Though still one of America's most globally recognized brands, Starbucks has been taking a beating in the marketplace. It's still true that one can often see at least one, if not two, Starbucks locations from the inside of one of their iconic shops (at least in major world cities), but the java chain is experiencing some growing pains.
Starbucks' stock has been hammered, down from $47 to today's price of below $17. It's not too surprising that fewer folks are willing to pony up $4 for a designer latte in a time of stymied economic growth, especially when quality coffees (and home brew implements) are becoming more widely available at supermarkets, not to mention at such outlets as Tim Horton's, Caribou, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts.
Starbucks has reportedly been eliminating and reshuffling jobs, retraining and shuttering some under performing locations.
The company is also embarking on a campaign of trying to reposition its image to the coffee-swilling public. This isn't too surprising, given a recent history of cash register exorcisms, smashed windows, labor disputes, a lawsuit over tip sharing, and so on. Much of the heat has centered on the iconic Starbucks itself, as a sort of stand-in for modern global capitalism, whether that has been fair or not.
Check out this original Daily Green Video taken during a Starbucks demonstration coffee tasting. Much like wine, coffee is a rich and complicated beverage, and the tasting process is central to the business.
But much of the turmoil brewing in the coffee world is based on the complexities of the commodity. Americans and Europeans may consume it as a luxury good, a daily staple, or even as a kind of drug, but for millions of people in poor, coffee-producing regions, it is literally a lifeblood. Coffee's economic and environmental impacts (as well as competing certification systems) are so complex that I was barely able to scratch the surface back in 2005, and I had more than 8,000 words!
Part of the issue is that well-managed coffee farms can be havens for endangered birds, many of which migrate to North America, as well as other wildlife. Yet full-sun, chemical coffee plantations can be literal ecological deserts, resulting in polluted run off, poisoned workers and lost habitat.
I've interviewed coffee buyers who told me they know of indigenous growers who were routinely cheated out of any payment, and others who told me stories of families who had to abandon their ancestor's land after coffee prices dropped so low that they couldn't afford to ship their beans out.
To be fair, Starbucks has never been implicated as a worst actor. In fact, the company has always bought high quality coffee, has long paid more than rock-bottom prices, and has supported the Fair Trade movement -- although many activists have also long charged that the company has not done nearly enough considering their brand power.
As part of this recent re-envisioning, Starbucks says it is giving more effort to continuing to green up its operations. A spokesperson pointed out that anyone can now enter any Starbucks on the planet and ask for used coffee grounds, which make excellent garden compost (the company says 35% of its garbage is nutrient-rich grounds, so that's something). The company says it is researching upping recycled content of packaging (many cups now have 10% recycled fiber), offsetting carbon and sourcing more green certified coffee (largely through the Starbucks-developed CAFE program, but adding some more Fair Trade as well).
A spokesperson also explained that he is encouraging baristas to suggest to regular customers that they opt for ceramic mugs. However, he stopped short of saying that the company was prepared to instruct employees to ask all customers if they want their fix "here or to go," which fast food goers are already used to. (Hey, if a Starbucks barista can donate a kidney to a customer, the least customers can do in return is agree to drink out of a mug!)
What's perhaps most exciting is that Starbucks is trying to leverage the power of web 2.0 to address some of these complicated issues, and better serve their customers, as well as (hopefully) the planet. Anyone can log on to My Starbucks Idea and make their voice heard.
As my friend and social media guru Muhammad Saleem explained in Read Write Web, the goal was a "socially driven marketplace for Starbucks-related ideas that will help the company reinvent itself." Sign up for a free account, then post an idea in one of various categories. The ideas appear in a queue, where the community can vote on them a la Digg or Yahoo Buzz.
If your idea garners enough votes, it goes under review by Starbucks employees, and may eventually help drive corporate direction. It's an idea that Muhammad points out has worked very well at Dell, and it will be interesting to see what comes of it.
Log on, and tell the mermaid what you think she should do!
The Daily Green Heartburn of Green award winner Reverend Billy brings the fight over consumerism and fair coffee directly to Starbucks with his colorful street theater and activism.
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