How activism plays a role in America’s consumerist culture, and where your money goes when you buy that Starbucks frappuccino.
Like many Americans, I sometimes feel compelled to buy iced drinks at the Starbucks in Target after perusing the racks of fast fashion wardrobe staples. Puzzling out whether those seam rips and questionable bleach spots are on purpose or not really makes a girl thirsty. On one such occasion a few weeks ago, back in June and in the throes of Pride Month, my mom (and window shopping extraordinaire) spotted the monthly specials board. Lo and behold, every drink was Pride themed: Pride Punch, Equali-tea, some other tea and coffee themed puns I can’t recall now – you get the gist.
Of course we decided to give them a try because we are shopping day mavericks. When we got to the register I boldly decided to make the barista’s life harder by asking whether a percentage of the profits from the themed specials go towards supporting LGBTQ+ organizations and charities. She was very nice when she told me, in essence, “I don’t know, I just work here.” Fair enough. We took our teas (they were very good) and, having successfully ridiculed almost every item of clothing and other human being in the vicinity without actually purchasing anything, decided our work there was done.
But my question remained unanswered. Where had our money gone when we bought these drinks? Was Starbucks capitalizing on the spirit of Pride Month without backing it up with any real support? Why can’t they just use normal cup sizes? Is calling a cup “tall” when you actually mean “small” oxymoronic? I set out to find the truth, and here’s everything you need to know about spending your cash at Starbucks.
PS: Use the handy guide below to jump to issues that are especially important to you.
The Handy Guide
First off, the question of the day: Does Starbucks support Pride?
The following investigation required a large amount of research and math, so I hope you all appreciate my efforts.
If any of you are Starbucks aficionados you may be familiar with the Starbucks Store where you can buy all of your coffee chain related accessories and home goods. Well, this year Starbucks released a Pride collection complete with tumblers, cold cups, travel bottles, etc. You could buy yourself a Starbucks 2020 Pride tumbler for around $19.95.
Rather than donating a portion of the proceeds from the sales of this collection, Starbucks opted to donate a whopping $100,000 to the Human Rights Campaign and National Center for Transgender Equality in honor of Pride Month. I hope my sarcasm successfully traversed the planes of cyberspace to reach your ear/ eyeballs. Right off the bat, I think we can guess the answer to my burning question, but let’s persist.
Adding to the list of contributions in 2020, Starbucks has also awarded an additional $300,000 in grants to various non profit LGBTQ+ supporting organizations.
This brings our tally to $400,000 in charitable giving related to Pride in the US for 2020.
Another major move for Starbucks 2020 is the boost in fertility benefits that all employees will now receive. Starbucks includes this in their “diversity” story because they do not discriminate based on sexual identity who may receive said benefits – which can cover anything from adoption costs to fertility treatments and surrogacy. The company will dole out 10k per qualifying event (up to a lifetime maximum of 30k), as well as a lifetime maximum coverage of 25k for fertility services and 10k for prescription drugs. This is the extent of Starbucks’ own claim on LGBTQ+ support in the US for this year, so these factors are what I will be basing further assessment on.
According to the CDC, 12.7 % of women aged 15-49 have used IVF, and about .6 % of the US population is waiting to adopt a child. As of September 2019, Starbucks had 346,000 employees. So let’s say that 13 percent of those employees are in need of fertility treatment or are waiting to adopt. This is most likely generous assumption. That would mean 44,980 Starbucks employees will take advantage of these benefits, and let’s say they decide to take ALL of those benefits this year. That would bring Starbucks’ total lifetime payout to $2,923,700,000. That’s right, 2.9 billion dollars. And in reality, they’d be paying out nowhere close to that, considering the number of employees who leave their jobs, decide not to follow through on treatment, or have some other form of health coverage.
Starbucks’ US net income for 2019 alone was 3.8 billion dollars. They make more in a year than they would pay out in fertility benefits over those employees’ entire lifetimes. And that’s if they all decided to work there and take advantage of the max amount of benefits. Not likely, but we’ll roll with it. Of course, they’ve done this math, the only reason Starbucks can offer such great benefits is because they know it is both sustainable and profitable in the long term.
