Starbucks Prohibits 'Black Lives Matter' Merchandise for Employees, Then Reverses Course and Makes Its Own
Being a giant corporate chain, the Starbucks uniform doesn’t have a lot of room to wiggle. However, there’s one spot where employees can add a bit of their own personalities and beliefs—a pin or button on their apron or shirt. There are limits, of course. It has to be reasonably sized, and it can’t “interfere with safety or threaten to harm customer relations or otherwise unreasonably interfere with Starbucks’ public image.”
Seems pretty normal for a company uniform, right?
But last week, as protests took place all over the world, Starbucks sent out a memo to employees stating that “Black Lives Matter” pins would not fly. It becomes even more confusing when you take into account that Starbucks mounted a social media campaign to ostensibly show its support for the movement.
Black lives matter. We are committed to being a part of change.
— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) June 4, 2020
Starbucks’ response to employees wishing to show their support for Black Lives Matter was that clothing and accessories relating to the message “do not currently adhere to policy," despite its tweet that seemed to indicate such support does fall within Starbucks' policy.
Furthermore, Starbucks’ vice president of inclusion and diversity, Zing Shaw, explained that “there are agitators who misconstrue the fundamental principles of the Black Lives Matter movement—and in certain circumstances, intentionally repurpose them to amplify divisiveness.”
It’s tough when the policy is already so wishy-washy and unclear. The memo explaining the dress code explicitly says “Partners are not permitted to wear buttons or pins that advocate a political, religious or personal issue,” but that their one “piece of flair,” so to speak, can relate to “a particular labor organization or a partner’s support for that organization.”
So, basically, where is the line where something becomes a political or personal issue?
Starbucks just announced a $1 million pledge to organizations promoting racial equity in the U.S., and a partnership with Arizona State University to create anti-bias resources and training. It also said it is hosting conversations with employees dealing with “racism the Black community faces.”
To take this sort of cognitive dissonance one step even further, prior to all this, Starbucks employees could buy a T-shirt from Kurieo via its “Black Partner Network” initiative. The T-shirt features a coffee cup with a silhouette of Africa, and the slogan “Keep it brewing.”
“The team loved the logo and swag so much they asked us back for another project to create the Keep It Brewing T-shirt, which was used internally for a rebranding campaign,” Kurieo said on its site. “This logo symbolizes the need for sparking and continuing conversation around the African diaspora.”
Things like this led employees to feel like Starbucks’ social media statements were “performative” or just empty rhetoric.
"My skin color incites violence at Starbucks. Should I not come to work?" an Atlanta Barista told BuzzFeed. "It is silencing and Starbucks is complicit. Now more than ever, Starbucks needs to stand with us."
To its credit, Starbucks listened to its employees' concerns, and today did a full 180 on the issue, creating a line of apparel that explicitly says "Black Lives Matter" for employees to wear at work.
Black Lives Matter. We continue to listen to our partners and communities and their desire to stand for justice together. The Starbucks Black Partner Network co-designed t-shirts with this graphic that will soon be sent to 250,000+ store partners. pic.twitter.com/Wexb45RcTE
— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) June 12, 2020
This echoes the now-normal practice at Starbucks of wearing pins and accessories that support the LGBT community. But, at one point in time, that was absolutely the kind of political statement that Starbucks wanted to limit.
Think of it this way: The U.S. made same-sex marriage legal at the nationwide level in 2015. Had a Starbucks employee wished to wear a rainbow pin or something to support the right for same-sex marriage, that would have easily qualified as a "personal" or "political" statement as Starbucks laid it out.
But now, Starbucks makes and distributes LGBT ally items just like this new Black Lives Matter apparel to employees nationwide. It might have been a political statement, but once the company decides that it is OK, it becomes an acceptable part of the uniform.
Oh, and in addition to the company-sanctioned "Black Lives Matter" apparel, employees are now welcome to wear pins as their personal uniform touch.
In response to this historic time, our store partners can also show support for the Black Lives Matter movement with their own t-shirts, pins and name tags. To learn more, visit: https://t.co/LQ6fKsIP10
— Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks) June 12, 2020
"Our partners (employees) told us that they need a way to express themselves at work and we heard them," the company said in a tweet. "They may now wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts, pins and name tags."
"This movement is a catalyst for change and right now, it’s telling us many things need to be addressed," it said in another.
Kudos to Starbucks for putting its money where its mouth is after listening to criticism, and having the "conversations" and "dialogues" that it claimed to have through its initiatives and programs. Also, kudos to its marketing and graphic design departments for making theses T-shirts in such a hurry. Finally, a tip of the cap to the distributor handling what is no doubt a rush order for a ton of T-shirts.