Amid Labor Concerns, Starbucks Customers Weigh Loyalty to Coffee Giant

Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee chain, has been embroiled in multiple controversies, including allegations of anti-union activities and union walkouts on Red Cup Day. A new lawsuit filed by a consumer group accuses the company of falsely advertising its coffee beans and tea leaves as “100% ethically sourced” despite working with foreign farms that have committed severe human and labor rights abuses. The National Consumers League brought the suit in the D.C. Superior Court, arguing that Starbucks has misled customers to take advantage of their desire to shop responsibly.

An attorney for the consumer group, Daniel Rosenthal, described horrific conditions at the James Finlay & Co. tea plantation in Kenya, where workers were forced to engage in sexual acts in exchange for work. The company was soon targeted in a major class action. When workers reported these injuries, the suit claims, the company would simply fire them or require them to seek care from company clinics, which provided painkillers and sent them back to work.

Customers have offered a range of reactions to these Starbucks controversies, with some expressing their preference for cheap coffee from gas stations and others stating that the lawsuit would not impact their decision much when looking for coffee. Starbucks plans to aggressively defend itself against the consumer group’s lawsuit, stating that it takes allegations like these extremely seriously and is actively engaged with farms to ensure they adhere to its standards.

In 2004, the company launched “Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices” (C.A.F.E.), a set of standards it uses to verify its sourcing partners comply with human and labor rights requirements. Starbucks indicated it has taken action against farms in Kenya and Guatemala in response to human and labor rights violations. However, many problematic farms nonetheless received a C.A.F.E. certification.

Starbucks may also face backlash from a consumer base that increasingly holds corporate responsibility in high regard. A 2019 Aflac survey showed that 77% of consumers are motivated to purchase from companies they view as committed to “making the world a better place.” A 2020 Enterra Solutions study found that 60% of consumers would stop using a product upon learning it had been made with forced labor.

Workers have taken the effort into their own hands, pushing to unionize at more than 360 of Starbucks 9,300 U.S. stores since 2021. In December, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Starbucks for closing 23 locations in an effort to discourage unionization. The complaint seeks to force Starbucks to reopen and rehire the workers affected.

It is unclear whether Starbucks has suffered financially as a direct result of such controversies, but the decline has been attributed to foot traffic and sales rather than controversy.

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