Starbucks' green scorecard: A few full cups, two half empty

Half empty

Re-useable cups. One of the biggest steps Starbucks could take to lower the impact of its operations would be to get its customers to switch to reusable tumblers. Even though its cups are made of 10 percent recycled pulp, the billions of hot beverages it serves annually translate into virgin trees being cut, pulped, cooked and formed into paper -- a very energy intensive process.

Yet breaking customer’s cup-to-go habit remains one of the most stubborn tasks on Starbuck’s eco-punch list. GreenBiz first highlighted the slow progress in 2010.

The chain served just 1.9 percent of total beverage sales in reusable containers last year. That figure has barely budged since 2009, when it debuted at 1.5 percent. That same year, the chain set out a goal of serving 25 percent of beverages in “reusable serverware or tumblers” by 2015.

With this report, Starbucks has revised that target: To serve 5 percent of beverages in “personal tumblers” by 2015.

Packard explained that the goal has proven elusive for a number of reasons. Given that about a fifth of sales are consumed on the premises, “We thought we could effectively boost the use of in-store ceramics,” he said, to make up the bulk of that 25 percent goal. Yet that’s proven challenging: Shrinkage from breakage and theft of the mugs is another barrier.

Spurring the use of tumblers isn’t much easier. Starbucks trialed some behavioral incentives to boost tumbler use in Seattle test sites, but found the response lower than it hoped for. Starbucks currently offers customers a dime discount if they bring their own mug.

For 2012, Packard said, the chain is rebooting efforts to encourage the use of ceramic-ware in store. The latest store designs position reusable mugs in plain sight behind baristas, cuing customers to opt for ceramic and accelerating order processing.

Increasing the value of the 10-cent cup discount isn’t something Starbucks is likely to tinker with. “I don’t think it’s the amount, necessarily” said Packard, “Charging 5 cents for plastic bags wasn’t what triggered the big switch there. It was part of a larger behavioral shift."

Fair point. But I’m not sure Starbucks should let go of that lever. In the case of plastic bag fees, the value of that nickel charge was probably less important than the repetition of the message that the bag comes at a cost.

Makes me wonder: Perhaps a similar tact could drive greater change at Starbucks? Rather than only reward the virtuous behavior of bringing in a tumbler, why not also identify more clearly the cost of each paper cup in an order.

Without changing prices, the chain could, for instance, simply break out a nickel “cup cost” charge on every receipt. It’d be critical to communicate to consumers that this isn’t an extra fee, but an existing cost they can avoid -- and then some -- by bringing in a tumbler. It’s worth a shot, or two.


I’ve focused mostly on resource use and recycling here. Starbucks has also reported progress in its coffee farming and processing program, labor and community issues. Here’s the company’s summary of its work:

Youth Action Grants: Starbucks exceeded its 2015 community goal to engage 50,000 young people in community activities by engaging more than 50,000 in 2011.

Coffee Purchasing: Increased purchases of coffee sourced under C.A.F.E. Practices from 84 percent to 86 percent in 2011.

Farmer Support: Starbucks provided $14.7 million to organizations that make loans to coffee farmers, working toward a goal of $20 million by 2015.

Forest Carbon Programs: Continued work in coffee-growing communities in Chiapas, Mexico, and Sumatra, Indonesia, through Starbucks partnership with Conservation International, demonstrating how coffee farmers can adapt to and address climate change while increasing their income.

Community Service: Starbucks put a special focus on community service for its 40th anniversary celebration. In 2011, Starbucks more than doubled the number of hours from the year before with 442,000 hours contributed. Starbucks is working toward its goal of generating one million hours annually by 2015.

Photo of a latte via Infographics courtesy of Starbucks.