Starbucks and Performative Activism

Starbucks is Often Marketed as Being an Ethical Brand, but is that Really the Case?


Annie Eason

Storefront of a unionized Starbucks on P Street, Washington D.C.

According to the Boston Medical Center, performative activism isdefined as activism that is done to increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause.” Starbucks has long been marketed as an ethical and progressive brand, with many praising it for its progressiveness. However, a recent rise in unionization and an exposé of its unethical business practices claim otherwise. Is Starbucks truly ethical? Or, is it just like all the other companies- greedy and corrupt?

Coffee Bean Sourcing

Starbucks claims to have an ethical approach at sourcing their coffee beans through their Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) practices. C.A.F.E. is a set of standards that help them source coffee beans ethically for use in their stores. According to Starbucks’ standards, the method of farming these beans must be sustainable for the environment. Workers also must be compensated fairly, economic transparency must be present, and the beans must be in good quality. However, is Starbucks truly committed to these standards? According to Jessica Sadler, “many important standards are merely recommendations or favoured criteria, instead of being mandated. For example, environmental stewardship practices and community development are not critical requirements. C.A.F.E. Practices lack the comprehensive approach of Fair Trade.” Furthermore, the standards are often weak. Starbucks mandates that all employees must be paid at least minimum wage in their country. However, in some of these countries where Starbucks gets their beans from, the minimum wage is extremely low. Jessica also writes that C.A.F.E. practices are only used as a form of tokenism- as when consumers demand a more ethically just sourcing process of materials, Starbucks can easily point to their C.A.F.E. sourcing practices to appease critics. 

Furthermore, according to a Brazil Labor Ministry investigation, Brazilian investigators found laborers living in substandard housing without sewage or drinking water while working under horrible conditions at the Córrego das Almas farm in Piumhi. A Ministry of Labor team had to rescue 18 rural workers from the same farm because of the slavery-like conditions. This farm was C.A.F.E. certified. At the Cedro II farm in Minas Grasis, Brazilian inspectors have also found working conditions similar to slavery, with workers enduring 17-hour shifts. The Cedro II plantation was also C.A.F.E. certified, but Starbucks has stopped working with it after the farm was put on Brazil’s “Dirty List.” The dirty list is a list of companies and individuals involved in human trafficking made by the Ministry of Labor- which is a Brazilian agency that actually ceased operations in 2019. However, the list isn’t perfect either as a Standford investigation found that people put on the list could get off it if they had political connections or made generous donations.  Starbucks inspectors should inspect these farms more often to prevent buying from abusive plantations, as they only inspect them every two to three years. Stronger mandates should also be put into place in order to prevent abusive labor practices. Daniela Penha interviewed Jorge Ferreira dos Santos, the head of coordination of rural employers in Minas Gerais. “This is not the first or second time, and it will not be the last time a certified farm is charged with employing slave labor and violating labor rights,” Jorge said. “The certification system is weak and not transparent…taking workers’ views and reality into account.” 

Unionization and Plastics

Recently, Starbucks baristas have been unionizing rapidly. Currently, there are 249 Starbucks stores that have been unionized, including a Starbucks in Falls Church and on P Street in Washington, DC. According to Oxford University, a union isan organization of workers, usually in a particular industry, that exists to protect their interests, improve conditions of work, etc.” Unions are a way for workers to collectively bargain and state their concerns to their management. In the case of Starbucks, baristas have cited poor treatment of workers as a reason to unionize. For example, the union filing letter from the Apache Trail store in Arizona states, “We’re given a raise, then we have our hours cut within the following week. Some partners are getting so few hours that they barely meet the updated hourly threshold requirements, others have been let go because of the company’s unwillingness to compromise.” While Starbucks does have good benefits, their wages are low. In Fairfax County, the average barista is paid around $12.64/hour. However, in order to live in Fairfax County comfortably, workers would need to have a salary of at least 58,035 dollars, or about $29.02/hour and workers are rarely given adequate breaks. 

