complicating and redirecting high-school indignation. I acquired, for one thing, a healthy skepticism about corporate transparency. Perhaps that skepticism is one reason why I feel the need to label this post as a confession. I learned in college that Starbucks has become a favorite flogging horse for the radical Left, which has demonized the company as a purveyor of cultural and economic imperialism.

Many contemporary activists make the ubiquitous Green Siren sound like the Whore of Babylon--a strumpet whose songs woo impressionable coffee-drinkers towards the Scylla of suburbia or the Charybdis of consumerism. The activists, like Odysseus's crew, can protect themselves from the Siren only by chaining themselves to things, or perhaps by plugging up their ears. If you believe anti-globalization activists are right about Starbucks' siren song, you probably find it appropriate that the Battle of Seattle, an anti-WTO demonstration that turned violent and destructive in 1999, was fought in the streets of the company's hometown.

Postmodern critics often refer to the way globalization rips cultural signifiers away from what they signify. The global marketplace becomes a bazaar of free-floating symbols--like the Coca-Cola trademark, for instance, or the Nike "swoosh"--which conceal the material conditions under which they were created. Ironically, however, anti-globalization activists often use free-floating signifiers to their advantage. Rather than mounting a careful critique of Starbucks, they also tend to detach the Green Siren from its contexts, the better to throw darts in her general direction. Any one of these corporate symbols can be used as short-hand for unfair trade and bad business ethics, without needing to point carefully to specific evidence of guilt. The Siren becomes the token for a multitude of sins, much like the White Whale that Starbucks' namesake helped pursue. To rally his crew, after all, Captain Ahab had to turn his quarry into a formless mass, a creature whose villainy grew larger with every rehearsal of its sins. In truth as in fiction, the objects of monomania are often oversimplified by those who hurl the harpoons.

What are the sins for which Starbucks and customers like myself need to confess? The answers are various, and they are hard to specify. Often, criticisms of Starbucks are primarily anecdotal. A frequent charge is that the company has driven independent, locally owned coffehouses out of business, thus covering the urban landscape with Starbucks franchises. Counter-charges are also frequently anecdotal, but at least as compelling: after all, the market share for specialty coffee has grown since Starbucks came on the scene, arguably allowing more independent houses to thrive. The fact that there are so many Starbucks stores is not in itself evidence that more independent coffeehouses are failing. I did some quick Googling on the subject and was unable to turn up knockdown arguments for either side, though I'd be interested if anyone knows of some statistics that can be massaged in one direction or another.

As for the aesthetic blight of cookie-cutter coffeehouses, I'm inclined to say that there are worse ways to dot the nation's landscape. Moreover, for many communities, Starbucks does play the role that local coffeehouses otherwise would. When the De Zavala Starbucks opened, it was a new thing under the Central Texas sun. I'm aware that this defense is also anecdotal and sentimental, but Starbucks represents for me memories of getting coffee with my dad on Saturday mornings when I drove home from college. Might we have forged those memories at a local coffeehouse? Yes, if we had had one in the first place. Perhaps for a city like Seattle or San Francisco, with fully developed coffehouse scenes, Starbucks has had the net effect of closing down coffee options. But in cities like San Antonio or Phoenix, with hot summers and short winters, it's hard to see how coffeehouse options would have been possible before the Starbucks phenomenon.

Nonetheless, in spite of my warm feelings for the place, I'm self-aware enough to see how my attachment to Starbucks is evidence of just how effective their branding strategies have become. McDonalds wants me to believe that they provide happy community spaces, too. Coca-Cola would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I'm aware that these claims are deliberate efforts to persuade me to buy a product. They often mask the deleterious effects of our "fast food nation" economy. But for whatever reason, I feel assured that Starbucks makes a more concerted effort to be socially responsible than many corporations in its weight-class.

This is what one progressive magazine I read a few months ago calls the Starbucks Paradox. Despite Starbucks' role as the whipping boy of anti-WTO activists, "the employees and habitués of Starbucks [seem] far more diverse by race and class than the American anti-globalization movement." And "moreover, progressives have tended to romanticize small businesses; yet many sweatshops in this country have been small, family-owned enterprises, and that didn’t benefit those who worked there. As a rule, racial minorities have fared better in larger institutions." It's hard to view the labor practices of the company as primarily regressive. Yes, they engage in the same kinds of union-busting intimidation that other corporations do, but they also start from a higher moral ground by offering unusually generous benefit packages, even for part-time workers. As the "Paradox" article argues, this does not mean Starbucks should be given carte blanche. Rather, it demonstrates that the company has signed its name to laudable principles to which they can be held.

Starbucks now issues an annual corporate social responsibility report, and if this does not make them unique, I find their report more convincing than others. While skimming through the McDonalds reports and the Starbucks reports, for instance, I had the feeling that the difference between them is much like that between the Bush and Kerry campaigns. While McDonalds has a long and disastrous record of irresponsibility on which to run, they talk mainly about what the company will be doing in the future, the initiatives it is starting to undertake with the help of its expert advisors. They "continually seek to learn," their initiatives are "ongoing," they have a "vision"--trust us, our people are looking into it. To my way of thinking, which is admittedly prejudiced, the Starbucks reports seem to offer more concrete evidence of real change.

