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Starbucks Isn’t Alone: Local-washing Is the New Black

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Friday September 11th, 2009 | 12 Comments
photo from The Stranger

photo from The Stranger

Our post last week about 15th Ave Coffee & Tea—a coffee house that Starbucks opened this summer in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood but chose not to brand with its trademark sea creature logo—elicited a whole bunch of response from readers. Some of the readers stated that Starbucks is just plain evil. Others complained that it’s lame to hate on chains just because they are chains. But in writing the piece my intention was not to advance either argument. It was to highlight and extend the discussion that Adaptive Path’s Peter Merholz started in his blog, focusing on Starbucks’ strategy behind the 15th Ave Coffee & Tea. Merholz posited that for Starbucks’ attempt to paint 15th Ave as a one-off, small, neighborhood coffee joint, even though a massive corporation owns it, is a losing proposition.

“Faking it is not a good strategy in bed or in retail,” he wrote.

But in creating the 15th Ave Coffee & Tea shop, Starbucks is really just following a trend in marketing. Sure, the authenticity-imbued, non-chain feeling of the small coffee shop is an attractive element, but I think the bigger emphasis is on the local-ness of the place.  Marketers are starting to co-opt the recent focus on buying local—eating locally-grown food and patronizing locally-owned businesses. And as a result, we now all need to learn a new derivation of the word greenwashing: local-washing.

This new trend was deftly described by Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher with the New Rules Project, in a July 9 article. (The New Rules Project, and Mitchell, are already highly critical of big box stores and mega-retailers, accusing them to disrupting local economies, etc. All stuff you’ve likely heard before—and perhaps agree with—but I think it’s important to note that the group is behind the article.)

The funny thing about Mitchell’s article? It ran in 25 different local weeklies around the country. So it’s a story about local-washing that is not locally-sourced news (except for the additional reporting that some of those weeklies contributed to the story).

Anyway, in the story, Mitchell illustrates some examples of local-washing issued by corporations such as Unilever-owned Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand, Barnes & Noble, Frito-Lay. Earlier this month, Jonathan Hiskes at Grist turned these and other examples of local-washing into a photo essay, which was repeated at Treehugger.

The story and the photo essays will make you feel contempt for these big-box stores and multinational brands trying to crash—and cash in on—the local party. But I think it’s important to examine what is and what isn’t local-washing—and what is and what isn’t local. And whether “local” should really be a must-have in terms of how to spend one’s dollars.

Sure, it’s hard not to cringe when Wal-Mart hangs a “Local” sign in its produce section. But if the fruits and veggies displayed there are grown locally, they are local.

Plus, highlighting localness (even falsely) is a big marketing strategy right now because consumers want local. And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe those who promote local-food and local-business have had too much success conveying the local-is-good message and not enough conveying the good-is-good message.

In Forbes, Elizabeth Eaves argues that “the absurdity of these language-abusing corporate responses to localism highlight what’s been wrong with the movement all along, namely that it has no coherent intellectual underpinning. Locally grown food is sometimes, but not inherently, higher in quality than food from farther afield. Locally run businesses do sometimes, but not always, make more genial employers. Locally grown food is sometimes, but not intrinsically, easier on the environment: The energy it takes to grow tomatoes in a northern climate can easily exceed the energy it takes to truck them in from a warmer place.”

It’s a harsh indictmen—especially the claim the movement “has no coherent intellectual underpinning.” It seems wrong to call localism a movement on its own. Seems more accurate to say it’s a subset of a broader push for sustainability. What do you think? Are Barnes & Noble and Frito Lay and Starbucks going to debase and devalue an important movement toward local purchasing, or are they just exploiting a trend in the sustainability movement—one that failed to get a comprehensive message across to consumers?


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  • http://www.myspace.com/fenbi Fenbi

    It’s coffee ‘joint’

    • Jen Boynton

      Thanks for the catch Fenbi!

