Starbucks reminds me of a game that I used to play at birthday partys as a child. All the children sit in a circle and one of them is given a huge parcel that consists mainly of paper. He removes the first layer and passes it on. Each child may remove only one layer of packaging but only the final child gets the sweet.
Starbucks is rather like this. It calls itself a coffee shop but it is really just a brand. The first layer of marketing is Hollywood. Have you noticed how many scenes take place in Starbucks? The company hopes that we will think that Starbucks is glamorous as a result. The irony is that those stick thin actresses probably have mineral water in their paper cups and not coffee. Then comes the press and billboard advertisements that seek to convince us that Starbucks is our home from home. Then come the vouchers they send in the post. Then comes the illusion of something for nothing via the loyalty scheme and false notion that going to Starbucks is a charitable act. Coffee farmers work hard for their money and it is quite wrong to reduce them to a charity case simply because they are poor. Even the slightly hippy decor is a branding message. It seeks to add authenticity by leaving coffee bean sacks around as if they had been delivered that morning directly from the farm. Finally the company seeks to convince the customer that he is sophisticated simply for being there. This is done by means of leaflets describing coffee beans in the language of wine 'notes of blackberry, earth and elderberrys' and so on. One interesting aspect of this sort of language is that it is based more upon colour than taste. White wine is more often described as tasting of straw or honey and red wine is likly to be described as tasting of plums. It is much the same with the beans at Starbucks. The darker beans are said to resemble things that are black while the paler varieties are described as 'citrus'. To further ram home the message that Starbucks is for sophisticates various leaflets and booklets that tell the coffee drinker how to order a coffee in Italian. What cheek! Even the Italian in Starbucks is fake because Italians do not drink their coffee from five gallon horse buckets. The customer finally gets a bucket of warm sweet nothingness that has nothing to do with coffee. They cannot even serve their fake coffee hot because they want their customers to drink it quickly and leave- and because they are afraid of being sued if it burns someone. Starbucks is not a coffee shop after all. It simply sells itself.
I visited Starbucks today for my 'free' coffee that is not really free (because I have to buy a bag of beans to get it). I was surprised to be offered some 'free' charity in the form of a 'product red' version of their coffee card. Starbucks will give 5p for AIDS victims when I use it. Why does this irritate me so? Maybe it is the fact that the card costs more to produce than is given in charity. Maybe it is the slickness of it all.
African poverty has become big business. Prior to fairtade a coffee shop had to add something of value to their product in order to brand it. Outfits such as Starbucks have discovered that it is cheaper to buy in a brand from a registered charity. Simply pay a charity for the use of a logo and the work is done. The premium paid to the farmers through the fairtrade scheme is actually quite small compared to the cost of telling us about it.
I feel that all of these initiatives are trading on a false premise. Fairtrade talks about going direct to the coffee growers but this is not the case. In fact fairtrade actually involves another set of middlemen in the form of the foundation itself who jet around the world from their New York base- spending more in a day than the growers receive in a month.
RED (always in capital letters) is yet another of these initiatives. It was set up partly by Bono of U2 fame who is one of the few charity celebrities that know what they are talking about. They sell this sparkle to a variety of companies in return for donations to a charitable fund. What is there to dislike about this? Absolutely nothing really- which makes it all the more irritating. I think it is the self congratulatory tone that gets me. Millionaire rock stars, greedy corporations and urban trendies have all convinced themselves that they are great guys on the basis of... nothing really. The RED logo is sold as a fashion accessory that says 'I care' without requiring that anyone really do anything.
I took a card, and bought my fairtrade, conservation international, shared planet beans with it. Maybe this will put a penny or two in the pocket of a farmer. I guess the 160 million dollars that RED have raised proves that a whole lot of nothing can add up to something after all.