In the wake of increased unionization, Starbucks executives have been cracking down on organizers and participants. A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has issued a formal complaint against Starbucks for their union busting. In the complaint, the NLRB mentions Laila Dalton, a barista who was suspended because she raised concerns about wages, hours and insufficient staffing for her co-workers. Starbucks disciplined Dalton in order to discourage other baristas from raising similar concerns. The complaint also brings up two other employees who were both suspended and terminated for supporting a union. One employee was issued a written warning, who was later suspended and the other’s scheduling preferences were rejected, which led to her termination. The employees were legally able to complain as according to the NLRB, concerted activity is a right. Concerted activity includes: talking with co-workers about working conditions, creating a petition for better working conditions, participating in a concerted refusal to work in unsafe conditions, talking about your pay and benefits and collaborating with co-workers to talk directly with an employer, government agency or to the media to talk about problems in the workplace. It also includes preparing for group action, trying to induce group action and bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention. Employers cannot discharge, discipline or threaten employees for concerted activity.

Starbucks denies these cases of misconduct Starbucks has also claimed that the NLRB has been overseeing union elections, yet these allegations were most likely only made to delay union elections and to sow distrust in the NLRB. Starbucks has also denied benefits to their union-affiliated baristas and given benefits to non-union baristas and closed union stores in retaliation. Can a company be truly progressive if they’re silencing their own workers?

Starbucks claims to be environmentally friendly with their marketing, but is that really true? Starbucks’ paper cups aren’t recyclable because of the plastic lining inside. Only four U.S. cities accept these cups for recycling, and 8,000 of these cups are being used every minute.  The clear cups are not recyclable either, as Mark Driscoll, sustainability expert and founder of the consultancy Tasting the Future, said, “Plastic cups used for iced beverages aren’t any better, Mark said. ”Most are made from polypropylene that isn’t accepted in many curbside recycling bins. In fact, only three percent of #5 plastics—a category which also includes things like yogurt containers—actually get recycled in the United States.”  However, Starbucks is accepting reusable cups in their stores. In 2022, the company has made plans to phase out their single-use cups. Hopefully, these plans will not be for a marketing ploy, but an actual commitment to sustainability. 

What do Starbucks patrons think about the company?

Starbucks’ products are extremely prevalent in Robinson, as a student can probably see their teachers sipping a cup of Starbucks coffee, or even their own friends with a pumpkin spice latte. When the question of Starbucks’ ethicality as a company was asked to an anonymous student who drinks Starbucks’ coffee, they said “No, because plastic waste on all the cups.” She did, however, believe that Starbucks is working towards reducing their waste. Mrs. Harper, a drinker of Starbucks coffee, was asked the same question regarding company ethicality. “I think they used to be [ethical] but I think as they got bigger, I think they lost a little bit of their reputation that they had,” she said. She also believed that Starbucks is working towards being a more environmentally friendly corporation, saying “Yes, I do. I think they’ve done a lot for that…they’re trying to use better products and more environmentally friendly-things that can be recycled.” Mrs. Harper also supports the unionization effort of baristas and agrees that they aren’t being compensated fairly. Another anonymous Starbucks drinker was asked about barista compensation and unionization. They said, “I believe if you’re a barista in any company, I don’t think you’re compensated fairly- I know you have the minimum wage and tips and everything- I honestly don’t think so.” They also said, regarding unionization, “I think it’s good- I think we all should be unionized at this point.”


Starbucks is just like other companies. While they make delicious pumpkin spice lattes, butter croissants, and Frappucinos, they also contribute to slave labor and union busting. When possible, try supporting a local coffee shop instead of Starbucks. While no business is perfect, supporting local businesses is better than supporting a large company. Coffee from local businesses may be more expensive, but it can be viewed as a weekend treat. Tipping, if possible, and showing courtesy to baristas is also encouraged. Supporting unionized Starbucks stores is also a good idea, as “sip-ins” and other various union activities helps baristas get compensated fairly. Starbucks products can still be enjoyed, but as a whole, people should remember to not wholly support a company- as ethical as it may seem.