Clash of the Titans XV: Starbucks

April 20, 2007, 11:00 am; posted by
Filed under Chloe, Debate, Steve  | 3 Comments

In this corner, attacking Starbucks, is Steve!

And in this corner, defending Starbucks, is Chloe!

If only they were included in those annual surveys of whom Americans trust, drug dealers might manage to bump car salesmen and lawyers out of the basement of public esteem. Typified in the collective mind as a shady, unshaven man with sunken eyes slinking around a playground at dusk in a bulky trenchcoat, the drug dealer is universally reviled as a corrupter of youth and an exploiter of human weakness.

But while we readily identify the local dope seller as an odious blight on society, we happily make peace with his ideological cousins at Starbucks, who peddle a product no less addictive or mind-altering.

Caffeine is the world’s most popular psychoactive drug, and its honored place in our society should not cause us to overlook its very real effects on the mind. A Johns Hopkins study found that as little as “one small cup of coffee daily” can produce caffeine addiction, a malady that may be included in the latest edition of the diagnostic manual for psychologists as a full-fledged mental disorder. When I read the list of caffeine withdrawal symptoms, it helped me understand why many Starbucks defenders are so rabid. Nausea, fatigue, and pounding headaches might be enough to keep me coming back for my daily fix as well.

But even if you accept the popularity of this mind-altering drug as a necessary evil in our sleep-deprived, results- obsessed society, there are plenty of reasons not to seek your dose from the ubiquitous mermaid:

– Starbucks charges far too much. It’s bad enough that a regular coffee is nearly two dollars, but those specialty drinks really get you. A mid-sized latte or frappuccino (words I freely admit I do not understand) costs more than a gallon of milk; large versions of these drinks approach five dollars. Drink two a week for 20 years and you’ve slurped down a cool $10k — before interest.

– Starbucks coffee apparently isn’t that good. I don’t drink coffee, but people who do, from the well-respected Consumer Reports magazine, ranked Starbucks coffee below McDonald’s in a blind taste test. I’m lovin’ that.

– And Starbucks stores just feel insincere. The whole shtick seems so calculated, a slick attempt to bottle a hip atmosphere and re-create it on a national scale, through generous doses of shallow philosophy, mood lighting, and second-rate classical guitar. It certainly seems successful, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy or manipulative.

I won’t claim any unfair business practices or exploitation, and I sincerely don’t mind that they’ve spread like kudzu across the country, or put other coffee shops out of business. That’s the American way; competition is the heart of capitalism, and they’ve succeeded admirably. They deserve some credit.

But I do hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t throw myself behind a behemoth corporation that fakes ambiance and overcharges its customers for an addictive psychoactive drug. As a future lawyer, I’d like someone to look down on in those surveys.

I was furious when I heard that Starbucks was opening not one but four stores in my hometown. I knew what would happen: The Shed, Café Rush, Java Junkie and all my other favorite hangouts would be obliterated. To me, as to many others, Starbucks was to coffee shops as Wal-Mart was to grocery stores. Namely, it was the end of them. When Wal-Mart came to town, only one other grocery store survived. I didn’t want that to happen to my coffee shops.

Starbucks didn’t kill any of my hangouts, though. They’re going strong, their eclectic, homey styles still beating out the corporation, mainly because of the music scene and the fact that everyone knows all the people in the pictures decorating the walls. The people in my hometown go to Starbucks, but that’s just when they’re in a hurry. They go to the little places for the people, because let’s face it — the coffee just isn’t that great.

I’m not saying this is the situation in all cities. I know about all those sad stories about the mom and pop cafes being booted out thanks to the monster mermaid. Yes, Starbucks has the cheesy “third place” thing going on, even though the atmosphere isn’t that great, and pales in comparison to the coffee shop your best friend decided to open rather than going to college.

But Starbucks Coffee isn’t all about the coffee it sells or the atmosphere it projects (but the coffee is good and the atmosphere not half bad). It’s about the prices, the sky-rocketing $1.55-cup-of-joe. Yes, the exorbitant charge is important, and in a good way.

There’s a reason Starbucks is so pricey. It’s called fair trade. Fair trade is a certification on coffee and other crops that ensures fair price and labor conditions, direct trade, democratic and transparent organizations, community development, and environmental sustainability. Starbucks buys about 10% of the world’s fair trade coffee, more than any other single coffee buyer in the United States.

What usually happens with trading in developing countries is that the trader will provide loans for the farmer to sustain the crops. The loans come with conditions that ensure the trader’s complete control over the crop, the prices, and the farmer. The trader will often buy the crop at cost or just above, so the farmer doesn’t make enough money to survive, let alone plant next year’s crop, which means he has to go back to the trader for more loans.

But Starbucks buys coffee high above the cost where most other coffee buyers do, which naturally pushes their prices up to what looks like an unreasonable fee to us. In 2003, Arabica coffee was selling at $0.55-$0.70 a pound. Starbucks paid $1.20 per pound, twice the amount that Folgers or Maxwell House paid.

Yes, Starbucks is expensive. But if we could just stop demanding low prices at the expense of the lives of coffee farmers all over the world, maybe we’d realize a $1.55 coffee is so completely worth it.



3 Comments to “Clash of the Titans XV: Starbucks”

  1. Marcus on April 20th, 2007 1:05 pm

    I prefer going to Starbucks as a once-in-a-while treat and I like their fair trade policies… but nothing beats the eclectic nature of local coffee shop with its battered couches and inexplicable mascara-laden statues of viking women and jazz muscians. I have found that many independent coffee shops (at least in my corner of New England) are switching to fair trade and still (somehow) remain cheaper than Starbucks. Also, I have read that Dunkin Donuts is the nation’s #1 coffee merchant as far as sales are concerned.

  2. Djere on April 20th, 2007 3:30 pm

    You know, I’ve heard from reliable sources that America runs on Dunkin.

  3. MC-B on April 20th, 2007 6:09 pm

    John Goodman’s voice could make nearly anything sound delicious. Not suprising really… the man’s bought a lot of food.

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