Starbucks under fire from activists get no love on V-Day

By Chris Loeber

When faced with a divisive issue, it is sometimes best to roll with the punches—if only to keep the peace. If my girlfriend gets into an argument with my friend regarding politics or religion, I might refuse to take a stance on the issue because I would like to continue dating my girlfriend and I would rather not sleep on the couch. At the same time, I do not want my friend to tell me that I have broken the “bro code” or something equally ridiculous. I would never break the “bro code,” bro.

Imagine dealing with millions of these bickering friends and girlfriends, and you will begin to understand Starbucks Coffee Company’s recent dilemma. A portion of its customers are divided over two issues that have very little to do with coffee: gun control and gay marriage.

Two organizations are calling for two unrelated boycotts of Starbucks on Feb. 14. As a result, four distinct groups have descended on the company as either loving supporters who have pledged to shop at a Starbucks location on Valentine’s Day or disgruntled activists who will participate in the boycotts. No company should be exempt from the responsibility and accountability that comes with taking a stance on a contentious social issue, nor should they straddle the fence every time they think having an opinion might divide their customer base. But they should be able to make those decisions for themselves without being harassed by proponents from either side of the argument.

It would be a mistake to turn away paying customers. Law-abiding citizens who want to spend their money at Starbucks should be permitted to do so, as long as the company decides it is all right for them to do so.

The National Gun Victims Action Council, an anti-gun organization, is calling for a nationwide boycott of Starbucks on Valentine’s Day to protest the coffee giant’s policy on gun-toting customers. In 2010, gun owners who participated in the “open carry” movement in Northern California decided to promote their cause by having meetings at popular retail and restaurant chains while openly displaying firearms, which is permitted by law in 43 states. All the retail chains where they met summarily banned guns from their stores, except Starbucks.

In a statement, Starbucks said it will continue to defer to state law when deciding which of its stores will allow patrons to openly carry guns. The NGAC contends that the policy is supportive of the National Rifle Association’s pro-gun agenda. Meanwhile, Starbucks has politely asked to be left out of the gun-control debate, stating that “the political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in the legislatures and courts, not in our stores.”

In January, Starbucks joined other leading businesses like Microsoft and Amazon in supporting legislation that will legalize gay marriage in the state of Washington. USA Christian Ministries, a religious organization that aims to “unite the USA in Christ,” according to its website, is leading the second boycott.

Pastor Steven Andrew, president of the organization, said in a written statement that Starbucks hates God and the legalization of gay marriage removes Christian freedom, among other inflammatory and baseless claims.

Though pro-gay marriage activists and pro-gun rights activists were once diametrically opposed, they now have something they can agree on—presumably, over a cup coffee. Is this just a bizarre turn of events or could this be the result of choices made by Starbucks itself? After reviewing public opinion polls, I think the company may have strategically decided its positions on these seemingly no-win scenarios. According to a 2011 poll taken by the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of the public thinks it is more important to control gun ownership, while 46 percent thinks it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns. A 2011 Gallup poll shows that the majority of Americans—53 percent—support the legalization of gay marriage for the first time since Gallup began polling on the topic in 1996. Additionally, 70 percent of the 18–34 crowd, which makes up a large portion of Starbucks’ market share, believes gay marriage should be legalized.

The executives at Starbucks are either very lucky that their moral leanings happened to bring them to good long-term business decisions, or they meant to make business-oriented decisions to begin with.