Now let’s consider that, according to a Gallup Poll, only 4.5 % of Americans identify as LGBTQ+. Which means the number of Starbucks employees who are actually in the LGBTQ+ community AND could be taking advantage of fertility benefits is … extremely low.
The lifetime payout for Starbucks to this small portion of employees would be somewhere around $131,566,500. Divide that by the average lifespan (we’ll go with 72 years), and you get a yearly amount of $1,827,312.50.
Let’s be super generous and take that last number, then go ahead and add it to the rest of the LGBTQ+ contributions Starbucks has been this year to date in the USA.
That brings our support total to $2,227,312.50.
Now check this out. According to Business Insider, the average Starbucks store gets 500 visitors per day. That’s around 15,000 customers per month across 15,341 US stores. Let’s say that just 1 percent of customers across all those stores purchased a tall themed drink off the Pride specials board for the entire month of June. We’ll subtract $1.00 for the cost of materials, overhead, and payment of employees. That’s $1.95 per cup and a total profit of $448,724,250 in the US – in ONE month, off the sales of ONE drink!
Donating just 1 percent of the proceeds would put an additional $4,487,242.50 toward LGBTQ+ supporting organizations in the month of June – or more than cover the cost of Starbucks’ total support this year to date.
Note that these are not hard and fast numbers, Starbucks still has to account for losses, closed stores, pandemic response, overhead, expenses, and also other insurance coverage such as transition related procedures for trans employees. But is it fair to say that they could be doing more for the LGBTQ+ community – especially if they are going to be touting their support on social media and capitalizing on the spirit of Pride through fun, colorful drinks and merchandise in their stores? Probably.
While Starbucks may be able to afford giving more, we should remember that the company engages in additional charitable giving through their Starbucks Foundation, matching donations, and partner organizations. They have also been granted a 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index for ten years running, have used their sway to influence important political decisions on marriage equality, and support LGBTQ+ employees through progressive health care and hiring policies.
This has not kept the coffee giant out of hot water, however. Recently the company has undergone criticism for a supposedly hypocritical ad in which Starbucks shows their support for the trans community through their #whatsyourname campaign – which has raised 100,000 pounds in the UK. However, some employees have come forward with tales of being denied coverage for transition-related procedures, or of potentially dangerous behavior of co-workers – such as being outed against their wishes. Many say that Starbucks has far to go in training at the store level before LGBTQ+ employees will have a comfortable working environment. Overall, though, Starbucks’ policies and benefits are some of the most comprehensive and progressive – making them an attractive company to work for.
Black Lives Matter
Another major snafu came up for Starbucks when, in a social media post, they voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement – pledging $1 million to organizations supporting racial equity. They also partnered with Arizona State University to offer “anti-bias resources and training”, stating that the courses could be taken at no cost. Except that it turns out to just be one course specific to the movement, part of an existing “Welcoming Dialogue” series on the Starbucks Global Academy website.
All this would be a good effort, true, if it hadn’t been part of a bigger attempt to backpedal from previous controversy over the company’s stance on employee attire. Originally, Starbucks banned employees from wearing any item in support of Black Lives Matter – which left many confused over company policy that had previously encouraged employees to show their support for LGBTQ+ communities by wearing pride pins, or even company made t-shirts.
Many drew a comparison between Pride and BLM, arguing that they are each on a mission to defend civil rights. At the first threat of a boycott, Starbucks did a 180. All of a sudden, the company was in full support of the movement: they were making donations, having 250,000 shirts made from black partner organizations, and allowing employees to wear their BLM pins and t-shirts in the meantime. The flip flop left a bad taste in the mouths of many, and at the very least was a huge PR fail.
The Politics of Starbucks
Starbucks has asserted it’s dedication to remaining “non-political” several times over the years, and has been accused of the opposite just as often. From backlash over supposed support of Israel’s government, to supposed involvement with pro-choice organizations, to submitting a brief to the Supreme Court in support of marriage equality. There doesn’t seem to be much that is not political about Starbucks.
