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Corporate Exposé

Alana Y. Price
Date Published: 

Wrestling With Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino
By Kim Fellner
Rutgers University Press, 2008

Wrestling with starbucks opens with a crash of shattered glass. The unexpected rupture is an apt beginning for this book and its series of surprising claims about the Starbucks Coffee Company’s role in the global economy.
As the glass shards settle, Fellner invites readers to peer through the Starbucks window broken during the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle. She uses this scene to frame the rest of the book, which examines the legitimacy of the Left’s opposition to Starbucks.

Traveling from the coffee groves of Costa Rica to the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, the author tries to determine whether Starbucks indeed profiteers on the backs of poor coffee farmers or acts as an agent of cultural homogenization. Her verdict? That the company – though far from perfect – is not nearly as bad as it’s cracked up to be.

Starbucks appears omnipresent but is in reality a fairly small player in the international market, buying less than four percent of the world’s coffee beans. The real sharks are Nestlé, Kraft, and Proctor & Gamble, Fellner says. And though the Seattle-based company has at times drawn the ire of coffee producers, it is often praised abroad for its social and environmental policies, as well as for its willingness to pay above-market rates for good coffee.

At one point Fellner visits a coffee cooperative in Costa Rica that – thanks to Starbucks’ ecological incentives – reduced its water consumption by 90 percent and began using discarded pulp as fertilizer. Later she talks with a local leader who says Starbucks “has made other buyers of quality coffee and good practices come” to the area. Back in the US, Fellner shows that, despite the proliferation of Starbucks stores, independent coffeehouses “are not only surviving but proliferating,” in part because the transnational chain has popularized coffeehouse culture.

The book’s approach to the company is very sympathetic: Fellner embraces the controversial premise that “the Starbucks Coffee Company, the labor movement, and the global justice movement all want to make the world a better place.” But to her credit, the author – a veteran labor organizer – also details the company’s worst abuses. She criticizes its efforts to force out employees who sign union cards, and she decries its attempts to screen out job applicants with union connections. Moreover she reports on how Starbucks sometimes uses capricious changes in work shift schedules to harass workers with union ties.

At times, however, she seems to slip under the company’s spell. At one point she admits that while there are “problems in how Starbucks has interpreted its mandate to expand into every available corner of the globe, I couldn’t shake my sense that most company managers desperately wanted the company’s goodness to be real.” On a gut level, she trusts the company.

Wider critique
The strongest sections of the book are those in which Fellner takes readers behind the scenes, using her flair for storytelling to introduce us to the company’s founders, baristas, roasting masters, and coffee growers. Chapter after chapter, these vibrant characters anchor the book’s smart and funny explanations of industrial coffee production, cross-border trade, and the internationalization of coffeehouse culture. The ultra-personal tone generally works well, but it becomes a liability in Chapter 10, which tries to connect the book’s anecdotal exposées to a broader economic analysis. Bogged down by tangential stories about the author’s childhood, the analysis barely gets off the ground. Part of the problem, perhaps, is her focus on a single corporation. On some level the book’s framing as an exploration of whether Starbucks is good or bad puts its analysis at odds with a wider critique of the forces that shape all corporations.

Acknowledging that she’s “far from being an economist,” Fellner self-identifies as a Keynesian thinker and ponders whether capitalism is a “value-neutral instrument.” She interviews Vijay Prashad, a Trinity College professor who argues that the goodness of an individual company is limited because “the global system of capitalist accumulation generates inequality.” But in the end she declines to link her discussion of Starbucks to a full critique of the global economic system.

The book appears to hold two main lessons for the Left. First, it shows that Starbucks should be critiqued primarily in relation to its stance on unions: The company treats unionization as a malady rather than as a healthy expression of democratic activity. Secondly, it illustrates the limitations inherent in all analyses organized around ethical critiques of individual corporations. This approach has been a common practice on the Left for more than a decade; Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo” is an excellent example of it. But until we fix our gaze on global economic forces, rather than on the relative moral value of individual firms, we may fail to see the forest for the trees.