The CEO of Starbucks has defended the company’s decision to back equal marriage, in the face of criticism at the company’s annual shareholders meeting in Seattle.

At the meeting yesterday a shareholder questioned the profitability of Starbucks’ marriage equality stance by bringing up a boycott being levied against the coffee company by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a group adamantly opposed to equal marriage rights.

The shareholder referred to NOM’s boycott, and said: “In the first full quarter after this boycott was announced, our sales and our earnings—shall we say politely—were a bit disappointing.”

CEO Howard Schultz replied that “not every decision is an economic decision,” and went on to suggest that if shareholders thought their return was not strong enough in the face of opposition for supporting such issues, they could sell their shares.

Mr Schultz said: “If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company.”

In January 2012, the coffee giant backed draft legislation in Washington which eventually led to equal marriage becoming legal in the state. 

A statement from the Seattle-based hot drink titan says it was “proud” to join other Washington-based employers like Microsoft and Nike as support for equal marriage brews in the state.

Nordstrom, established in 1901 as a shoe shop, in October joined Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon and Nike, as well as other Washington-based employers, which publicly voiced their support for equal marriage.

Then in the early hours of 7 November the US west coast state of Washington followed Maine and Maryland in passing a referendum in support of marriage rights for gay couples, and Minnesota voted against outlawing equal marriage.