To be fair, it is easy to criticize Starbucks based on their “involvement” with many organizations due to the company’s matching donation program. According to their guidelines, any employee may request up to $1500 per year in matching donations or equivalent volunteer time to any 501(c)(3) in the US and Canada. Which means if an employee decides to donate to Planned Parenthood, Starbucks cannot deny a matching donation request – even if the optics aren’t good.
Former CEO Howard Schultz even considered the support of marriage equality integral to the Starbucks brand. Schultz has since stepped down from his position at Starbucks and at one time was considering a presidential run. In 2016, he supported Hilary Clinton and donated to her joint campaign with the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the company is known to rent several spaces from Donald Trump himself. New CEO Kevin Johnson has also stated his intent to face down political issues when they arise.
And so seems to be the fine line Starbucks walks between retaining their progressive brand image and as many customers as possible. This tight rope strategy, however, seems to be what’s keeping them from committing fully to the causes they claim to support – ultimately leading to situations that require backpedaling and damage control, and deal damage to public opinion.
Starbucks and Immigration
Starbucks caused a stir a few years ago when they declared their intent to hire 10,000 refugees by the year 2022. This was in response to President Trump’s immigration ban. The idea behind this was to endorse the acceptance of international refugees by supplying jobs to support them. This would only apply, however, if said individuals were already in possession of a work permit and permission to enter the country – both notoriously hard to obtain.
If companies in America wish to support immigrants in their journey to American citizenship, they would be better off accepting resumes from individuals seeking employment from abroad and then sponsoring their work visas. However, this is not feasible, nor lucrative, for a business to do when there are plenty of US citizens already in need of work. So if 10,000 refugee jobs over 6 years seems low to you, that is because Starbucks will be hard pressed to find even that many qualified candidates to fit the bill.
In addition to their refugee promise, a letter from CEO Schultz back in 2017 stated the company’s support of DACA through reimbursement of program fees and “DACA related programs”. In a section of the letter titled “Building Bridges, not Walls, WIth Mexico” he also writes of Starbucks’ dedication to families, farms, and keeping business open south of the border. Considering Mexico’s call to boycott Starbucks and other American brands back in 2017, however, I think this belongs to the realm of fair trade and sustainability.
Starbucks’ Immigration and Refugee Affiliations:
International Rescue Committee
No One Left Behind
UNHCR’s #WithRefugees Campaign
Tent Partnership for Refugees
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Scottish Refugee Council
Vets for American Ideals
The company has also contributed to specialized job training programs that help refugees become more employable through the International Rescue Committee, Refugee Council UK, ACCES Employment, Scottish Refugee Council Lutheran Immigration Services Northwest, 1951 Coffee, and Upwardly Global.
Ethics: Is Starbucks Coffee Sustainable?
When it comes to ethics, Starbucks has always come across as a trustworthy brand. In 2018, they made Ethisphere Institute’s “World’s Most Ethical Companies” list for the 12th year in a row. In the years since, however, their name has been notably missing. When it comes to ethical sourcing and trade, Starbucks has a history of fudging the numbers – or at least obscuring them.
But is Starbucks Fair Trade?
Yes and no. First we have to answer the question, what is “fair trade”? Fair trade, in the abstract sense, is the agreement between companies and producers in developed countries to ensure fair prices are paid to those producers. It is a movement to improve working conditions, wages, and sustainability. Fairtrade, one word, is the authorizing organization which grants companies that little Fairtrade symbol you sometimes see on fancy coffee and chocolate in the organic section at the grocery store.
Starbucks has touted their “support” of Fairtrade since the early 2000’s, but they don’t actually have very many certified Fairtrade products. Instead, their website claims to be a generous funder of farmer loans to Fairtrade cooperatives. But when it comes to Starbucks coffee, the Fairtrade website only lists two products – Kirkland and Starbucks Italian Roast, both sold by the bag. The Starbucks UK page, on the other hand, lists two products that seem to be certified Fairtrade whether by the bag or by the cup in UK stores, but the language is vague and it’s difficult to identify which Starbucks drinks are made with Fairtrade roasts. Speaking of vague and fudgy misinformation, here’s what appears upon the first Google search of Starbucks and Fairtrade:
Just goes to show you can’t read a Google search by it’s algorithm selected featured snippets.
