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Starbucks takes corporate support of SSM to new level – and they’re not alone

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Companies feel pressured not to end up on the wrong side of the culture wars

Last Wednesday, Starbucks Corporation held its annual shareholders’ meeting in Seattle. As he did last year, shareholder Thomas Strobhar, founder of the Corporate Morality Action Center, suggested that the giant coffee retailer should curtail its public support for socially liberal causes, most notably same-sex marriage (SSM). What Strobhar may not have counted on was the vehemence of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s response.

“It is not an economic decision,” said Schultz, in an exchanged captured here. “The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company and we want to embrace diversity of all kinds.” Schultz didn’t elaborate on how explicit, vocal endorsement of a divisive social issue is the same as embracing “diversity.” But the CEO went even further, essentially telling Strobhar – and for that matter, any Starbucks shareholder who disagrees with the company’s stand – that if they can’t put profit ahead of principle, they should take a walk.  “If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country,” he said to deafening applause. “You can sell your shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company.”

This isn’t the first time that Schultz has waded into controversy, although he has usually proved to be more adept at finding the middle ground on contentious issues. That was certainly the case two years ago when it came to light that gun enthusiasts in California were holding “open carry” meetings – get-togethers in which everyone is visibly packing a firearm – at Starbucks outlets. At the time, Schultz was the model of diplomacy, assuring customers that while armed sippers contradict Starbucks’ corporate image, he wouldn’t ban the practice.  “I’m not a politician,” he said at the time. “I run a coffee company and we’re trying to abide by the laws in which we do business.”

But now, Schultz has apparently abandoned that modesty, at least insofar as SSM is concerned. But he’s not the only one – as the Washington Post business columnist Jena McGregor points out, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein have all come out publicly for SSM – or what they term “marriage equality” – as have executives from a number of other top American companies. “The same CEOs who seem reticent to speak out on immigration topics or become activists for health-care reform, no matter how much either one may help their bottom line, are increasingly willing to take a stand on same-sex marriage,” wrote McGregor. Indeed, to date the only CEO of any prominence to (sort of) take a public stand against SSM remains Dan Cathy, head of the fast food retailer, Chick-fil-A, only to be filleted alive by the press and politicians for his trouble.

And even as Schultz attempts to invoke some sort of humanitarian cause, could it be possible that this sort of corporate ethical posturing is, in fact, nothing more than ‘business as usual’? A large number of American companies have read the tea leaves and decided that getting on board the SSM juggernaut is good for their brands and their bottom lines.

That doesn’t sit well with Starbucks critic Tom Strobhar, a faithful Catholic layman and investment consultant, whose Corporate Morality Action Center targets companies that support abortion, pornography and homosexuality. But Strobhar and others like him seem to be swimming against a rising tide in favor of SSM, particularly among younger, affluent, wired, (sub)urban consumers and investors. And, truth be told, the Corporate Morality Action Center’s definition of “morality” is focused entirely on pelvic issues (the organization’s

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