Kofi's hat

Kofi's hat

MP3s, music news and reviews, and a sprinkling of pop culture. Named by Aqualung's Matt Hales, after his son.

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Ink in my blood, a song in my heart. Metaphor is my middle name.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Starbucks Challenge 2.0/IBM is Monitoring this Post

According to its policy, Starbucks "sells Fair Trade Certified coffee around the world... in 21 countries, including... the United States." Then why is it so difficult to buy a cup of Fair Trade coffee in a Starbucks? In response, last month, the Starbucks Challenge encouraged people to visit as many Starbucks as possible and ask them for a cup of Fair Trade coffee... and either blog or e-mail about what happened. Less than two weeks into the challenge, Starbucks sent an e-mail to all company-owned stores. It began, "Not all store partners may be familiar with how to 'just say yes' when a customer requests a brewed coffee other than those being offered as Coffee of the Week (COW). This may be especially true for customers looking to enjoy a freshly brewed Fair Trade Certified or Organic Starbucks cofee."

Not all Starbucks corporate types who send missives from above may be familiar with how to write a non-condescending, non-patronizing e-mail that makes those who read it want to pay attention to it rather than dismiss it and feel insulted by and alienated from their company and their "superiors".

It's no wonder that charming memo didn't do the trick. November has brought Starbucks Challenge 2.0 which is much like the first one... with "new prizes and goals." Many bloggers have joined in and even non-blogging civilians are welcome to join in the coffee-ordering, muckraking fun! City Hippy and green LA girl will be "in frequent contact with Starbucks" and then tell them about the results of the challenge and seek their reaction as well as "some concrete details as to what the company plans to do, if anything, in light of them." There's also a special call to Angelenos - one of the prizes is reserved for the person who visits the most Starbucks in L.A. County.

L.A. hasn't been singled out because we're the shiniest or the smoggiest, or even because we drink the most coffee. green LA girl has bestowed this honour upon L.A. because "the Starbucks in Los Angeles have had pretty much the WORST record of all cities in which the Starbucks Challenge was taken. Out of 18 challenges taken in the city proper (sorry, Culver City, Santa Monica, and Pasadena), only 7 fair trade cups of coffees were received -- and most of those came only after much insistence, cajoling, and education done about Starbucks' policies on the CHALLENGERS' part."

I have mixed feelings about the challenge. Like all other humans, I often find myself suddenly in a Starbucks. I have bought music from them, and plenty of drinks, but not so much recently... Given my druthers (and please do give them back at your earliest convenience), I'd just as soon buy drinks elsewhere. There are a lot of convenient alternatives. Starbucks is a big corporate bad guy. They drive small, non-generic coffee shops out of business. They try to perpetuate the idea that "tall" is "small" and one day people might believe it's true. green L.A. girl acknowledges that some people have these sorts of feelings (not necessarily the "tall" thing, I can't be sure). She says "Regardless of politics, most of us agree on one thing: If a company makes a promise, it should stick to it." I'm down with that.

There is definitely value in drawing attention to Starbucks' failure to live up to its promises. At the same time, in the short-term, the challenge puts money in Starbucks' coffers and gives them some publicity (is there no such thing as bad publicity?). Might this help Starbucks prosper in the long-term as well, and if so, what are the ethical ramifications? Some of the "challengers" seem to be helping educate employees about their employer's fair trade coffee policies. They're essentially acting as unpaid Starbucks employees, providing training that Starbucks could easily provide itself.

If the challenge helps the fair trade policies at Starbucks become reality, and Starbucks is able to better exploit them for commercial gain, they could wipe out more small coffee shops. However, fair trade coffee farmers and their families would benefit. If they get enough money, they might choose to help improve their communities as well. If so, maybe that's a worthwhile enough gain to be "worth" losing independent coffee shops. Maybe the people who used to own their own coffee shops (and their employees) could go work at all the new Starbucks and would enjoy not having to worry about trying to keep a small business afloat anymore. Life has few easy answers. I'd like to join a challenge pursuing more easy answers.

Hey, despite my misgivings about Starbucks and life's lack of easy answers, I took the challenge! (I'm not in it for prizes, though I might well hit another Starbucks or two...) I took part because I'm all for corporate responsibility, and I was curious about what would happen. For the truly stubborn, I think for the challenge you should be able to ask if you could get a cup of fair trade coffee without ordering it... that should at least be an option. I'm not that cheap, though, and I don't know that I'm that hardheaded/annoying/principled, either!

I went to a Starbucks in downtown Burbank, at 300 N. San Fernando Road (very close to an Urban Outfitters, which is why I was in Burbank. I was buying Give. Listen Help. and listening to inane chatter). I asked for a tall cup of fair trade coffee and the woman told me they didn't have fair trade coffee anymore. She sought confirmation from her co-worker and got it. She repeated that they don't have fair trade coffee anymore. I told her about the challenge, and that everyone was supposed to be able to get fair trade coffee. Her eyes opened with something at least resembling a moderate concern but she again said they didn't have it anymore. She then offered to french-press me a fresh pot of the "equivalent" of Fair Trade coffee. She named a blend, and darn it, I didn't make a note of it (bad blogger!) and after perusing the blends at Starbucks' website, I'm not sure enough of a "match" to name one. I didn't know what she meant by "fair trade equivalent"; and I didn't know that any explanation she gave me would be trustworthy. I'm undereducated on the "fair trade equivalent"; thang... it might be legitimate, but I had no way of knowing on the spot whether she was just trying to say something to make me happy... Lesson: go in better-informed! I said "No, thank you", took my dolly*, and went home.

