Starbucks (SBUX) announced on Friday it would allow employees to wear apparel in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, bowing to an intense social media campaign even as the company moves to crank out over 250,000 specialty shirts of its own.
This week, Starbucks was hit with online backlash and renewed calls for a boycott, following reports that it has banned employees from wearing pins and t-shirts at work in support of Black Lives Matter protests.
However, the reason for the policy is pretty technical, despite accusations to the contrary. To address the issue, Starbucks is planning to crank out hundreds of thousands of apparel items in support of a movement demanding change — but will also let its employees wear their own gear immediately.
“As we talked about earlier this week, we’re designing new t-shirts with the graphic below to demonstrate our allyship and show we stand together in unity,” Starbucks executives wrote in a letter to employees entitled “Standing together against racial injustice.”
The note added: “Until these arrive, we’ve heard you want to show your support, so just be you. Wear your BLM pin or t-shirt. We are so proud of your passionate support of our common humanity. We trust you to do what’s right while never forgetting Starbucks is a welcoming third place where all are treated with dignity and respect.”
The company’s ban on personal apparel wasn’t specifically crafted for Black Lives Matter, nor did it recently take effect. Instead, a long-standing dress-code among Starbucks employees — known internally as “partners” — states that clothing accessories need to be company-issued, and can’t “advocate a political, religious or personal issue.”
According to a weekly update sent to baristas obtained by BuzzFeed News, store managers recently asked Starbucks leadership about employee requests to wear pins or t-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter. The memo pointed to Starbucks’ dress code, which states:
“Partners may only wear buttons or pins issued to the partner by Starbucks for special recognition or for advertising a Starbucks-sponsored event or promotion; and one reasonably sized and placed button or pin that identifies a particular labor organization or partner’s support for that organization, except if it interferes with safety or threatens to harm customer relations or otherwise unreasonably interferes with Starbucks public image. Pins must be securely fastened. Partners are not permitted to wear buttons or pins that advocate a political, religious or personal issue.”
According to the bulletin, Starbucks’ head of diversity and inclusion accused “agitators who misconstrue the fundamental principles of the Black Lives Matter movement — and in certain circumstances, intentionally repurpose them to amplify divisiveness.”
A spokesperson told Yahoo Finance in an email that “Black lives matter, and Starbucks is committed to doing our part in ending system racism. We respect all of our partners’ opinions and beliefs, and encourage them to bring their whole selves to work while adhering to our dress code policy with a commitment to create a safe and welcoming Third Place environment for all.”
250,000 t-shirts underway
According to BuzzFeed, some Starbucks partners expressed disappointment that Black Lives Matter attire isn’t permitted at work under the dress code. Those quoted in the article specifically pointed out that many employees wear buttons for LGBTQ rights, which were issued by Starbucks.
Yet Starbucks collaborates with its diverse partner networks — which include a range of groups that cut across racial, ethnic and gender lines — to create company-approved merchandise like t-shirts, buttons, and pins. For example, on Fridays, partners were permitted to wear their R.E.D. (remember everyone deployed) t-shirts in recognition of military service members.
Last year, ahead of the 50th anniversary for the Stonewall Riots, Starbucks worked with its LGBTQ partner network, the Pride Alliance, to create a special t-shirt for its U.S. partners that could be worn at work.
“Collaborating with the Partner Network on this limited-edition t-shirt gave us an opportunity to amplify our LGBTQ partners’ voices, bring LGBTQ partners and allies together, and show up in a way that is unique to Starbucks,” according to an internal Starbucks memo sent this week seen by Yahoo Finance.
In that memo, Starbucks said it’s working with its Black Partner Network to produce a t-shirt for all of its baristas that will speak out against systemic racism, and emphasize the company’s “role and responsibility to not be bystanders.”
The process could wrap up within days, Starbucks said, which would produce over 250,000 shirts promoting an anti-racism message.
Starbucks said it has “a similar opportunity,” as it did with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, to “lend our collective voice in support of our Black partners, customers and communities in this historic moment in time.” The company added that it was “in it for the long haul and this will be our way of showing our support for the movement.”
In the note, Starbucks also encouraged partners to sign up for its systemic racism and bias course. The company is also holding conversations around police reform, the meaning of Juneteenth, and is promoting Bryan Stevenson’s film, “Just Mercy,” that’s screening across multiple platforms.
Starbucks also said, “participating in local rallies, supporting the Black Partner network, participating in the many forms of civic engagement, and volunteering with local organizations are all ways we can affect real and meaningful change.”
Julia La Roche is a Correspondent at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.