The Starbucks Corporation, through aggressive business practices, has become a major contributor to the cultural homogenization of America and the world. This continued global homogenization of culture threatens to create a "monoculture" that replaces individual, indigenous restaurants and stores with international chains. This monoculture eliminates diversity by putting a Starbucks on every busy street corner in the world, displacing local businesses and livelihoods, and creating a singular global experience for coffee drinkers. This singular global experience is ultimately derived from an Americanized coffee culture. By exporting and displacing local culture, Starbucks, and companies like Starbucks, are creating a monoculture that is the driving force behind modern American Imperialism.
Starbucks’s latest quarterly 10-Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission includes the passage, "With a presence today in more than 30 countries, management believes that the Company's long term goal of operating at least 25,000 Starbucks retail locations throughout the United States and in International markets is achievable" (yahoo.com). This corresponds with the Starbucks mission statement that states that the company’s goal is to "establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffee in the world…" (Starbucks.com). With an increase in revenue of 20% in the year 2003, and global expansion (1,300 new stores in 2003), there is no doubt that Starbucks is a juggernaut in the booming coffee business. National Geographic reports, "coffee is the second most valuable commodity after oil" (Roach). These statistics testify to the global demand for Starbucks coffee. Additionally, one principle of the Starbucks mission statement is to, "develop enthusiastically satisfied customers all of the time" (Starbucks.com). This, in itself, does not seem to be a bad thing. Starbucks is merely following the basic theory of the market economy: give the people what they want. However, there is a problem: this is not the reason that Starbucks is so successful. Through overly aggressive business practices, Starbucks is using its corporate power and capital to drive out local coffee shops. The Starbucks mission statement is to develop satisfied customers and to establish 25,000 stores for them, but this "development" involves forceful elimination of competition, not by offering a superior coffee experience, but by purposefully eliminating alternatives. Effectively, Starbucks is on a path towards monopolization of the coffee market.
Starbucks eliminates competition through buy-outs, "cluster bombing" tactics, and market cannibalization. The Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization, in support of the local merchants of Ocean Beach, declares as part of a boycott that, "Starbucks employs unfair tactics against local coffee shops. If Starbucks finds a successful coffee establishment they build one or more locations to take their business. They lease buildings to keep out competition, send agents around to take notes and pictures (as we have witnessed in Ocean Beach)" (obgo.org). Ocean Beach is a community located in San Diego, California. It has recently been the site of numerous protests against the Starbucks Corporation’s attempt to open franchises there. The Ocean Beach planning board is working on a ban called Proposition A that bans "Formula Retail" restaurants and stores from encroaching on Ocean Beach. In Japan, Kinzo Niwa, managing director of Pokka Corp., which runs the Cafe de Crie chain, a rival of Starbucks, explains, "Our sales don't drop even if Starbucks opens a shop near ours, but if we simultaneously apply to a landlord to rent space in the same building, the landlord chooses our opponent" (The Japan Times). Starbucks’s market-entry strategy involves first finding a market’s leading independent coffee shop, and then going to the landlord of that coffee shop and buying the lease out from under them, replacing the shop with a Starbucks. As is common in Ocean Beach and Japan, the existing coffee shop is forced to move or go out of business. If Starbucks cannot buy the lease, Starbucks will open several franchises around the shop (nearly one on each corner) and heavily promote to draw the crowd. This begins a "cluster bombing" campaign where Starbucks opens so many franchises in one area that they become unsustainable. After driving out independently owned coffee shops, the Starbucks franchises then have to start competing with themselves, cannibalizing each other’s sales. Starbucks, the parent company, is basically promoting Darwinism as their business model, a business model that is becoming unbeatable. In Starbucks’s 2002 10-K Report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it is reported, “As a result of its expansion strategy of clustering stores in existing markets, Starbucks has experienced a certain level of cannibalization of sales of existing stores by new stores as store concentration has increased.” Despite this cannibalization, Starbucks’s net revenue growth increased 24% that year.
These business practices leverage the Starbucks Corporation’s capital and brand recognition in order to eliminate the competition, i.e. small coffee shops without the resources to hold off such aggressive advances. This effectively homogenizes the coffee shop market. The business practices of the Starbucks Corporation ultimately lead towards a monopoly, the complete domination of the world market to the point where Starbucks is the only coffee shop left. It is becoming increasingly common for consumers to have a choice in either going to a Starbucks or walking across the street to a Barnes and Noble, which, incidentally, also sells Starbucks coffee. An article for the Somerville Community News (Somerville is a suburb of Boston), written by Basav Sen, expresses concern about the opening of a Starbucks in Davis Square, next to the popular Someday Café and Diesel Café. In the article, Jacques Fleury, a student from Martinique in the Caribbean, expresses his preference for small businesses like the Someday Café, which, "foster a sense of community." Denise Kuhn, a Someday Café customer is "concerned that the introduction of yet another chain store in this culturally rich and diverse square will homogenize it" and it will "no longer be unique" (Sen). These sentiments can be found across the country and the world, in newspapers, journals, online forums, and even popular movies like "Austin Powers," where Starbucks is depicted as an evil corporation trying to rule the world.
