The Outrage Cup Runneth Over

This week Starbucks unveiled a new cup. Although this is normally the time of year when the coffee shops reveal their holiday cup for the year, there’s nothing holiday about it. The green cup is covered in faces—from farmers to baristas—connected by a single line. The company said the cup was designed to promote unity.

Last year, there was an uproar from those who disliked that the Starbucks holiday cup was not Christmas-y enough. This year, the cup has even less to do with Christmas and is blatantly political. As is generally the case with any news these days, there was outrage.

People accused Starbucks of spreading liberal bias, attempted brainwashing. Others applauded the companies artistic design and positive message.

“During a divisive time in our country, Starbucks wanted to create a symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other,” Howard Schultz, Starbuck’s CEO said of the design.

A Bigger Problem

I did the math on the cost of buying a cup of coffee a day in high school and decided I’d rather spend $22,000 somewhere else so I rarely buy coffee anywhere. I also don’t particularly care about rating the Christmas levels of a company’s products to compare them to a religious standard the company itself holds.

But I do care about companies masquerading as moral beacon shining on a hill, while ignoring the fact that the hill is built on the backs of unethical labor.

What has gotten lost in all the noise about the appearance of this cup is the well known fact that Starbucks has used prisoners as laborers to package holiday coffees and manufacture the cups themselves.

This should shock no one because Starbucks is not an agenda-less haven for humanity. It is a business and the goal of a business is to make money. Supporting Starbucks “unity” entails supporting coercive labor.

Everything Is Publicity

Like everything else a business does, this design is part of a strategic effort to benefit the bottom line.

As advertisers fight for the eyes of consumers, publicity has become increasingly important to brands. Companies carve a niche for themselves by creating a personality. Taco Bell has made itself the food of youth and coolness, Old Spice remade itself in the image of a bizarre and funny Old Spice man, Chipotle is the earnest, animal rights supporting restaurant.

Starbucks has spent years striving to be “the third place” in people’s lives. But as other companies make more decisive political moves, they have now followed suit.

Any outcry or support regarding the new Starbucks cups is exactly the point. The thousands of news articles and essays written about the cup this week (including this one) provide free publicity for the company and help it maintain a carefully crafted public persona.

Earlier this year over 80 companies exerted their influence in North Carolina to stop a religious freedom bill which would have made discrimination against LGBT people legal. Many of these companies threatened not to do business in North Carolina if the law was passed. What’s ironic is that many of them (hello PayPal, Apple, Microsoft and Coca Cola) already have factories and do business in countries where being gays is punishable by prison or even death.

Is this hypocrital? Absolutely. Is it also good for business? Absolutely.

It’s good publicity for these companies to boldly come out on the side of justice in a country that prides itself on equality. This maneuvering is a convenient meeting of professional and political interest, but it is clearly not a serious, concerted, company-wide stance on morally acceptable behavior. It is equally convenient for these companies to ignore human rights in countries where they can hire cheap labor and rest assured that Americans won’t care.

Don’t Buy In

Megan Garber, a staff writer at The Atlantic, described this trend of companies using their physical packaging to make political statements, as “the notion that cardboard can be a canvas for cultural conversation.”

Since when do we rely on companies to ignite cultural conversation? Are we really naïve enough to trust businesses to operate for something other than money? Is all of our moral outrage just an excuse to remove any personal responsibility for our actions so we can pass blame to faceless, inhuman corporations?

The message of this cup is vague and amorphous. What is concrete and tangible are the injustices of companies like Starbucks when they use coercive labor both at home and abroad. Nice packaging or vocal support is meaningless when the bottom line of these companies relies on exploitation.

We should know and live this: where we spend our money counts. We should not depend on or expect corporations to be our proxies in fights for justice. They are on the side of profit, not the side of people.

If a company attempts to portray itself as an advocate for social good we should hold them to this standard by caring about the ethics behind the products they sell, not the press releases or political statements of a CEO.

This Starbucks cup is nowhere close to meeting this standard. What it is, is a brilliant publicity maneuver disguised as a cry for unity. Don’t buy it.

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