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Ethics Reflections on Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino

What are Starbuck’s Corporate Social Responsibilities?

I can recall back in December 2015 when Starbucks came out with the “red cup” to celebrate Christmas with its customers. The idea was when you went to the store and bought that tall coffee or a venti-sized Pumpkin Spiced Latte, the baristas would say Merry Christmas to you. I always thought it was a PR stunt by Starbucks, although many credited the company with trying to engage its customers.

Then there was putting #RaceTogether on its cups to get a dialogue going on race relations. “Shall we overcome?” was the question Starbucks posed on March 15th, 2015 with a splashy full-page ad in The New York Times. The ad was part of a campaign that urged Starbucks baristas to speed up America’s impending harmony by talking openly with customers about race. Some criticized Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz for his attempt to gain a captive audience. Many of us wondered about a coffee company’s attempts at an invasive social consciousness.

I never quite understood the thinking behind that campaign. I mean, do you go to Starbucks to discuss race relations with the baristas?

Now, along comes Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino that hit stores on April 19. Starbucks-unicorn-frappuccinoOne barista was so stressed out about having to make the drink that he went on a Twitter rant to vent his frustrations, saying that not only is the drink a pain to make, the ingredients have been staining his hands. "I have never made so many Frappuccinos," he explains. "My hands are completely sticky, I have unicorn crap all in my hair and in my nose, and I have never been so stressed out in my entire life." 

The Instagrammable neon pink beverage starts with the chain's regular Crème Frappucino base, but adds a glug of mango syrup before the mixture is blended with pink powder. Employees then lace the plastic cup with sour blue syrup and top off the concoction with whipped cream, sour pink powder and sour blue powder. "If you love us as baristas, don't order it," the barista implores. "It's so difficult to make one right after the other."

I do have to wonder about the employee, who seems more stressed out because the drink taxes his work ethic than having to make the drink itself.

What should be Starbucks’ ethical responsibilities when making a cup of coffee? Here is a statement from its website about corporate social responsibility:

“Helping people thrive helps ensure the long-term sustainability of the premium products we provide. Whether it’s arabica coffee, tea, cocoa or manufactured goods, we’re committed to offering ethically purchased and responsibly produced sustainable products of the highest quality.”

I’d like to see the company explain what it means by “ethically purchased and responsibly produced sustainable products” rather than attempting to be the social conscious of the coffee world.

Starbucks’ mission statement includes to “Apply the highest standards of excellence to the purchasing, roasting and fresh delivery of our coffee.” Here again, what are those standards?

It’s clear that Starbucks has a great reputation globally. Fortune magazine named it the third most admired company in the world.  Let it stick with its core competency that developed the trust and admiration of its customers and less time on creating products to send a message or start a dialogue on anything other than the quality and taste of its drinks.

Blog posted on April 25, 2017 by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve blogs  under the pseudonym, Ethics Sage.

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