March 1, 2002
Toronto, Ontario

Bottomless cup of protest

Peter Shawn Taylor

Protests against Starbucks never seem to go away. It's just the causes that change. A year ago, the coffee chain was besieged by demands that it pay more for its beans and stop serving products containing growth hormones or genetically modified foods. Today, Starbucks buys a million pounds of Fair Trade coffee a year -- at nearly three times the world price. It uses the toughest labelling requirements in the world for GM products. And it offers customers soy and organic milk as substitutes. It's reward? A Global Week of Action against its outlets culminating in a rally outside its annual general meeting in Seattle on Wednesday.

Funny thing, whatever Starbucks does, it never seems to be enough. This week's protests, organized by the Organic Consumers Association, turn last year's victories into this year's beachheads. The group is calling on Starbucks to serve more Fair Trade coffee and ban all genetically modified ingredients and growth hormones. "In October, 2001, Starbucks made a commitment to buy one million pounds of Fair Trade coffee and brew Fair Trade coffee once a month. Don't let Starbucks stop there -- demand that Starbucks brew Fair Trade coffee of the day EVERY WEEK!" reads one leaflet released at the protests. Just offering customers the choice of higher-priced, lower-quality coffee isn't enough these days; now Starbucks has to force it down their throats.

Besides not serving enough Fair Trade coffee, Starbucks is also criticized for not monitoring how farmers spend their extra cash. (Are they blowing it on smokes and DVD players, or building hospitals like they're supposed to?) Then there are the new demands that Starbucks serve "shade grown" coffee beans to protect the habitat of rain forest birds. But according to its own Corporate Social Responsibility report, Starbucks is already buying shade-grown Mexican coffee. With Starbucks' management so eager to please its critics, the protesters have trouble keeping up with their own demands.

Arguments for banning growth hormone milk were comprehensively destroyed by Jon Entine in a column in the National Post earlier this week, but that hasn't stopped Starbucks from lending needless credence to the issue. Last week, in a response to the OCA campaign, Starbucks pointed out that it provides organic milk as a substitute even though "consumer demand for organic milk in our stories continues to be very minimal." It has adopted strict Australian food labelling requirements to show its sensitivity to the GM debate. When Starbucks began offering soymilk as a substitute to cow milk, the OCA objected to the 10 surcharge.

There are two reasons why the protests against Starbucks are endless. First is its track record of giving in on nearly every demand. There is nothing more satisfying to a protester than forcing a company to capitulate, and Starbucks serves up capitulation like it does cappuccinos. Second, easy victories against Starbucks quickly become ammunition against other, bigger, targets. If Starbucks bans growth hormone milk, Kraft might be next. The Fair Trade coffee campaign is to springboard from Starbucks to Procter & Gamble.

It's not just Starbucks that comes across as a dupe, guilelessly trying to purchase peace from protest. McDonald's dropped its polystyrene clamshell packaging in response to (meaningless) environmental objections. It sets up animal welfare councils and frets about recycling and social responsibilities. But still the hamburger chain is a global focal point of rage against capitalism, meat eating, forest-degradation and cultural imperialism. Chartered banks fall over themselves accepting affirmative action targets and quotas only to be excoriated by human rights groups when the results predictably fail. British Columbian logging firms find that every coastal valley they forgo leads to another new valley that must be protected.

The blackest scene in the altogether black comedy If... from 1968 concerns a bloody rebellion by students at a British boarding school. Led by a sneering Malcolm McDowell in his first movie role, the students camp out on a rooftop and spray the quadrangle below with machine gun fire. Bodies lie everywhere as the headmaster ventures out from behind cover. "Boys, boys, I understand you," he yells to them. He gets a bullet square in the forehead.

One of the great conceits of the Corporate Social Responsibility movement is that corporations and protesters can find common ground merely by constraining how firms act. "I understand you," Starbucks shouts to the people handing out leaflets in front of its shops. It meets almost every demand, and is rewarded with another pile of demands smack in the forehead. The protesters don't want to change Starbucks; they want to bury it. The firm could ensure every bean it serves is grown in sun-dappled forests serenaded by warbling rain forest birds and harvested by farmers in Hugo Boss serapes. It could ban growth hormones, GM ingredients of all kinds and serve nothing but coffee bought at three times the world price. And if it were still in business a year from now, those same protesters would be back as mad as ever.