I suppose we should welcome the news that Starbucks is planning to introduce a “ latte levy ” – in other words, a charge for customers using a disposable cup. In our heady era of high consumption, anything that encourages a bit of sustainability can’t be bad. And yet, doesn’t it all just feel a bit … inadequate?
Related: Starbucks trials 5p takeaway cup charge in attempt to cut waste
I spent the salad days of my mid-20s as a leading member of the direct action network UK Uncut. We occupied high-street chains accused of avoiding gargantuan sums of tax, one of which was Starbucks. In 2012, the BBC reported : “Starbucks has paid £8.6m in corporation tax in its 14 years of trading in the UK, and nothing in the last three years. The company had UK sales of nearly £400m in 2011 but has reported a taxable profit only once in its 15 years of operating in the UK.” Back then, the coffee giant was rather perturbed by a group of young activists puncturing its public image as a corporation leading us to the sunlit uplands of social justice. It begged us to meet in private; we said no. It offered to pay the Treasury £20m, much to the puzzlement of minister David Gauke who accepted the money on behalf of the government as a kind of unsolicited gift. Eventually Starbucks became one of UK Uncut’s biggest successes: after the bad publicity we generated, its tax bill rose considerably.
If the news of the latte levy had emerged while I was still a UK Uncut member, I have no doubt we would have hotfooted it down to the nearest outlet to insist that such measures were piecemeal and it was time for Starbucks to cough up some corporation tax. But it’s not just the fact that the company has since improved its performance on that front that makes such a demand seem outdated. In a week when the Arctic is warmer than the UK, and when wages are predicted to stagnate until 2022, perhaps it’s time for us to take a step back and look at the economy as a whole and ask whether it is really working.
The problem with celebrating the latte levy is that it obscures the fact that we are in a state of climate crisis that cannot be resolved with reusable crockery. The problem with UK Uncut insisting Starbucks pays its tax is that it neglects all of the other ways in which corporations have contributed to breaking our economic system. Indeed, one of the stumbling blocks of protesting against tax avoidance is that the practice is so pervasive that it leads to companies that pay their taxes being celebrated as extraordinary philanthropists.
Starbucks should not just be paying tax and charging for disposable cups, but reordering its entire supply chain
A latte levy is the contemporary equivalent of the Make Poverty History campaign, where well-meaning people would don a wristband, listen to some soft rock music and hope that everything would be all right. Even the demand that Starbucks pay its taxes is somewhat problematic, because it suggests the company should play within the rules – rather than acknowledging that the rules themselves are the problem.
Starbucks should not just be paying tax and charging for disposable cups, but reordering its entire supply chain – and the way it does business – to ensure it is carbon-neutral, equitable across the world, and an employer that pays the living wage and recognises trade unions. If companies did this as a matter of course, we might have some hope of limiting global warming, reducing inequality and improving people’s political agency. My experience in UK Uncut tells me this won’t happen voluntarily; corporations will need to be forced into it by governments that have the consent of the people.
Playing a small role in UK Uncut remains my proudest achievement – not because we publicly embarrassed Starbucks over its tax bill, but because we started a conversation about the fact that our economy has been programmed in a certain way by the people at the top, which means they get to access all of the rewards while the rest of us are locked out. These turbulent political times, when anything feels possible, are an opportunity to broaden out that conversation beyond empty gestures involving cups and even fundamental issues such as tax dodging. At long last, it feels possible to debate how to reprogramme our economy in a way that delivers justice for everybody. No longer do we have to be grateful to corporations for slightly reducing the extent to which they exploit the planet and its people. Instead we can decide what we want from them. So what’s it going to be?
- Ellie Mae O’Hagan is an editor at openDemocracy and a freelance journalist
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