August 30, 2017

Coffee Part 3: How Your Starbucks Cup Can Create Positive Change

Victoria Brown

Victoria Brown

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

On any given day, more than 500 customers walk bleary-eyed into an average Starbucks store. With more than 24,000 stores globally, that’s 12 million people drinking Starbucks each day. With that many people visiting their stores each day, their coffee purchases account for 2 percent of all global coffee bean purchases. Starbucks has a lot of clout when it comes to the coffee-buying industry.

Starbucks’s role as a key player in the market makes its practices all the more important. Since 2009, when the company’s poor financial performance inspired CEO Howard Shultz to revolutionize their business practices, the company has focused on improving their impacts on the community and the environment.

In many ways Starbucks has been extremely successful. Starbucks now sources 100 percent of its coffee beans and tea leaves according to ethical guidelines laid out by Fairtrade, Conservation International, or Starbucks’ Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices (C.A.F.E). Starbucks also reinvests profit from coffee sales into local communities where they offer extension services that help improve productivity and sustainability while also sharing their research for free through their farmer centers. When a bout of coffee rust wiped out 60 percent of the coffee crop in Chiapas, Mexico, Starbucks scientists developed an open-source rust-resistance coffee tree. To date, they’ve distributed 20 million seedlings for free to farmers affected by the blight.

Another way Starbucks has been successful is in their sustainability efforts. As of 2013, 39 percent of Starbucks stores offered recycling and a little under 2 percent of drinks were sold in reusable tumblers. Starbucks also offers its used coffee grounds for free for composting to anyone who wants it. In 2008 Starbucks was the subject of a scandal surrounding water use in their stores. In accordance with Starbucks health policies, every one of their 10,000 UK stores left the water running in the tap all day long, wasting 6 million gallons of water daily. After the story broke, the chain found a solution that reduced water waste by 1.5 million gallons per day. Since then, Starbucks has been dedicated to building green LEED-certified buildings and using technology to minimize water and energy use.

Despite Starbuck’s strong leadership in environmental and social issues in the corporate sector, there are still ways they can improve. Their recycling programs, which were a source of great publicity for Starbucks, were later revealed to be less than adequate in some stores. Many stores that had recycling bins for customers were found to be simply dumping recycled items in the trashcans rather than recycling them. Some Starbucks stores that offered recycling to customers did not even have a recycling dumpster, only a trash one, and all waste—recycling and otherwise—was placed in the trash dumpster.

Another issue for Starbucks stores is their high-energy use. Despite recent attempts to reduce energy usage, the introduction of more hot menu items requires more refrigeration and more heating power, increasing store power usage.

A final area for improvement is in the use of reusable mugs. Disposable cups are a major source of waste at Starbucks worldwide, and the percentage of drinks sold in reusable mugs is low. Additionally, many consumers have complained that employees were instructed to put drinks in disposable cups and have customers pour it into their reusable mugs themselves, negating the waste-saving aspect of reusable mugs. Starbucks could reduce waste by formulating a comprehensive and uniform reusable mug policy that not only ensures that mug usage actually avoids waste but also offers a more behavior-changing incentive for reusable mugs. Currently, Starbucks offers only a 10-cent discount for reusable mugs. Two potential changes are to (1) charge consumers 10-15 cents for using a disposable cup, rather than offering a reusable cup discount (because people are risk-averse, avoiding a tax is more of an incentive than gaining savings) and (2) offer a larger discount, such as a refill rate, for people who bring reusable mugs.

While it’s great that Starbucks – the largest coffee chain in the world – has taken the lead on ethical and sustainable issues, they could still do more. We need Starbucks to increase reusable mug and compostable cup use and improve recycling practices in addition to what they are already doing so they can set the industry standard and be role models both for their consumers and smaller coffee chains alike.

We as consumers can play a role in improving the environmental and ethical impacts of Starbucks. Most obviously, for those of us who frequent Starbucks, bringing a reusable mug can help reduce disposable cup waste and be lighter on the wallet. You can also write Starbucks executives asking for even more stringent fair-buying practices and lobby for recyclable or compostable cups—the current disposable cups have a plastic linings that cannot be separated from the paper that makes recycling the cups difficult. Finally, if you live in an area that does not currently have municipal recycling you can lobby your representatives to institute recycling services—Starbucks stated that the main reason recycling is not available at every store is because certain areas lack municipal recycling, making it very difficult to establish a recycling infrastructure.

The biggest driver for Starbucks’s improvement is, and will continue to be, customer demand. As consumers, we have the power to alter the behavior of large corporations towards more sustainable and ethical practices and we should use that power to ensure that companies are contributing to a better tomorrow for all of us.

Image: Max Pixel.

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