Starbucks' Latest Evil Plan to Take Over (More) of the World


First, a confession. I'm writing this in a coffee shop. I spend a lot of time reading and writing in them. Worse, in Cambridge where I live, I frequent the Clone Street branch of Café Chain. In the absence of viable independent alternatives, it has become my default local, lent distinctive charm by the friendly and appallingly paid young people who work there. Right now, however, I'm in one of the many "locally-owned" coffee shops that dot North American university towns. Ironically, in many parts of the nation that invented gonzo multinational chains, it has long been possible to find sturdily unique cafes, independent bookstores, artisan-run bakeries and farmer co-operatives.

But perhaps not for much longer, and not because the local is inevitably pulverised by the global. On the contrary. Starbucks' new stealth strategy sees it "rebranding", or de-branding, stores to give them different names and more local "community personality". A victim of its own success -- 161 branches within a five-mile radius in Central London and the famous promise to open a new one every fortnight -- Starbucks has been hit by the recession and, in different ways, both by the turn to less expensive caffeine hits and a reawakening of interest in local economies. Even before the downturn, its legendary CEO, Howard Schultz, fretted about what he called the 'watering down of the Starbucks experience' and the loss of 'the soul of the past' in 'the warm feeling of the neighborhood store'.

Nothing, obviously, that couldn't be sourced and commodified in due course. The transformation of the quirky, the unique and the countercultural into mainstream commodity culture is not new, and Starbucks is hardly alone in enacting this relentless corporate logic. As the ubiquitous HSBC adverts insist, global success is dependent on exploiting local knowledge and cultures. Coca-Cola came to India in the 90s waving the national flag and insisting, in local languages, on its indigenity; McDonald's succeeds in Asian countries by serving variants of local cuisines. Don't be too surprised if fast-food joints begin to cater to the "slow food" movement, just as gigantic petroleum corporations now sport bright "green" logos.

What can be done, and is it an issue? If every human desire, including a commitment to the distinctively local can be repackaged with such global panache, perhaps this is further evidence of the futility of resisting the gigantic enclosure that is corporate globalization.

Then again, we might reflect on how we enable corporations to play stealth games with our expectations. While consumer activism has undoubtedly brought about some limited good in relation to environmental and trade justice concerns, sometimes change itself seems to have dwindled into a set of consumer choices whereby fairness, for instance, is just another "option". Starbucks' conscience-soothing "fair trade" range invited the question of whether everything else it – and others with similar options – had on offer was tacitly unfair trade. While there is a real debate to be had about whether consumer campaigning for "fair", "green" and "local" choices offers limited or substantive change, the truth is we have lost the ability to imagine economic alternatives to neoliberal fundamentalism. The more the focus remains exclusively on market excesses and abuses, the less we think about the inbuilt flaws of corporate globalization.

Of course, when dissident alternatives enter the discussion from areas such as Brazil and Venezuela, where there have been concerted efforts to reclaim the local from private corporations, they too are subject to rebranding as "lost regions", troublespots that threaten the stability of the world mocha order. Conversely, there is admiration for India or China when the local is appropriated, privatized and patented, actions that have worse consequences for the vegetable-cart vendor and small farmer than for coffee shops and bakeries in affluent countries. As long as we place our resolute faith in a global economic system that has shown itself to be rickety and ruthless, we remain susceptible to believing "the world is flat", a world where, Thomas Friedman notes happily, our "choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke – to slight nuances of taste, slight nuances of policy, slight alterations in design". Is another world still possible?

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