At the same time, when I read "corporate social responsibility" reports, I cannot silence either my skepticism or my optimism. My skepticism tells me that even these reports are marketing ploys. But my optimism tells me that this is an encouraging sign that consumers do have the power to influence corporate behavior. Is the fact that corporations now feel a greater need to demonstrate their responsibility worthy of unmitigated cynicism? I know in these reports we see corporations as through a glass, darkly, but this opacity does not definitively tell in favor of either my inner skeptic or my inner optimist.

How can one possibly disaggregate all of the local causes and consequences that explain modern transnational corporations? Grant me all of my skepticism about McDonalds' good will, and I still must deal with facts like these: Every time I speak on the phone with my 27-year-old cousin, who has mental disabilities, she is buoyant and glowing about her job at McDonalds, which has an exceptional record of hiring handicapped employees. I don't need a corporate report to tell me about the effect that her employment has had on her family--it is not exaggerating to say that it reaffirms my cousin's sense of dignity and helps her family to encourage her aspirations for independence. And when my other cousin--in the same family--had open-heart surgery at the age of five in Seattle, my aunt and uncle would not have been able to afford lodging in the city without the Ronald McDonald House there. In the complicated world in which we live, whales are never simply black or white.

* * * * *

The impetus for this post was the recent announcement that Starbucks is raising its prices for coffee, which has been one of many subjects of conversation at this highly caffeinated blog. I noticed the price hike a couple of weeks ago while I was in Philadelphia, when I paid $1.50 for a tall cup of drip coffee instead of the usual $1.40. Then, this week, when I paid $1.70 for a grande coffee instead of $1.60, I mentioned to the barista that the prices had gone up. "Yep" was his simple reply. Most of the drinks are going up by an average of 11 cents.

The issue of coffee prices is my greatest source of liberal guilt as a Starbucks patron. I'm speaking, of course, of the fact that many local coffee producers in the world are still not being paid a fair price for their crops. But this is a complex problem, too. Just as it is hard to pin Starbucks down with the charge of closing local coffeehouses, it's hard to say definitively that Starbucks itself has had a negative global impact on coffee prices for growers. The demand for quality specialty coffees, which has increased in Starbucks wake, will in the long-run help raise coffee prices from previously record-low levels. And while Starbucks still does not certify most of its coffee brands as fair-trade, their interest in quality standards serves as an incentive towards longer, pre-negotiated contracts with local farmers, and encourages them to invest in more sustainable farming practices.

Does this mean that when I buy a cup of Starbucks coffee, I can rest assured that I'm not ripping off a farmer in Kenya? Absolutely not. But here is a more difficult question: would I rest easier about that farmer's prices in a pre-Starbucks world? Absolutely not. The fact that Starbucks raises its consumer prices can again be interpreted either optimistically or cynically. Cynically: They are trying to increase market share and profit margins. Optimistically: They could be trying to pass the cost of paying fairer prices on to us, the consumers, instead of simply short-shrifting the coffee grower. Though I am no economist or mathematician (there's a reason I needed a mocha fix to study for Calculus) it seems to me that when prices for coffee rise--unlike prices for oil, perhaps the only world commodity of greater importance than coffee--the local grower is more likely to benefit than not. The simple fact remains, however, that full transparency is hard to achieve here. I can strive to be an informed consumer. I can purchase fair-trade certified coffee as often as I can. But I am still enmeshed in global processes that attenuate my agency and shorten my sight. I see through a mug, darkly.

In flagellating myself for drinking coffee, I am railing against my complicity in the gigantic systems that have created so much wealth disparity in our world. But I am aware, in a way that the average Battler of Seattle might not have been, that my self-flagellation does not by itself change that disparity. I am further aware that the actions I can take to be a more responsible consumer, while to some degree effective, do not solve the problem of my complicity in inscrutable and far-reaching patterns of change. So if you've continued reading this post in the expectation that I was coming to The Answer to the dilemmas I've raised, I am sorry to disappoint you. I warned you that I was in a confessional mood, and the discipline of confession is often directly opposed to our human impulse to explain and understand. The Answer, if there is one, is this: There is no such thing as an Immaculate Consumer, or an Immaculate Corporation. The world is one in which good and bad mix together as inseparably as sugar in coffee.

When I think about the complicated issues of fair trade and consumer or corporate responsibility, the historian in me often thinks back to my particular historical subjects, the abolitionists. The crusade against Atlantic slavery was in many ways similar to the anti-globalization cause. Abolitionists in Britain knew that the sugar trade was stained by the blood of Caribbean slaves, a stain they tried to publicize and document with scads of information. Their information gathering efforts were often blocked by the well-situated and powerful sugar interests in London, who embarked on disinformation campaigns. They willfully dissembled about the horrors of panopticons and plantations, all the while issuing social responsibility reports of their own, which portrayed themselves as enlightened and paternalistic capitalists.

