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Starbucks’ “Race Together” CSR initiative: “To boldly go …”

Successful companies are innovative. So why, when Starbucks is CSR innovative with its attempt to stimulate race-relations dialogue, must it endure social media mockery?

The concept was admirable, the execution — so far — not so much

Starbucks and its CEO Howard Schultz have an enviable track record of marrying corporate interests with advocacy for progress on social issues. So this week, while announcing a stock split “reflecting seven years of increasing shareholder value”, the company also introduced its latest corporate social responsibility initiative, “Race Together”, an effort to stimulate progress on race relations among its millions of U.S. customers.

Mr. Schultz anticipated the possible skepticism: “There will be cynics and some media who criticize Starbucks … This is to do one thing: use our national footprint and scale for good … I’m not going to stand here and tell you that Starbucks itself will solve the centuries-old problem of racism in America. We will try to demonstrate a level of respect, leadership and concern” that can make a difference.

The new program began with Starbucks baristas having the option to write “Race Together” on customer cups — and promptly generated a social-media “firestorm” of commentary. But many have overlooked the more substantial part the program now getting underway: publishing “conversation guides” for customers with questions such as “How have your racial views evolved from those of your parents?”

Starbucks’ “Race Together” raises central questions for corporate social responsibility/sustainability programs:

How to apply corporate innovation to social issues, given the trial-and-error nature of research.

How to establish the limits of corporate expression on social issues.

Many will be watching “Race Together” outcomes for guidance.