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Taylor Clark's book lays the coffee chain bare

The Independent, 28th February 2008

In 1998, reports Taylor Clark in this entertaining and intriguing book, two university researchers performed a chemical analysis of the waters of Boston harbour in Massachusetts . The results were unexpected: the harbour contained caffeine. It turned out that Bostonians, like Americans elsewhere, drink such huge amounts of coffee – ingesting one thousand pounds of pure caffeine every day – that much of it had worked its way into the sewage and thence into the ocean itself.

It’s a useful symbol of the coffee frenzy which has swept from America to the wider world, and of the ubiquity of the brand that has driven it: Starbucks. The company that began life in Seattle in the early 1970s as a single shop selling bags of beans has morphed into a global phenomenon. In 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in the whole of the USA . Today there are 24,000. Globally, meanwhile, Starbucks is a presence in 37 countries. It even has a branch in Guantanamo Bay .

What has made Starbucks such a success? One answer is the drive of its first CEO, Howard Schultz, a man who likes to speak in syrupy terms about his company being a ‘mission’ and a ‘cause’, but whose corporate ruthlessness is well attested. But psychology is important too. In an increasingly atomised, fractured world, says Clark , the idea of the coffeehouse is seductive – comfy armchairs, companionship, luxury products. You can buy into the concept of community even as the company you pay for it helps to destroy the real thing.

It is this paradox that best exemplifies both the book and Starbucks itself. Clark details the charges against the chain: its refusal to allow its workers to unionise, the low wages its growers receive, its targeting of local rivals. He tells entertaining stories about resistance to it: protesters who, after attacking a branch, were pacified with free lattes; the $600,000 the company pays every year for physical protection for Schultz. But some of his conclusions are surprising. He suggests, for example, that Starbucks has actually helped local coffee shops to survive, by turning the wider population on to the wonders of luxury coffee. Between 2000 and 2005, he reveals, the number of independent coffeehouses in the US increased by more than 40%.

Even so, says Clark , he won’t drink at Starbucks: he can’t buy into their project of homogenising the planet. On the other hand, if he finds himself at an airport and there’s nowhere else to drink – that might be a different matter. Like the world as a whole, Clark , is not always sure what to think about Starbucks. His ambivalence translates on the page into a wry balance, and makes for a surprisingly gripping read.