Starbucks Doesn’t Actually Care About Unity, It Cares About Profit

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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Here Are 4 Easy Ways You Can Stop Celebrity Domestic Abusers

Yesterday, I wrote about a few of the many, many male celebrities who are guilty of domestic abuse and other violent acts. I first became interested in this subject matter because I found it absurd. How did these men not just make it through these crimes with almost no repercussions, but continue to have huge careers for years afterward? How did they still make money? Why weren’t more people angry? Where was justice?

 

The more I thought about it the more I realized my own complicity in the system. Kovie Biakolo, writing for Thought Catolog, puts it best:

 

“The truth is if the majority of the public wanted something better from our celebrity culture, we would have it, so if we’re going to claim that celebrities owe a certain responsibility to the public, it would do you and I some good to first take a long, hard look in the mirror; to ensure that we are not part of the problem.”

 

I have taken this long, hard look in the mirror, decided I no longer want anything to do with this system, and now I’m looking for ways to actively remove myself from it.

 

A few quick caveats before diving in:

 

  • The point of these actions is not to suggest that we should attempt to control public figures by expecting that their morals and beliefs completely align with our own. Freezing out a celebrity because they are voting for someone else for president, said something stupid, or claim a different religion or belief system seems pointless. Extending this line of logic would mean cutting off all human relationships because no person’s beliefs line up exactly with another person’s. However, it’s not unreasonable to hold public figures, especially celebrities whose work is not for the public good, accountable. In cases of documented offenses universally considered wrong, we should not allow the elevation or idolization of these figures to continue.
  • Believing that I, personally, should not financially support these men does not mean that they are evil human beings who do not deserve to live have any income. It means they should not be held up as icons in our culture. There’s a difference between celebrity accountability and celebrity shaming. This is accountability.

 

 

 

I’m not interested in critical writing (or thought, for that matter) that leads to lots of intellectual wandering and no action. Just because justice appears impossible, does not mean we do not bear personal responsibility to pursue it. (More on that in the coming weeks.)

 

With all of this in mind, here are four ways you can challenge the system that allows male abusers to go unpunished.

 

1. Don’t purchase their products

 

It’s obvious, but shouldn’t be overlooked. Don’t reward entertainers who beat up women by buying their albums, concert tickets, or movies. Removing this direct line of financial support is the easiest way you can hold them accountable.

2. Let corporations know you disapprove

 

The entertainment industry is just that. An industry. Until companies are convinced that violent abuse perpetuated by their employees will affect their brand’s financial viability they will not act. Don’t think Fox should headline their biggest show with a documented abuser? Tell them.

 

(It might sound hypocritical for someone who just last week wrote about the shallowness of trendy social media justice attempts to advocate for using these tactics, but changing the standard for celebrities is a different task than tackling the problem of global poverty.)

3. Abstain from celebrity culture

 

 

The reason celebrities yield the power they do in our economy is not because of their artistic talents but because they sell products by selling themselves. When you follow a celebrity on social media, buy a magazine with their face on the cover or a product they’re a spokesperson for, or even just click through on articles about them, you make them a profitable person for companies to work with. This is the reason there are no celebrity names mentioned in this post.

 

4. Don’t make celebrities role models in the first place

 

When I put this question out on Twitter, the most common response was to question the moral authority of celebrities in the first place (something I’ve written about before here):

 

 

 

This is probably the hardest, and most important, thing you can do. Hard because our culture has allowed celebrities to cast themselves as humanitarians and activists, and important because if they don’t have this role we can focus on bigger issues and worthier people. Our moral guidance shouldn’t come from Hollywood, but from ideas that have weathered history, people who have devoted their life to service, and our own constantly re-examined perspectives.

We should not expect celebrities to be role models, but we should expect them to pay the price for their crimes.

 

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What Can We Learn From the Controversial Sainthood of Mother Teresa?

On September 4, Mother Teresa officially became a saint. Not in a “bless your heart you’re a saint” kind of way, but in the real, Pope approved, miracles verified, legitimate kind of way.

If you’re not an expert on Catholicism or India’s economy (hello, most of the world), Mother Teresa is probably a vaguely mythological creature. She’s known for her tireless work serving the poor, winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and the many, many inspirational quotes attributed to her.

But she is not without controversy.

Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, a physician who works in England, has spent years criticizing Mother Teresa for her coercive conversion tactics and accused her of providing subpar medical care to those she served. He also objects to the image she popularized of Kolkata as an overwhelmingly destitute and impoverished city.

For the most part his criticism of the most beloved woman to have ever lived was met with silence or contempt. This has only intensified Chatterjee’s attempts to shed light on what she actually did. One of his most well known attempts to shed some light on the work Mother Teresa actually did is the documentary, Hell’s Angel, which he worked on in the 1990s with Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens wrote scathingly about Mother Teresa, criticizing her frugality (it could be excessive), her condemnation of abortion and contraceptives (she was Catholic), and her fetishization of poverty.

“I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ,” Hitchens quotes Mother Teresa as saying. “I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

It was this glorification of the destitute that led Hitchens to conclude:

“She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.”

Hitchens and Chatterjee both believe people should be more skeptical of the media image they have been fed of Mother Teresa. Krithika Varagur of The Huffington Post agrees, arguing her reputation was “basically the result of a forceful media campaign from an ailing Catholic Church.”

Whatever the cause of her angelic reputation, on September 4 it was permanently immortalized.

During her lifetime and even more so after her death, Mother Teresa has existed to most of us not as a person, but as a figure of speech. The official canonization of Mother Teresa does officially what most of us have done unofficially for years. It makes her something other than human.

There’s no doubt Mother Teresa was an enigma. She felt like God told her to quit her job and serve the poorest of the poor and so she did. Then she didn’t hear from God for forty years. She took money from sketchy donors and refused to disclose what happened to the millions of dollars she received. She claimed to treat everyone like Jesus and criticized the luxuries that insulate people from suffering.

She was, like all humans, contradictory, infuriating, alive. Now, she is no longer a person and we can boil down the narrative of her life to one word: Saint.

Calling her a saint allows us to distance ourselves from the magnitude of her life. Quitting your job to serve the poor, shunning common luxuries—these are not things normal people do, they are what saints do. We should reject this idea entirely. The uncomfortable truth of her failures existing alongside the otherworldly perfection she exhibited proves a saint is the perfect category for Mother Teresa. She earned it not because she was perfect, but because she was perfectly human.