If not Fairtrade, then what?
Starbucks has committed to buying 100 percent ethically sourced coffee in partnership with Conservation International. Sounds great, right? It does, until you consider that in “partnership” with Conservation International, Starbucks created it’s very own code of ethics called Coffee And Farmer Equity Practices – or CAFE practices for short. Hiding behind cute acronyms, that’s just low.
CAFE was created, in the words of Bambi Semroc, Senior Strategic Advisor at the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business at Conservation International, as a way for farmers to continuously become more sustainable and to offer lower barriers to entry than Fairtrade. That kind of says it all, doesn’t it? If a company doesn’t find it profitable to actually become sustainable, they’ll hire a company to make it appear that they have done so.
Enter Conservation International. Conversation International is a non profit organization whose “mission is to spotlight and secure the critical benefits that nature provides to humanity, such as food, fresh water, livelihoods and a stable climate.” That’s a lot of words that sound very green, huh?
United Airlines Inc.
That’s a lot of names that … don’t sound very green at all. Because they aren’t. However, Conservation International will greenwash them and allow the use of their logo for a modest yearly fee. If Walmart can buy a few acres of rain forest, slap a conservationist symbol on their products, and bring in customers who are now under the impression that slave labor wasn’t used to sew that $15.00 pair of sweatpants – well, they’ll call it a worthwhile investment.
Wait! Non-profits can charge a fee for services?
Yes they can. The title “non-profit” is kind of ridiculous in a capitalist society. Non-profit organizations wouldn’t exist if they weren’t making a profit somehow, and it’s completely legal for them to charge a fee for products and services that they offer. In fact, any money made off these products and services, unlike donations, is free to use whenever, wherever, and however the organization chooses.
Does that mean Starbucks isn’t green at all?
Yes and no. They aren’t as “green” or ethical as they would like you to believe. Being green is integral to Starbucks’ brand image, but the cost of actually putting forth the effort to meet Fairtrade standards was more than they were willing to pay, so they created a system with lower standards – but lower standards are better than none, right?
CAFE Practices are a win-win situation for Starbucks and the farmers it buys from. Unlike many other certification processes, CAFE used a continuous improvement approach. This means that small farmers who cannot currently meet the standards, but are working towards it, receive counseling, support and incentives to reach those goals – and in the meantime, Starbucks will continue buying their products even if they don’t meet CAFE standards yet. The only disqualifying factors are practices like child labor and deforestation. In this way, Starbucks can support small farmers, encourage environmentally sustainable methods, and still protect their profit margins.
What about fair wages?
Although the CAFE Practices do effect some positive changes in the coffee industry, there are a few snags. After all, isn’t creating your own certification and then granting it to yourself kind of like patting yourself on the back?
“Oh, wonderful job Starbucks, here’s a shiny new medal!”
“Wow, thank you, Starbucks, I wasn’t expecting this – I’ll cherish it forever!”
Why yes, it is exactly like that. When questioned about fair wages, Starbucks reps will all give you the same number: $1.20 per pound. The minimum amount that Fairtrade allows to be paid to producers. Except that Starbucks is not an importer, they buy from the middlemen who buy from the producers – which means that the farmers actually got paid somewhere around 80 cents so that both the middlemen and Starbucks could make a profit.
In addition, CAFE Practices have limited health coverage, and no mention of gender specific practices at all – a major issue in many countries, where women’s health and safety looks much different than in the US. However, since 2018, Starbucks has made an effort by donating a combined $4 million to funds that support women’s health, finances, education, and leadership. You can read more about those efforts and the organizations being supported here.
What is Starbucks doing about this?