  • LB

    Re “It seems wrong to call localism a movement on its own.” I disagree — there unquestionably is a localization movement that goes far beyond green types. Also,the American Independent Business Alliance ( http://amiba.net )and Ms. Mitchell’s New Rules Project (http://newrules.org )certainly have strong and “intellectual underpinnings” if the Forbes reporter bother to research instead of just spew (I know, too much to ask of Forbes).

    I see these groups are not linked here, so perhaps you’re unaware of them?

  • J. de Jesus

    Oh please. Local, schmocal. Howard Schultz became greedy and over built Starbucks drive-thrus. He is simply trying to make the behemoth company look like the little guy on the block again. Starbucks wants you to know its all about you! when really its all about money.

  • MC OConnor

    LB:
    Yes I learned about the American Independent Business Alliance while researching this story and looking into the background of the New Rules Project. And as far as the movement going beyond “green types”…that is true and maybe I was looking at it too narrowly, through the lens of the green movement. But I do believe the green movement is what brought the local movement, if you want to call it that, to the mainstream.

  • http://briskattivo.blogspot.com David Green

    Starbucks is practically the king of glossing over things to make them seem innocent like this. This takes the cake though as underhandedly deceiving customers who want to do right. Local-washing is wrong.

    Starbucks wasn’t peachy before though. Their employees are brainwashed to go along with every greedy marketing campaign or else they’re not “team players.” If they really cared about community they wouldn’t stinge on labor in their stores (carrot-on-a-string benefits that aren’t good and chaotic work schedules) and stay in Seattle where they belong instead of taking over the world.

  • bob

    local……coffee?? in Seattle??

    • Jan

      Exactly! Not much coffee grown in the Pacific North West that I have seen! How can Coffee be local anywhere in the US except Hawaii?
      If they open a coffee shop, hire local employees and serve the local community a product that they enjoy what is the issue here???

  • http://www.reputationtorevenue.com Rob Leavitt

    “Localization” is indeed a big trend among the large retail chains — not just Wal-Mart, Target and grocery chains, but also specialty stores like Best Buy and Gap. Their motive is obviously to sell more stuff, but their main competitive concern is really other chains, not the truly local stores. So Target is focused on competing against Wal-Mart by moving away from a standard assortment of products and instead trying to tailor each store more closely to what people in that area are buying. Same with Best Buy — they are much more concerned with competing against Wal-Mart than against a local electronics store (are there even any of those left?).

    From a sustainability perspective, I think the real question is whether there is anything the big chains can do which can be applauded, or are they just “evil” no matter what they do. Personally, I’d rather push and encourage them to get more local in a serious way, as well as more sustainable, of course — while also doing whatever we can to support truly local businesses as well. The big chains are not going to disappear any time soon, and it will make a big difference if more of them accept local pressure and influence to do better even while they continue to focus on their bottom line.

  • Nick Aster

    Everyone – good points. I wish we could move beyond the Starbucks is “evil” nonsense, but a lot of people still get worked up. I agree with an earlier commenter who stated that, actually, Starbucks really helped create coffee culture in the US and that there are actually MORE independents now than there were before. So saying that Starbucks drives away independents is just not true – I can vouch for this with personal experience (though I don’t know about Seattle)

    Secondly – the point of this article is to explore the crossover between huge company and local business. My opinion is that the 15th street store is a bit of a bungle because people may feel it is essentially dishonest – ie, you just can’t “fake it”. Either be Starbucks the mega chain, or not.

  • Doug

    I don’t get the picture. Starbucks is based in Seattle, they open a shop in Seattle, therefore it’s local. So what’s the problem?
    Starbucks provides affordable health care to part-time employees, try getting that at any other coffee shop.

    • Jan

      This all seems so ridiculous. 20+ years ago Starbucks was a local small business based in Seattle. Their product becomes so popular, they become a huge success, take their business to a national and then international level and we all hate them! What about being proud of another great American success story? What about having respect for a great business model that succeeded, hired thousands of ‘local’ employees and helps support our economy locally, nationally and internationally?

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