It’s 8:00am, and through the glass windows of my dorm I see the line is already almost out the door. A crowd of loyal and addicted customers anxiously stand, one-behind-the-other, like cars waiting to be refueled at a gas station. They await the moment the barista calls their names as if they are listening for the last digit of a winning lottery ticket number to be called. One lucky winner is met with symphonic melodies serenading her ears: her coffee is ready. All of a sudden, that oh-so-special white paper cup, with its unmistakable green logo, emerges—no, descends—from behind the magical bar that is full of all that is good and espresso and into the hands of its now begging consumer who, unbeknownst to her, will repeat this routine three more times before the day’s end.
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Sitting in class one day, I started doodling on my empty Starbucks cup. Suddenly, I looked around the room to realize my white paper cup was anything but lonely: many of my peers had trusty Starbucks cups resting by their sides, too. In this moment, I began to question how everyday items, like my Starbucks-emblazoned white cup, are so commonly overlooked. In my first visual accompaniment to this essay—an illustrated “Tall” sized Starbucks cup, I explore the concept of consumer consciousness (and unconsciousness), and I examine how the influence of corporate power on consumers impacts the environment and its inhabitants.
My second Starbucks cup, which is “Grande”sized, illustrates how Starbucks culture is a result of corporate power. In No Logo, Naomi Klein shares a quote from Scott Bedbury, Starbucks’ Vice President of Marketing. Bedbury states: “‘With Starbucks, we see how coffee has woven itself into the fabric of people’s lives, and that’s our opportunity for emotional leverage […] A great brand raises the bar–it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience […] [like] the affirmation that the cup of coffee you’re drinking really matters’” (Klein 21). This is just one example of how corporations—especially the marketing and advertising departments of corporations—have clear intentions of fabricating a relationship between consumers and their products or services. When this type of relationship has successfully (and strategically) been fostered, the corporation successfully achieves its goal of earning consumers’ business. Along these lines, consumers are often falsely led to believe they can trust mega-corporations like Starbucks. This leaves consumers at a disadvantage, given the fact that what they are aware of is dependent on what exactly the corporation allows them to be aware of. Thus, while consumers are made aware of what corporations desire them to know, they are also unaware of what corporations do not wish for them to know.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, consumers often do not know any better than to blindly follow in the footsteps of mega-corporations. For example, if Starbucks doesn’t offer recycling, then customers will not likely recycle their Starbucks cups. In this way, they become victims who perform Starbucks’ dirty work. In the same regard, if Starbucks chooses to portray itself as being “socially responsible” by offering fair trade coffee, customers are rarely aware that the coffee-retailer only sells bags of ethically produced coffee beans, rather than actually offering the option to be served Fair Trade coffee.
Starbucks seems to allow its customers the ability to see only as far as its barista bar, ultimately keeping them in a darkness as black as coffee itself. While the coffee-mogul tells its consumers, “Come, we’ll treat you to a nice cup of coffee for just an average price of approximately $3.00,” the customer likely has no idea that, according to the Colombia Coffee Federation, “the average price of an upscale cappuccino or latte, less than one US cent finds its way back to the farmers” (Thompson). Or, for that matter, their daily dosage of caffeine costs about 50 cents more than what almost half of the world’s population survives on each day (World Bank). Instead, today’s consumers know no better than to unconsciously go on paying, consuming, and disposing of their white paper cups—contributing to an estimated 2.3 billion Starbucks paper cups that are used each year, amongst dozens of other forms of waste.
The Starbucks Corporation has opened 16,580 shops in 40 different countries within the past 40 years, and it shows no signs of stopping. In fact, within the next five years, it plans to make its storefronts as common in Beijing as they are in New York City. I portray this global expansion over time on my third Starbucks cup, which is “Venti”sized.
Vis-à-vis Starbucks’ corporate growth, I chose to work with three different cup sizes in order to represent my preoccupations, which are rooted in the fact that coffee will always be in high demand. After all, it is “the second most valuable exported legal commodity”, next to oil (Thompson). However, as the growth of a corporation like Starbucks increases, the sustainability of our Earth and its inhabitants are at risk. The problem at hand is the way in which we produce and consume goods and services, and how we go about our routine methods and systematic practices of consumption.
Fortunately, designers, innovators and critical thinkers of all sorts are leading the way towards change. Specifically, small-to-medium sized coffee retailers such as La Colombe Torrefaction, Think Coffee, Crop to Cup, and a growing number of others are engaging with conscious consumption. For example, La Colombe Torrefaction advocates for and executes actual fair trade practices, which are implemented throughout the coffee bean’s journey to the cup. This means that La Colombe Torrefaction upholds the nine principles of Fair Trade, which promote sustainability by requiring all aspects of production, from the farmer to the cashier, to involve transparent and ethical labor conditions.
La Colombe, as well as other aspiring changemakers, are identifying problems and creating solutions for a better future. They are discovering new methods of going about old ways, and creating sustainable businesses that challenge existing companies to consider altering their troublesome practices. These challenges indeed pose valid threats to mega-corporations. As awareness of unsustainable corporate production methods increases, consumers regain hold of their power to choose what businesses they want to support. Ultimately, raising awareness about the realities of unsustainable business practices will bring about a greater demand for mega-corporations to change their ways. Thus, my final cup ends with a series of illustrations that depict this positive movement towards a brighter future of sustainable living.
In conclusion, I ultimately find the growth in consumer consciousness to be exciting, especially for creatives who have an interest in business and a knack for entrepreneurship. When I now see a white paper Starbucks coffee cup, its ominous green face causes me to critically reflect on the potential for sustainable change, thus kindling a spark of inspiration—like a jolt of caffeine that energizes my creativity.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo. London: Flamingo, 2001. Print.
Shah, Anup. “Poverty Facts and Stats.” Global Issues. N.p., 07 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
Thompson, Tom. “The Dark Story of Poverty in Your Coffee Cup.” Seattle Pi, 4 Feb. 2006. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.