Thursday, January 27, 2011

Starbucks' vacuum-packed greenwashing

I saw a wall-sized poster in a Starbucks recently. I love good coffee; I don't find myself in Starbucks very often. Maybe you haven't much alternative to chain espresso in your town, so you've seen this monstrosity often enough to stop noticing it.

Five images: coffee beans drying on racks, bags of coffee beans, a basket of coffee beans, a scale on which coffee beans might be weighed, coffee beans bagged for sale and brewed for tasting.

And this prose: "It's pure commitment to doing business in ways that are good to the earth and to each other. From the way we buy our coffee to minimizing our environmental footprint, to being involved in local communities. It's doing things the way we always have. And because you support us, Starbucks Shared Planet is what you are part of too."


Now that's writing for you. Smooth. Polished. 59 carefully crafted words that say exactly nothing. Over five images and a logo don't say anything either. I wonder how much the marketing department was billed for this masterpiece.

Go on, re-read the text. What "ways"? What "things"? WTF?

I don't want to diminish Starbucks Corporation's commitment to LEED-certification for all new stores, or any of the other impressive looking commitments to improve the company's net environmental impact. But. Context please?

This poster was mounted at the far end of a store packed with dozens of different preparations of coffee beans (ground, whole, instant, multiple roasts, multiple sources), each packaged in metal foil and plastic; with coffee making presspots and grinders and espresso machines for use at home; with ceramic and steel "drinkware" (I got that word from, actually, isn't it awful?); with paper cups and plastic lids and straws and wooden stir sticks; with plastic gift cards; with Pick of the Week free iTunes download cards ... and that's on the customer side of the counter. And we haven't even touched the tea.

Then there was the heavy-duty barista equipment for brewed coffee and espresso and blended coffee slushies (yes, I know what Starbucks calls them, and no I'm not going to type it any sooner than I'm going to call a small cup of coffee "tall"). Not to mention the space-age Clover® brewing contraption that, the purveyor claims, makes better coffee because "a thermal blanket surrounds the brew chamber to keep water with in 1 degree Fahrenheit of the ideal temperature." Yes, of course a cup out of the Clover® costs extra.

A few days after I saw this vacuum-packed greenwashing silliness I read an article in The New Yorker about fashion designer Tomas Maier. Now I'm not saying Mr. Maier is leading the Save the World pack, not by any means, but I did like the article's title: "Just Have Less."

The context from which it was drawn is ridiculous: Maier explaining how people can, and presumably should, equip themselves with his company's exquisitely designed bags, scarves, and clothing. Here it is:

"A chain store can sell a pair of khakis for sixteen dollars," he said. "I can't even get a bolt of khaki for that much. That means they are being made in some country where a kid is chained sixteen hours a day to a sewing machine. At Bottega, we pay our artisans in Vicenza properly, with benefits, and excellent working conditions. We use the best materials, and we make things in a way that is built to last." He insisted that Bottega's goods were not beyond the reach of middle-class people, who have simply been trained to want too much stuff. Anyone, he said, could afford one five-hundred-and-fifty-dollar hand-painted cashmere scarf. "Just have less," he said.

Just have less. Sounds like the right message to me, however unlikely the source.

Starbucks could start by taking that ridiculous poster down off its walls.


  1. "Buy less, but better stuff" does make sense so long as you're still working within the same general financial parameters. Since I've been eating less dairy (enough so it doesn't hurt me if I encounter it accidentally), I've been buying less, but better cheese, for about the same price. That said, I'm a little skeptical about the specific claim of a $500 scarf being within the reach of the middle class, save individuals who prioritize fashion for their discretionary spending. Most middle-class people I know don't spend that much on clothing in a year, period. I can't fathom trying to justify a $500 scarf instead of a $10 or even $30 scarf, when it'd blow the budget for everything, inclusive of socks and underwear. One can argue that people's financial expectations for various classes of goods are out of whack (e.g. people expect to spend a smaller percentage of their paycheck on food than in previous generations, because so much crap can be had on the cheap), but I'm not sure the case can be made for clothing to such an extreme extent.