Faced with the knowledge that sugar was a hybrid of "sweetness and power," many abolitionists believed that boycotting the product was morally obligatory. The historian David Brion Davis reports in his magnum opus that one prominent Quaker abolitionist, William Allen, "resolved to abstain from sugar until its West Indian cultivators had been emancipated--a vow he kept for forty-three years." There is an appealing simplicity to Allen's "quest for purity," the same appealing simplicity in calls to only buy organic shade-grown coffee, or beans that have been certified as "fair trade."

I have a great respect for the kind of conviction represented by Allen's vow, especially when I reflect on how difficult it would be for me even to give up something as luxurious and non-essential as specialty coffee. But the moral absoluteness of the vow also oversimplifies; it holds out the idea that one can extricate oneself completely from oppressive power relationships, that one can make a consumer choice with full knowledge about the origins of a product. If anything, obtaining that knowledge has become even more difficult now. I have no idea whether the components that make up the computer I'm using were at some point supplied by seedy warlords using child labor. I have no way of knowing whether the wood in this desk was harvested in an environmentally responsible way. I can agitate for greater responsibility, or be agitated myself, but that agitation does not secure for me a conscience unburdened by nagging doubts.

In 1843, these issues came up at the second World's Anti-Slavery Convention, when a group of Anglo-American abolitionists met to discuss strategies for ending slavery in the American south. Some delegates viewed the problem in a way similar to William Allen's. They believed that England and Europe should create protectionist obstacles for the importation of slave-grown cotton. Some thought England could encourage the growth of cotton in its imperial holdings in India as a competitor for slave-grown American crops. But free-traders at the meeting barely concealed their disdain for these measures. One of the most famous free-trade activists of the time, Richard Cobden, pointed out how difficult it would be to avoid all contact with slavery's evils:
There is not one of our friends here from America, who did not come in a ship laden with slave-grown cotton or tobacco; and when you send the tidings of this meeting to all parts of the world, the very paper will be the produce of slave labour, for the greater part consists of cotton. Will you tell me that by isolating yourselves, and preventing inter-communication with your species, and shutting out men from the social communion because they have slaves, that that is the way to reform mankind? It was not the way in which the great Propounder of our religion went to teach mankind. He mixed with the bad and the good. Do you mix with the bad as well as the good; and your example will be more infectious than that of the bad. That is the way to reclaim the world.
The first part of Cobden's speech still rings true today. Who is to say that "the very paper" on which anti-WTO activists print flyers does not consist of some evil, somewhere along the chain of its production? On the other hand, in defense of the Seattle Battlers, I don't share Cobden's sanguine hope that free trade by itself will make good business practices "more infectious" than the bad. The world cannot so easily be reclaimed. Cobden is right, though, that the anti-free-traders were naive. To produce free-grown cotton in India was to subserve imperial and oppressive labor practices there. Cobden was right about buying slave-grown cotton: you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. But surely he too is wrong that to buy the "bad" is a surer road to salvation.

To borrow from something "the great Propounder" said, I guess we have to do the best we can with handling our "unrighteous Mammon." (See the aforementioned sermon by Tony Price.) With our limited knowledge, and given the limited transparency of global corporations, we have to try to do the right thing. But I have to confess (literally) that making the right consumer decisions is an incredibly complex question, and it cannot be taken lightly. The world does mix the good and the bad, as Cobden implied, and simply being in the world means being mixed up with both. At the end of this post, I'm disappointed to find myself calling for little more than an ironic and critical distance from one's own choices. I'm concerned it might come across as a call for inaction. But cultivating critical distance, I guess, is what confession is primarily about, and it is at least a prerequisite for prudential action in the world.

"And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia's Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight. Hoveringly halting, and dipping on the wing, the white sea-fowls longingly lingered over the agitated pool that he left."

Collective Improvisation:
Hey, how come coffee's so cheap in the States? Over here in England it's already at least twice that. I think so at any rate ... 'cause I have to pawn the wife's jewellery before I can afford to go and buy one.

Posted by Blogger Tony on 10/10/2004 11:07:00 AM : Permalink  

Thanks, Tony: you've put any complaints we Yankees might have about the coffee prices in perspective!

Paul Musgrave has some thoughts about this post here, wherein he also points me to his own Starbucks post. Both worth reading.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 10/10/2004 06:25:00 PM : Permalink  

After posting that comment, I wondered if I might have been exaggerating (though my mother told me a million times not to). So I checked up on the actual prices in Oxford this morning.

Posted by Blogger Tony on 10/11/2004 09:56:00 AM : Permalink  

You think too much about coffee. Drink it and enjoy. 

Posted by Sean

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/17/2005 12:02:00 PM : Permalink  

There are only a few company's who care about the farmers, i don't know if Starbucks is one of them..

Posted by Anonymous Laurent on 9/21/2010 03:33:00 AM : Permalink  

Interesting article, added his blog to Favorites

Posted by Anonymous generic cialis on 11/23/2010 11:58:00 PM : Permalink  

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