The Turning Point Project, a non-profit organization designed specifically to produce a series of educational advertisements concerning major issues of the new millennium, explains that "corporate invasions into diverse cultures often occur over vigorous protests by local governments and populations that try to protect local business, culture, health, food safety, and local livelihoods" (turningpoint.org). These protests are occurring because people do not want their diverse cultures to be replaced by a generic, homogenized, branded corporation. Consumers lose when they do not a have a choice of what kind of coffee shop they want to frequent. If every coffee shop was closed down and replaced with a Starbucks, then consumers would have no alternatives, no voice in the matter. Additionally, consumers would lose their individuality. By going to the same coffee shop as everyone else, coffee drinkers can no longer express their personal preferences for swanky coffee shops or alternative décors. They are forced, instead, to have what everyone else is having, a forced homogenization of personal preference. Starbucks, by eliminating choice, imposes conformity upon individual coffee drinkers. However, as the Turning Point Project points out, "not everyone wants to become like everyone else."
This homogenizing effect threatens to create a “monoculture.” A monoculture is the idea that everywhere you go will be like everywhere else. Walking the streets of Beijing, Hong Kong, Venice, Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco, and Zurich becomes a similar experience: Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. Starbucks is a leading force in the creation of monoculture, and many argue that this homogenizing effect is increasing more rapidly as Starbucks grows larger. If the explosive growth of Starbucks is any indicator of the monocultural movement, then this notion becomes increasingly troublesome. "A few decades ago, it was still possible to leave home and go somewhere else: the architecture was different, the landscape was different, the language, lifestyle, dress, and values were different. That was a time when we could speak of cultural diversity" (turningpoint.org). Cultural diversity is quickly disappearing in the new millennium. People often repeat the phrase, "get there before it’s ruined." The reason people say this is because of the belief that monoculture is homogenizing the world in the same way that Starbucks is homogenizing the world’s coffee choices. With the destruction of independent coffee shops, the "local watering hole" becomes property of an American corporation. Local flavor is replaced with universal, corporate-branded flavor, maybe with a slight change in the menu’s wording and a different shade of paint. Starbucks has no incentive to innovate on their menu or their décor because they have set out to create a homogenized coffee experience. This transforms coffee culture into an Americanized, branded standard.
This transformation of culture, both domestic and abroad, is the modern delivery method of American Imperialism. There are many names for it: globalization, McDonaldization, Disneyfication, Holiday-Innization, even Starbuckization. The idea is that Starbucks is not merely exporting coffee, but Americanized coffee culture. This culture replaces whatever local diversity existed with a standard, monocultural entity. Starbucks reaps global profits from this spread of American values and branding. This result encourages Starbucks to open more franchises across the world, homogeneously spreading American cultural influence in a viral, exponential manner. This effect is alarmingly obvious in American downtowns across the country, downtowns that have already suffered the effects of Starbucks’s rapid, predatory growth. Andrew A. Green, a staff member of the Baltimore Sun, writes that Towson, a Baltimore suburb, “may soon have 5 of the coffeehouses in a three-block radius” (Green). As Starbucks sets its eyes on the world, this homogenization threatens to spread across the globe. Eventually, every downtown in the world will look the same.
Imperialism is a "policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations" (The American Heritage Dictionary). By sending American culture and economic practices abroad, Starbucks is encroaching on the cultural, economic, and physical territory of foreign cultures for the sole purpose of generating revenue for the benefit of a corporation operating in the United States. The U.S. free market economy supports encroachment because capital is rewarded and sought after by nearly all Americans. Globalization is rewarded because it allows American companies to generate capital from foreign countries. This motivation for more profit is built into the American way of life. However, this way of life may be incompatible with foreign cultures who, for example, might value community over capital, or local culture over a "formula culture" invented in a board room at the Starbucks Corporation. As American corporations establish themselves in foreign markets, those markets become economically and politically dependent on the actions of those American corporations and on American foreign policy. Starbucks and the free market are reducing the autonomy of foreign states by replacing local businesses with foreign, global corporations.
There is a conservative argument made by Jackson Kuhl, former senior producer of Foxnews.com, who argues that "Starbucks will never assimilate the entire human race until we all have exactly the same wants and likes" (Kuhl). Kuhl wants to say that an opposite effect is occurring, that "material culture such as a Starbucks store doesn’t create cultural conformity. It is cultural conformity -- ideas and beliefs accepted individually, then shared by a group of like-minded individuals -- that creates material culture" (Kuhl). Yet, Kuhl ignores that Starbucks is not becoming a superpower because of a superior product, but because it has capital and power to execute business practices that leave no alternatives. The free market is not a perfect system. Governments recognize that large corporations use their power and capital to drive out healthy competition. This is why business competition is regulated by many governments. This is why the United States has a ban on monopolies. As Starbucks uses predatory business practices to drive out independent coffee shops, it is not the consumers who are choosing Starbucks, instead it the consumers who, with no alternatives, are being forced to choose Starbucks. If consumers are faced with a Starbucks on every corner vs. their favorite coffee shop being an hour away, they will most likely grab Starbucks coffee. There remains the possibility that independent coffee shops may stay open for those customers who refuse to drink Starbucks on moral grounds. However, these customers, who are consciously inconveniencing themselves in an effort to not frequent Starbucks, are the minority.
Stewart Lee Allen, in his 1999 history of coffee titled The Devil's Cup, best summarizes this situation by writing that Starbucks is "a mega-corporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés" (Allen). The effect of this destruction is a homogenization of downtown America and cities across the world. This homogenization effect ultimately culminates in a single coffee culture, a monoculture expressing "an American version of an Italian evolution of a beverage invented by Arabs brewed from a bean discovered by Africans" (Kuhl). This monoculture, as an American creation, results in the spread of American culture for the benefit of an American company. This spread is simply a modern form of imperialism. Starbucks, enabled by free market globalization, is proliferating this monoculture throughout the world. Starbucks is directly contributing to economic American Imperialism, while at the same time contributing to the deterioration of foreign and domestic economic and cultural diversity.
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