Boycotting Starbucks, Part One (of Several)

Just like buying Starbucks tells a lot about America, not buying Starbucks communicates a good deal as well.
Over the last few years, it does seem that consumer boycotts are on the rise. Perhaps this is a response to growing corporate power and maybe even to a perception of declining civic authority or faith in established politics institutions. Indeed to some big business seems to hold more of the cards than big government these days, so that is where the protesters focus their larger political and cultural energies and ire.

Cultural critic Sharon Zukin writes in her book on shopping, Point of Purchase, that “the public space of shopping is a space of discussion and debate. By buying something and especially by consciously and publicly withdrawing their purchases, consumers are heard. Through their marketplace activities, buyers can, and sometimes do say, what they think, lay out their vision for justice, and explain how they see and imagine a fair and equitable society. They also talk about their place in the matrix of power in who controls things and makes the decisions.

Not buying is also a way, as Zukin explains, for consumers to make the companies they buy from accountable “to the law, to morality, and to social justice. But it is not just companies. Consumer actions use companies as levers to talk to others in the marketplace, elected officials, and even diplomats. Indeed as consumption takes over more and more space in our lives and as companies like Starbucks promise to deliver not just products but experiences, then lifestyles, and then the fulfillment of our deepest desires, boycotts and other moves to stop buying have become more important, more prevalent, and more creative, more revealing, and more deeply political forms of expression. That’s what those who stopped buying Starbucks were doing. They were trying to force their way, dragging Starbucks along with them, into a conversation about the meaning of buying and the distribution of power in the modern world of mass consumption.

Starbucks attracted protesters like cheap beer attaches college students because it promises so much. As the firm’s brand managers boast all the time, it sells more than coffee. Offering a third space, easily attained social status, and solutions to everything from bowling alone to global warming to reconciling the nation’s racial past might get people in the door and keep them coming back, but it also raises expectations. As scholars sometimes note, the most dangerous people in society are not the truly beaten, but those with elevated hopes. When promises aren’t met, they fire back with emotion, even anger. But it not just raised expectations that make Starbucks a target. The company’s tone acts like magnet for protestors. There is a boastfulness about Starbucks, even a sanctimonious smugness. It definitely does good things it gives money to nurses associations in Oregon, literacy programs in Georgia, and clean water campaigns in New Jersey. But the company is also the first to talk about these things, to pat itself on the back. Implicitly, then, at the same time, they set themselves off from other companies. As they have done this, Starbucks has anointed itself as the corporate do-gooder king and put itself on a pedestal. As they do, others come along only too happy to knock them down. Along the way, the protestors turn the company’s self-mythologizing and widely professed values into demands. In end then, drinking or not drinking lattes, is a way for ordinary people people without stock portfolios or political connections — to talk back, to have their voices heard on a wide range of ethnical, community, political, and even ideological issues that they care about and want to fix. Really anti-Starbucks boycotts and protests serve as a window into very local and very global concerns and the connections between them — of consumers everywhere.

Boycott Story Number One — in anticipation of March Madness:

When Howard Schultz, boyhood hoopster, bought the hometown Seattle Supersonics in 2001, the local paper predicted the “rebirth of the franchise. Schultz fed these dreams, talking about returning the team to its “glory days. But things didn’t go as planned. Star forward Shawn Kemp couldn’t stay out of a courtroom or on a basketball court. Then, Schultz, the team president, traded the high-priced, fan-favorite, and lock down defender, Gary Payton, for next to nothing. By 2006, the Sonics hadn’t turned things around and Schultz wanted a new arena to boost the franchise’s prospects. When Seattle voters said no, he sounded petulant in public and promptly sold the team to an investment group almost certain to take the club to Oklahoma City.

One disappointed fan wrote, “I should have know immediately that Schultz’s promises for the team “were a trick, judging by the exorbitant prices he charges for his liquid sin. Sure enough, he continued looking back over the CEO’s tenure with team, “it was all a farce. Not only did he turn the team’s greatest player and most beloved player out of town, but he threw a temper tantrum when Seattle refused to charge taxpayers for another publicly-funded arena for his new toy. “God forbid, he continued, “that a billionaire be required to pay for his own private wetdream. Based on his reading of Schultz’s actions, this man concluded, “any corporation run by this man is surely evil. No more lattes for him or a host of other Sonics fans. Local columnist Robert Jameson supported the boycott as well. He quoted from a Starbucks coffee cup that said, “voting is the method by which we purchase the right to be critical. His vote, no Starbucks. “Take that, Mr. Coffee, he wrote.