The Starbucks Delusion

Photo Credit: Save the Water[1]

By: Natalie Schreffler

Starbucks works hard to brand itself as a socially responsible corporation; so it makes sense that it would have a social venture like Ethos Water to contribute to its vision of helping the world. After buying Ethos in 2005, Starbucks made a concerted effort to market its social conscience. But how much good has Ethos Water actually done, and why don’t we hear about it anymore?

For starters, the main selling point for Ethos Water is that part of its proceeds goes towards helping children in developing countries get access to clean drinking water. It was co-founded by Jonathan Greenblatt and Peter Thum in 2003 following a trip to South Africa. Overwhelmed by the lack of sanitized water, Thum was compelled to take action with Ethos Water as the result.[2] Through Ethos Water, the founders wanted to create awareness of the problem and help bring safe and sanitized water to children in developing countries.

Sounds good, right? There’s nothing wrong with two guys creating a way to help the world’s vulnerable by providing them with safe drinking water–even if they offered only a few specifics in terms of what countries were receiving the proceeds, which NGOs were perpetuating the efforts, or why only children were getting the benefits. But it was a valuable cause and Starbucks looked good for being involved in it.

It might be a more respectable endeavor if more than three percent of the proceeds actually went to the children. Unfortunately, for every bottle purchased at a retail price of about $1.80, only $0.05 is actually put towards water projects. After Starbucks purchased the company in 2005, they set a goal of donating $10 million over the next five years toward NGOs that were helping to alleviate the world water crisis.[3]

A few obvious questions arise: if Starbucks really wanted to reach the $10 million goal, why did they cap the contributions at $0.05 per bottle instead of increasing the percentage of profits donated? In 2005 alone, Starbucks made a profit of half a billion dollars[4]. Starbucks could have easily written a check and solved the water crisis once and for all–but for Thum, “writing a check is less effective in the long run than ‘trying to build a movement to address this problem.’”[5]

The “movement” he wanted apparently crashed along with the 2008 financial market. As of Starbucks’ Global Responsibility Report of fiscal year 2011, only $6 million had been raised,[6] and there has been no big effort to continue reaching the original goal of $10 million—in fact, the 2011 report is no different than the amount that they reported in 2008, and Ethos Water is not even mentioned in the 2009 or 2010 reports.[7]

So, Ethos Water as a philanthropic venture essentially faded into the corporate unknown. Does this mean that Starbucks hates children? No; but the fact that CEO Howard Schultz advertises the company as a socially responsible corporation should lead its consumers to keep track of its actions. Starbucks has not effectively shown that it is committed to helping children access clean water. Instead, it uses its 2008 numbers to make us think that it is continuing in that endeavor, when it seems to have long abandoned that dream for newer, more sensational objectives. The problem is not that Starbucks wants to be socially responsible; the problem is that it claims that it is helping the world while making a profit off of people who think they are helping vulnerable children. Contributing to the problem is the fact that the company does not say where the proceeds actually go, specifically (except for a brief overview in their 2007 Social Responsibility Report[8]). How can we, as consumers, know that any children actually benefited?

A good alternative to further plugging the world’s landfills with plastic and contributing to Howard Schultz’s corporate wealth is to donate directly to a charity that is more committed to honestly benefiting people (and while you’re at it, avoid bottled water altogether because it is no more pure than tap water[9]). For example, charity:water is a socially conscious, transparent non-profit that actually allocates 100 percent of its donations toward water projects. This group even tells you exactly where your money is used after you donate. Whereas Ethos Water has helped 420,000 people around the world[10] with its $6 million, charity:water has funded 8,217 water projects, helping a total of 3,200,000 people in 20 countries since its inception in 2006.[11] That is not to say that the 420,000 people that Ethos has helped are insignificant, but in terms of transparent philanthropic efforts that benefit people on a large scale, charity:water is a much more powerful alternative.


Natalie Schreffler is a Masters of International Affairs candidate at The Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Her work with NGOs in Benin and Malawi, as well as her experience in refugee resettlement in the Seattle area, has prepared her for studying international conflict resolution and development. Natalie’s interests include women’s empowerment, grassroots development efforts, refugee and migration issues, and general culture studies.


[2] Lori Dahm, “Ethos Water: Drinking for a Cause,” Beverage Industry, (May 2006).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rob Walker, “Big Gulp,” The New York Times, (February 2006).

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Year in Review: Fiscal 2011,” Starbucks Global Responsibility Report,

[7] “Year in Review: Fiscal 2009,” Starbucks Global Responsibility Report,

[8] “Fiscal 2007 Corporate Social Responsibility Annual Report,” Starbucks Corporation,

[9] “FDA Should Adopt EPA Tap Water Health Goals for Bottled Water,” Environmental Working Group, (November 2008).

[10] “Year in Review: Fiscal 2011,” Starbucks Global Responsibility Report,


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