Starbucks and the New CSR Calculus

Starbucks is an interesting example of the role that modern corporate social responsibility can play in the reputation of a company. CSR has taken a turn from being solely an ethical consideration, to being somewhat essential to the success of many companies, especially those such as Starbucks who have intentionally put it at the forefront of their reputation, but also in the case of companies who are forced into adhering to CSR policies in order to appease their customer base. Prior to the 1970’s, companies appeared to have little ethical consideration for what their actions might do, as long as it would result in profit. Or, if they did take ethical considerations it was likely actually out of the goodness of the CEO’s heart, because there was little to be gained from it other than a clean conscience. In the 70’s, this changed. Consumers were demanding more from MNCs. More transparency, more ethical conduct, and more positive impact on the communities they operate in.

The interesting shift has been from the begrudging acceptance of CSR reform by MNCs to MNCs like Starbucks fully embracing CSR and going to great lengths to not only do no harm, but to do good in the world. If you walk into a Starbucks today you are craftily bombarded by signs of the company’s positive influence in the world. They make you, as a consumer, feel good about buying their product because by supporting Starbucks you are, in turn, supporting all the good work that they are doing. Their marketing strategists have perfected manipulating consumer emotion to convince them to pay a premium for their product because it makes them feel better to spend $2 extra than to purchase coffee beans harvested under unethical circumstances. Conveniently, the consumer also loves Starbucks coffee. Starbucks has effectively taken CSR to a new extreme and made it a motivator and a standard for consumers, so that it is not enough for other companies to claim that they have fair-trade beans, but they must also be socially progressive, even at a cost to their own profit. What Starbucks has gotten right is that it does not mean a cost to their profit. By closing for half a day to do mandatory racism training, they lose half a day’s profits but they will easily make that back by retaining customers who may have left due to their initial bad publicity, and even gaining customers who appreciate the company’s social awareness.

While reading the Hofferberth et. al article about constructivism and CSR, I was considering the Starbucks case and how it might fit into the paradigm of reasoning they describe. Yes, Starbucks is reacting to a a general trend towards CSR from before its time, but now it is setting a new standard for CSR in its industry which may even seep into others. However, their interest in raising the standard is profit. It appears to be a risk calculation in which they expect, rightfully so, the outcomes to be highly in their favor and keep them at the top of their contenders. In this light they are acting from the realist perspective, but the reaction they will induce in the long run seems more constructivist in that other actors will accept the norm and begin to do the same because it will then be what is appropriate.

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