Starbucks is wrong to not live up to its promises, but smart to pay such close attention to bloggers. IBM will now help corporations keep an eye on what bloggers are saying about them -- and not just bloggers . IBM's new Public Image Monitoring Solution software "monitors and analyzes blogs, wikis, news feeds, consumer review sites, newsgroups and other community-generated content" and "assesses the tone of blogs and posts: positive, negative or neutral." But wait, there's more! It also identifies hot topics of discussion. I helped Starbucks out with some free employee relations consultation. I'll give IBM some free assistance coding this post. NEGATIVE: Starbucks, IBM, Phillip Morris. I live to give. (Aside to "real readers": I know I wrote nothing about Phillip Morris in this post. I thought I might as well add a layer of confusion to their analysis. Fight the power, guys!)

*No actual dolly was involved in the events surrounding this article. This article should be coded as NEUTRAL toward any and all doll-related corporations such as MATTEL.

Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" is just way too obvious. It would be like posting "I Want Candy" on Halloween.

David Bowie - 1984 (from the Platinum Collection. OK, last Bowie-related song for a while! Probably)

Garbage - Cup of Coffee (from Beautiful Garbage)

Sarah Harmer - Coffee Stain


Blogger Siel said...

Hey! Glad you joined in! I can tell you why the baristas were so confused -- Once upon a time, Starbucks had a rather unyummy blend called "Fair Trade Blend." That's been phased out -- prolly cuz people complained it tasted gross -- and replaced by Cafe Estima Blend, which is fair trade certified. However, although Starbucks made the fair trade certified blend more difficult to identify as such by name, they really haven't done a good job letting their baristas know the swap has taken place. Thus, baristas, seeing the store no longer carries the "Fair Trade Blend," assume the store no longer has any fair trade certified coffee. A big problem. I'm gonna add this issue to the FAQ right after this comment :)

And I totally agree with what you're saying about the queasiness about helping fund Starbucks' enterprise. I especially am angry that local coffee shops get kicked out -- Check out what's happening in Bozeman, Montana, for ex. And as I've seen on my website, I always recommend Monkey & Son and Trader Joe's fair trade coffees :) Those, unfortunately, aren't avaliable by the cup yet, though M&S is working on that. I've also managed to convince Groundwork to get fair trade licenced, so we should be able to buy fair trade certified coffee at an indie cafe in the LA area soon!

But back to Starbucks: I think it's still important to push Starbucks to carry more fair trade because 1) they're unavoidable, as you pointed out -- especially at airports and stuff, and 2) they're so damn big that if they even increase their fair trade purchases by like 1%, that's like TONS and TONS more coffee bought and sold at fair trade prices.

The best way to go about this challenge, I think, is exactly what you did -- walk out if they fail to deliver fair trade. We don't ask challengers to do that in the challenge because, you know, many people are afraid of making the barista feel bad -- Such nice challengers we have! :) But I really refuse to spend a dime in a huge corp like that, unless I know that people further down the food chain are getting an equitable piece of it :)

Ok -- I know I'm preaching to the choir ;) I'm a lil overwhelmed, timewise, with the challenge right now, but perhaps in a lil while all of us local fair trade advocates can work on getting more LA (and Burbank) indie coffee shops to offer fair trade?

7:52 PM  
Blogger trill42 said...

Siel, thanks so much for all that information, and for sharing your thoughts.

Despite my qualms about "helping" Starbucks, I do think the challenge is worthwhile (or I wouldn't have taken part or written about it). And I agree that it's Starbucks' success that makes it a important to pressure them to carry more fair trade coffee. It bothers me that they say they carry fair trade coffee and brag about it, when it doesn't seem like their bragging is justified. They are a very efficient corporation in a lot of ways. They can quickly teach a lot of people how to make a new drink, for example. It strikes me that in that example there's a strong, clear profit motive, which shouldn't be necessary for them to get their act together.

I can understand challengers not wanting to make employees feel badly. I generally have tons of respect for people who work with the public. That often involves dealing with a certain percentage of difficult people, and in this case, the Starbucks folks work on their feet for hours on end, and are occasionally confronted by wisenheimer bloggers (politely) insisting their java live up to some sort of ethical concerns that they may not share. I think it would give them a lovely break to not have to make such a person a cup of coffee! ;)

In June, I wrote about the Starbucks Delocator, which, given a zip code, will provide the location of a local independent Starbucks alternative. Nifty idea, though its idea of "5 miles" and of an indie cafe is way off (basically, if someone submits it, it's indie). There are still, despite Starbucks, a lot of non-corporate cafes in LA and really offering fair trade coffee should be a good selling point for indie cafes. That is awesome that some will soon have it. Good for you for all your work on these issues! Yes, let's keep in touch. :)

2:29 AM  
Blogger trill42 said...

Forgot to say that I don't remember whether the barista offered Cafe Estima blend! D'oh! From your explanation it seems likely, but I just don't remember...

2:37 AM  
Blogger kieran moore said...

this is a brilliant challange, the starbucks execs really belive though that they are a company made by god.

check out my starbucks story:


8:55 AM  
Blogger trill42 said...

Kieran, thanks for commenting... I did hop over to your blog, but haven't had didn't have time to comment there yet, sorry... There does seem to be something of a sense of entitlement with big corporations sometimes... hmm... Almost managed to sneak in another Starbucks last night but they closed at midnight and escaped us, sneaky of them.

12:20 PM  

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