The best part of this fantastic ethical analysis of charitable giving by Slavoj Žižek is the segment on Starbucks starting around the 2:05 mark.
“It’s not just what you are buying. It’s what you are buying into.”
“When you buy Starbucks, whether you realize it or not, you are buying into something bigger than a cup of coffee. You are buying into a coffee ethics.”
Žižek perfectly describes the cult of ethical consumerism. Ethical consumerism takes the very real abuses of workers and consumers by corporations–sweatshops, poor pay, bad products, environmental degradation–and from that concludes that the act of buying a product from any corporation, the act of being a consumer, is inseparable from a tacit endorsement of those evil practices that are part and parcel of making a profit. The evil excesses of business are not problems that need to be erased. These evils are at the very heart of and inseparable from capitalism. Consumerism, then (the argument goes), is at best a necessary evil to get by in an (unnecessary evil) capitalism regime.
And into this evil capitalist consumerist regime steps Starbucks, the white knight, with its “buy our coffee and you’ll be saving the world! Fair trade! Organic! Locally grown! blah blah blah” philosophy. This philosophy is a two fold attempt to tap into liberal guilt. It allows a guilt ridden consumer to feel good about making the world a better place and feel not so bad about committing the sin of consumption. This coffee is fair trade, thinks the guy wearing black rim glasses, an ironic t-shirt, and skinny jeans. It’s not made by kids in sweatshops. And five cents of every dollar I spend goes to help poor starving children in Africa and Indie rock groups, so this plastic throwaway cup is okay. At worst, it’s a venial sin (and maybe I’ll buy one of those reusable mugs that looks like a throwaway mug, so when other Starbuck customers think I’m being unethical, I can say it’s a travel mug and make them feel bad).
Starbucks presents its coffee as a sort of secular indulgence. Like the Dominican Friar Johann Tetzel, Starbucks offers you, for a fee, penance for your sins of consumption. Only, instead of time off from Purgatory, you get time added. For every purchased cup of pesticide-free fair-trade coffee, you get an hour to sit in and, more importantly, be seen sitting in a Starbucks coffee shop with your laptop using free WiFi. The company motto might as well be: “Starbucks. A sip of this ethical fair trade coffee will wash away your liberal guilt.”