Starbucks is committed to following CAFE Practices long term, which means they will continue to work with producers in the same way they have been for years. They have joined the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, committing to three promises:
Invest $50 million in the Global Farmer Fund
Ensure 100 percent of coffee is sourced through CAFE Practices
Provide 100 million healthy coffee trees to farmers by 2025
Can I Recycle Starbucks?
Recycling is tricky. Even the things you think should be able to be recycled usually have some weird material involved that actually disqualifies it from most recycling plants. Take the Starbucks paper cup. On the surface it looks great, paper can be recycled, paper degrades. But the Starbucks paper cup is actually lined with polyethylene, a type of plastic, to prevent leaking. Most recycling plants find it too painstaking to remove the paper cup from the plastic lining, and therefore the cup is rendered non-recyclable. The paper will still break down when it inevitably winds up in a landfill, but the micro plastics will leech into the ground, into water sources, and even back into our food supply.
The good news is that the plastic lids on your hot drinks are usually recyclable, as they are made of plastic #6. Check the cup for a resin identification code, or that little plastic number that you find on the bottom of cups, and then call your recycling company or local facility to find out if they process that type of plastic. Although #6 is often accepted, Starbucks iced coffee and teas use plastic #5, which was largely only accepted by overseas processing plants in China – before they stopped accepting our trash. That means many of these cups are no longer recyclable, which is a huge bummer.
And as usual, you cannot ever recycle your plastic straws, avoid them whenever possible.
Plastic #5 is still accepting at some plants, but you’ll have to go through some effort to recycle it. Some programs, like the Gimme 5 Project, will still accept your inconvenient plastics.
In the meantime, Starbucks is working on developing new biodegradable paper cups, eliminating plastic straws, coming up with a more responsible alternative to non-recyclable plastics, and continuing to encourage customers to bring in their own reusable cups. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Starbucks is currently not allowing customers to bring in their own cups – which will hopefully change very soon.
You can peruse Starbucks’ latest sustainability report here, and here you can read about their goals for the future.
Starbucks Environmental and Sustainability Affiliations:
NextGen Cup Challenge
Fairtrade (donations and certified for certain products)
One Tree for Every Bag
Farmer Support Centers
Global Farmer Fund
Cup Fund in cooperation with Hubbub
Starbucks Greener Stores framework
Starbucks and Veterans
Starbucks shines when it comes to their commitment to our nation’s veterans. The company has hired 25,000 military veterans and spouses – that’s a little over 7 percent of Starbucks’ total employees, not bad. The coffee conglomerate has also dedicated over 60 Military Family Stores near military bases where they employ many of these veterans and spouses, keeping them close to their families and community.
Since reaching their goal of 25,000 (6 years ahead of schedule, might I add), Starbucks has committed to hiring 5,000 veterans and military spouses annually. This continuous hiring effort, rather than a one-off lump sum, is far more meaningful and beneficial to veterans in the long run and a testament to Starbucks’ dedication to those who have served.
Starbucks also offers many great perks to its veteran and military employees, such as the opportunity to not only attend free college courses themselves but to extend that benefit to a qualifying family member through their College Achievement Plan. They also provide support to military members and their families as they transition to civilian life through the Armed Services Network, and through an online Facebook military group where employees can connect and form a new sense of community.
Starbucks Veteran and Military Affiliations:
The Mission Continues
Blue Star Families
Hiring Our Heroes
Starbucks Adopt a Unit
What Makes a “Good” Company?
There are many things a company can be good at, but at the heart of it, a company wants to be good at making money. Every decision, every social media post, every good deed, is in the interest of profit. As consumers, we not only have what these companies want, but need. Every time you go out to eat, grab a coffee, or shop for a new outfit, they’re all vying for your attention and your dollar. When you think about it, that’s a lot of power. And – let’s just roll with the Spiderman theme here – with great power comes great responsibility.
As Americans, we all know that we live in a capitalist society. But for too long people have demonized money: it’s not polite to talk about, it’s selfish to have too much of it, but by aligning our personal and material values and becoming informed, conscious consumers we can make more of a difference than we may have ever thought possible.