Starbucks Is an Earnest Company — But Not Necessarily a Good One

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Coffee with milk, sugar, and a little awkwardness. Photo: Starbucks

This week, Starbucks announced that it would try to heal race relations in the United States with an astonishingly cringe-inducing feat of activism: Starting today, willing baristas will write “race together” on your morning latte, ideally sparking up a conversation about … well, something having to do with race. (I have never so deeply regretted the fact that milk is white and coffee is black and the two go great together.)   

It seems well-intentioned enough. The initiative came out of a recent series of town-hall-type meetings that Starbucks held with its “partners” (read: employees). “Like many of you these past weeks, I have watched with a heavy heart as tragic events and unrest have unfolded across America,” Howard Schultz, Starbucks’s chief executive officer, said in a letter. “Despite the raw emotion around the events and their underlying racial issues, we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about them internally. Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.” Assuming any baristas want to take the plunge (the initiative is not mandatory), now Starbucks will be talking about these issues externally too.

It’s not the first time that Starbucks has pulled this kind of stunt. Indeed, the company takes the notion of corporate social responsibility very, very, very seriously. You might remember the “Create Jobs for USA” program from 2011, wherein it solicited donations and sold “Indivisible”-branded items, using the proceeds to help small businesses. Or its “Come Together” initiative, in which baristas wrote that phrase on coffee cups in an effort to get Washington to discontinue an ongoing government shutdown.

It is all a little eye-roll-inducing, and at least one Starbucks executive appears to have disabled his Twitter account, perhaps to avoid the conversation his employer started. But at least the company’s golden-retriever-level earnestness also translates into benefits for Starbucks employees asked to write a hashtag on a coffee cup. The company offers health insurance to anyone who works more than 20 hours a week. It is providing a series of pay raises to employees this year. It offers tuition reimbursement, equity, and a retirement-savings plan too. More broadly, Starbucks does pretty well on creating public sustainability goals and hitting them: It has committed to ethically sourcing all of its coffee beans, reducing its environmental footprint, and supporting women- or minority-owned businesses, for instance.

But it’s still a low-wage employer. Starbucks partners’ working conditions are far from ideal, as any barista who has both closed a store at night and opened it the next morning can tell you. Maybe those baristas do want to talk about race. But I’d feel a lot better having that dialogue if I knew that all of them were making, say, $15 an hour rather than $8. Being earnest is not the same thing as being good, after all.

Starbucks’s Race Initiative Is Cringe-Worthy