In 2016, Starbucks announced its partnership with Percassi to open its first store in Italy in 2016. Ever since, public opinion in Italy has been divided on the topic. In fact, the current vision of Starbucks originated from a trip to Italy. During this trip, the company’s CEO was inspired by the Italian passion for making and drinking coffee. He decided to make it his own. Nowadays, however, many Italians associate Starbucks with the American way of living. Starbucks represents an “exotic and new” experience of having coffee. It is profoundly different from the Italian experience, not only by tradition but also regarding the coffee-based products served. It is not rare to see Italians on holiday abroad posting pictures of Starbucks beverages on social media. These drinks are seen as an only-foreign, only-abroad enjoyable product.

This is why the recent opening of the first Starbucks store in Milan made headlines and raised public attention. Soon enough, both a “welcoming wing” and a “conservative wing” emerged in discussions. The first was happy that Starbucks had finally landed in Italy and saw it as a positive sign of globalisation.

In fact, Italy is slowly leaving behind its strong attachment to traditions, anchored to the past. It is opening up to foreign cultures and to the coexistence of different brands and experiences which were not accessible to Italians before. They are happy to be able to enjoy Starbucks products in their home country. However, many people were quickly disappointed by the new Starbucks store not offering frappuccinos or other “exotic” key products.

But for more traditionalist people, Starbucks in Milan is as gut-wrenching as putting ketchup on pasta and has to be boycotted. Simply said, Starbucks does not fit into the current coffee culture of the country. Moreover, it could be a threat to existing, family-run bars and to the preservation of one of few remaining personal, traditional experiences: having coffee.

In fact, according to FIPE (1), there are almost 150.000 specialised coffee bars in Italy. This is not counting the multi-purpose bars, restaurants and pastry shops where coffee is served. There is at least one bar serving coffee per Italian neighbourhood. Up to 17% of specialised coffee bars are located in Lombardy, the region around Milan, alone. Almost 10 million Italians have breakfast at bars at least three times a week. Here, the bar owners often even greet regular clients by their first name.

Another example of the intrinsic role of coffee in Italian social life is the so-called “caffè sospeso”, or pending coffee. Originally from Naples, it represents an act of social solidarity. Someone would order a ‘sospeso’ and pay for two coffees, while receiving and drinking only one cup. The pre-paid second cup would benefit someone else; a poor person, a stranger, or simply someone passing by. None of these traditions are upheld at Starbucks.

What is more, during its very first operational week in Milan, Starbucks was reported to Antitrust, the national competition authority. The reason was the extremely high prices of its foods and beverages. If a regular espresso costs 1,10 Euros, an espresso at Starbucks is 1,80 Euros.

A second argument from the anti-Starbucks wing is the association of the name of Starbucks with other global brands, such as McDonalds’ and H&M. According to opponents, these are characterised by non-environmentally friendly policies, exploitation procedures, as well as gender and skin colour discrimination accidents.

Starbucks’ environmental and social impact

However, this might come as a surprise: not only is Starbucks involved in putting forward green policies, it also aims at increasing its social responsibility actions around the world.

However, this might come as a surprise: not only is Starbucks involved in putting forward green policies, it also aims at increasing its social responsibility actions around the world. Of course, this does not mean that Starbucks has never been involved in controversies.

In fact, Starbucks was criticised for huge water waste and for not providing recyclable bins in 2008. And in 2006 it was criticised for claiming to be in line with fair trade guidelines, while in fact only 6% of products certified as such. Recently, it faced boycotts for kicking out two black people from a store without any reason. However, Starbucks’ positive policies might be an example for other companies and to its customers.

Among Starbucks’ green policies, it is worth mentioning a few sustainability policies and initiatives throughout the brand’s historical development:

  • “Grounds for your Garden”: Starbucks launched this environmental policy in 1995. This composting programme works on a “first comes, first served” concept. The idea is that anyone can pick up free used coffee grounds to enrich their gardens and compost at home. Although this project had limited impact at first and is not available everywhere due to local composting legislation, it has evolved to become an essential part of Starbucks’ environmental policy.
  • Reduction of garbage: In 2004, Starbucks started to reduce its non-recyclable waste. It based its efforts on the consideration that especially garbage bags and paper napkins were non-reusable products that are used in vast quantities.
  • In 2006, Starbucks implemented a “10% recycled paper in beverage cups” strategy. Although critics declare this is not enough in terms of environmental protection, it was the first policy of this sort in the food and beverage industry.
  • Since then, Starbucks also introduced a recycling strategy, complemented by recycling bins, and reusable cups in the Northern American stores. Special discounts are offered to customers who brought their own reusable cups for the next purchase.

Moreover, Starbucks was ranked #15 in the 2008 American list of Top 25 Green Power Partners because of its purchases of renewable energy. Furthermore, Starbucks is also active in the field of social responsibility. Besides calling for an inclusive and fair environment at the workplace and being an active member of the World Cocoa Foundation, is the following initiatives are worth mentioning:

  • “Partnership with Conservation International”: in 2009, Starbucks started cooperating with Conservation International to help protect natural coffee environment communities in Mexico and Indonesia. It moved 90% of its coffee purchases to preferred C.A.F.E. (coffee and farmer equity) certified providers. These are ranked according to social responsibility indicators, based on a complex, multi-variable scoring system. The company is now purchasing almost 100% of its coffee through C.A.F.E. or other ‘ethically sourced’ certification systems.
  • Ethos, Starbucks’ brand of bottled water, is sold throughout stores in Northern America. It aims to raise awareness for clean water issues. Some 3% of its total profit is dedicated to helping children get clean water through funding projects in the least developed countries of the world.
  • Food donation: since 2010, Starbucks USA has been donating leftover pastries to local food banks through a food collection service named “Food Donation Connection”. In March 2016, Starbucks also launched FoodShare. This is a five-year plan to donate all unsold food from its stores in the U.S. to local food banks and pantries. In 2017, the program was running in 10 different cities, with the goal of expanding to the entire country.

Considering these arguments and developments, the discussion about Starbucks’ role in Italian coffee experiences and local traditions seems less relevant. Of course, the customer experience is important, but it is an illusion to think that we can halt the worldwide expansion of global brands. Moreover, it is our responsibility as consumers to pay attention to the environmental and social impact behind the brands we like so much, and Starbucks seems to score quite well in these areas.

The image of Starbucks as a global monster destroying local businesses, damaging the environment and exploiting farmers in the poorest countries seems to be unfair. This clearly is no black and white scenario, and we might never know the truth about big corporations. But it is our duty to look for information about social responsibility and environmental policies of shops, brands and stores. We need this information to be able to make informed choices about who and what we want to support.