Starbucks banned employees from wearing BLM T-shirts. Now it’s making its own.
Nothing says mainstream like receiving your caramel macchiato from a Starbucks barista in a corporate-sponsored Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
Starbucks got called out for being tone deaf to the biggest civil rights movement in years, and it is now trying to make amends—with a T-shirt.
Over the weekend, Starbucks reversed its stance forbidding employees from wearing Black Lives Matter symbols on their uniforms. Not only can employees wear T-shirts, pins, and name tags expressing their support of the movement, Starbucks has even designed its own BLM T-shirts, which will be distributed to more than 250,000 employees around the country, Vogue reports. Employees are not required to wear them, but they can if they want. For now, they are not available for the general public to purchase, although some online vendors are selling the T-shirts.
The official Starbucks BLM T-shirt is very clearly on brand. There’s a graphic codesigned by the Starbucks Black Partner Network, an internal organization of black employees. It features protest signs in Starbucks’s color palette of red, green, and yellow, against a black background. One reads “Black Lives Matter.” The others have more generic sayings like, “Stand Up!” “Justice,” and “Love.” At the bottom, there’s a lyric from a song from the musical Hamilton: “It’s not a moment, it’s a movement.”
It’s a departure from the brand’s initial response. When the protests began in the United States after police killed George Floyd on Memorial Day, Starbucks—like many other brands—began posting messages on Instagram expressing support for the Black community and linking to a letter from CEO Kevin Johnson, vowing to make the company more racially inclusive through things like antibias training. But then employees began asking their managers if they could express their support for the protesters through their clothing. At a company-wide staff meeting—called a Workplace Live event—management’s answer was a firm “no.” In a memo from that meeting leaked to Buzzfeed, Zing Shaw, Starbucks’ head of inclusion and diversity, said that the company did not allow employees to wear BLM paraphernalia with their uniform because, “there are agitators who misconstrue the fundamental principles of the Black Lives Matter movement — and in certain circumstances, intentionally repurpose them to amplify divisiveness.” In response, customers threatened to boycott the brand.
Starbucks is a $28.2 billion company with around 30,000 stores across the country. It has taken a stand on social issues in the past, so it’s worth asking why the company hesitated to support the Black Lives Matter movement, which first emerged in 2013, after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The company has supported LGBTQ+ rights for more than two decades, as it documents in a timeline on its website. Every June, which is Pride Month, the company hands out T-shirts and pins that employees can wear if they choose. But it has not been so forthcoming in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2018, Starbucks was called out for racial profiling, after two black men were arrested in Philadelphia while trying to use the bathrooms at a store.
Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its decision to create the employee T-shirts. But it’s clear that the company is using the garments as a mea culpa. Some customers on Instagram say the gesture is superficial and does not address fundamental problems at the company, like the fact that it has historically relied on prison labor to package coffee.
Starbucks has a long way to go.