Suspended coffee? I'd rather Starbucks suspend tax avoidance

We're too quick to forgive multinational corporations with a new PR trick

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Starbucks, wounded in the tax avoidance scandal, has partnered with Christian charity Oasis to make amends and sponsor a ‘suspended coffee’ campaign. If you haven’t already heard, a suspended coffee allows you to pay for a cup and leave it behind for someone who cannot afford a coffee for themselves.

Marketing magazine calls Starbucks’ campaign a way to improve its Corporate Social Responsibility credentials. At the height of the tax scandal, Starbucks’ market share dropped by as much as 7 per cent. In the same period Costa Coffee's market share went up 7 per cent.

My problem is not with the fact that the Starbucks avoided tax for so long. I let those infinitely more conscientious than me fight that battle.

My problem is with how quickly the rest of us forgive and forget.

The success of the Suspended Coffee phenomenon worldwide rests on trust, integrity and benevolence. Trust that patrons leave on counter tops around the world, integrity that baristas do not pocket the money, money that should go towards a cup of coffee and perhaps a croissant. Given its track record of less than honest corporate practices, Starbucks doesn’t deserve this virtuous shield on its CSR mantelpiece. Besides, first things first, they should pay that penitent £20m they promised HMRC last year.

No one needs coffee. A welfare state needs its taxes.

These days there seems to be a story almost every day on tax avoidance. We have to watch executives from Amazon, Facebook and Google deny any wrongdoing. We are virtually powerless to stop them because it seems our elected leaders are powerless too.

But what we shouldn’t stand for is this hijacking of spontaneous philanthropy by Starbucks. If we let it slide, soon our small gestures, our spontaneity and our tips for the counter will be as corporate and calibrated as each of Starbucks’ 806 UK shops.

Our gesture of goodwill will go towards an Americano for someone on the breadline, when they could much better do with facilities that extra taxes would have bought.

There’s another reason to shun this campaign. It allows us to continue ignoring the unfortunate. We may have good reason for not visiting Africa, where we might have part-sponsored a village school by buying a bottle of mineral water. After all, it is rather far away. But what excuse do we have for distancing ourselves from the needy on our doorsteps? By corporatising something as simple as a hot cup of coffee for someone on the streets, we distance ourselves from our deed of the day. It is instant karma with instant coffee.

Then there are more practical concerns. Consumerist makes an excellent case for why suspended coffees don’t work as well as Starbucks would have us believe. First of all chances are that a homeless person won’t be a regular Facebook user; they’re unlikely to know the campaign exists. Second, what if I pop along to a Starbucks and ask for a suspended coffee in the morning? Will I be means tested?

Yes, it's a fine thing that Starbucks matches the suspended coffee with a cash donation to Oasis, but the official scheme ends this month. To me, it looks no more than PR damage control, a fleeting fad. And it simply doesn’t wash.

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