The Conundrum in Coffee Consumerism

14 Sep

This feature article was published on Sept. 14 at the UPIU. Original article can be found here.

Coffee is one of my favorite things ever, bar none. It made sense that I’d write about this for my feature article. However, I did have a doubts about this, mainly that the language I used was probably too informal or conversational.

The person who critiqued this piece, Jedd, said that it had excellent diction and language and the flow was quite good. It’s a quirky article that many people our age could relate to. While it was hard to find things to link, I still managed to link and make it an online article instead of just an article. However, the flow was interrupted near the end, since there was a bit of departure from the casual conversational tone into a more academic tone. He said that there was also the lack of photos, of which I could have easily found a stock photo or could have taken a photo to accompany the story.

The city is filled with and run by caffeinated individuals. In this day and age, when time whizzes by in a blur of interminable routine and sobering news reports, coffee makes the day bearable.

“Unknown to many, coffee has become a social indicator, a narrative you can read about the drinker. Coffee has become the staple drink on which to base three things: what rung on the social ladder you’re currently on; your income level per annum (or the level of generosity your parents display); and how ‘cool’ you are, cool being a catch-all term for ‘pretentious, artsy, able to cite Proust out of thin air and inject it into a conversation.’

It’s funny how “Let’s get Coffee” evolved from being a simple way to, well, drink coffee (and maybe ask someone out without resorting to alcohol poisoning) to the full-blown social ritual it is today. Coffee meetings are a prelude to closing business deals, announcing 180-degree turn life changes (such as being pregnant, broke or gay) and preparing for thesis all-nighters in the “zen zone” with highlighters and colorcoded post-its. Whatever happened to studying in the solitary confinement of a quiet room? It’s still done. It’s just not something you can hold bragging rights over, hence its low visibility in a conversation.

People don’t go to the cafes just for the coffee – they go to get noticed. Tea is the royals’ drink of choice, but coffee is for the ambitious. It has taken lowbrow instant 3-in-1 and turned it into highbrow Venti Macchiato with 2% milk and no foam.

Here lies the catch: coffee is a weapon. Bet you didn’t see that coming, but it is. As we sit in a coffeehouse, going about our daily business without a care in the world, the Philippines is being held under cultural siege. How? It is slowly being transmogrified into a mini version of the United States market.

People will argue that there are more alarming ways to instill the foreign ideal. Television is one such method. But think about it: television is the purest form of democracy, the concentration of a collective voice. Coffeehouse chains are the reverse. Money, high fashion and Macintosh laptops are supreme overlords inside this establishment. Ask for coffee in straight Filipino (complete with a provincial inflection) and risk a sneer from the lady beside you in line. It has taken a product once used for spiritual purposes and turned it into an alienating sub-culture.

Western globalization has a handy tool in a coffeehouse chains. Take Starbucks, for example: It sells a consumable that many people enjoy and are addicted to; its relaxed, sophisticated ambiance make it a place to recuperate after a harrowing day at school or the office. However, the development of Starbucks as an international organization embodies the negative realities of globalization. By choosing an aggressive business model that allows them to permeate and saturate local markets, it accomplishes a double-whammy: kill the local competition and turn coffee-drinking into an elitist activity.

According to consumer behavior analyst John Desmond, all needs are culturally defined. Hence, the desire for products ties around the concept of how society works in a certain place. Filipinos are mindful of brands and brand names, of the status quo and of positions of authority, almost to the point of being gung-ho about it. How else do you explain the political dynasty system? Or lying about being an official’s wife/child/distant cousin when a policeman threatens to take your license?

Flaunting power is one of the best ways to survive in this country. No wonder that Starbucks has become such a hit. You declare yourself rich, successful and better than average because you have on hand a product that, if purchased two days straight, equals the daily minimum wage of the average factory worker.

Just as McDonald’s has transformed eating habits around the world by offering quick, cheap and unhealthy meals, Starbucks tends to make permanent cultural alterations as well. Like many other other corporations, behaves on a ‘think globally, act locally’ basis. So while it offers tropical smoothies in the summer that you would never find in an American Starbucks, the big idea there is co-opting symbols from subculture within larger society, hence exporting and imposing the Western lifestyle.

Starbucks has taken a global commodity, reshaped it into a luxury product and convinced consumers to buy it at hugely inflated prices. Never mind that the Italians, the Swiss and Arabs refined the coffee industry in the first place and probably brew better coffee. When you enter a Starbucks, the message is clear: you better develop a taste for American coffee, and you better like it.

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