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Starbucks makes circular push with expansion of Greener Stores

The coffee giant is building out its Greener Stores model, starting in Shanghai, and seeking to give other retailers a lift in adopting circular practices.

A rendering of the first Starbucks Greener Store opening September 30 in Shanghai.

A rendering of the first Starbucks Greener Store opening September 30 in Shanghai.

Starbucks is widening its embrace of circular practices and healthful interiors by expanding its Greener Stores internationally and open sourcing the framework’s underlying tools for other retailers to replicate.

This month Starbucks is opening its first international Greener Store, in Shanghai, designed to showcase sustainability in the way that Starbucks Roasteries provide an "immersive coffee experience." That will be followed in December by the debut of the ASU-Starbucks Center for the Future of People and the Planet at Arizona State University, an education and demonstration center that opens Greener Stores tools to the market. 

The Greener Stores construction, design and operation plan for Starbucks centers around circular principles, waste diversion and the healthfulness of interior spaces. Greener Stores run on renewable energy, user high efficiency fixtures and reduce energy and water use by 25 to 30 percent, according to Starbucks.

Out of its total 9,860 stores in the U.S. and Canada, Starbucks counts 2,317 Greener Stores. It operates more than 33,000 cafes worldwide.

"Greener Stores is not meant to be a competitive tool," said Andy Adams, senior vice president of store development for Starbucks, in an interview. "In the same way that us working with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) helped us understand how to build in a sustainable way over the last 16 years, our approach to Greener Stores is meant to be even better suited to driving sustainable issues into the practice of operating retail."

The Wednesday announcement marks the company's latest effort toward meeting its "Planet Positive" goals to cut waste, water and carbon in half by 2030.

From LEED to Greener Stores

The seeds of Greener Stores were cultivated around 2001, and in 2005 Starbucks opened its first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) store in Hillsboro, Oregon. Back when LEED wasn't really meant for retailers, Starbucks partnered with the USGBC to help create the LEED for Retail program and pilot LEED Volume Certification. The company hummed along meeting LEED certifications, which now apply to stores in every U.S. state and more than 1,600 locations worldwide.

Yet Starbucks aimed to up the ante in terms of greening its physical spaces and operations. In 2018, CEO Kevin Johnson committed the company to operate 10,000 Greener Stores by 2025, in partnership with World Wildlife Fund. SCS Global Services, which also audits Starbucks Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) practices, provides third-party verification.

Unlike LEED, a one-time certification with a date stamp, Greener Stores certification requires annual checks to ensure that operating standards meet its requirements, which can update with technologies and the times.

Starbucks' rendering of the exterior of its new Greener Store in Shanghai.

Adams is bullish that Starbucks can reach 7,700 more Greener Stores in the next four years. "Not only are we moving faster with the 2,300 stores, we now have a sustainable program that doesn't assume we're doing everything right today just because we did 10 years ago," he said.

After the Greener Stores proof of concept opens in Shanghai, Japan, the U.K. and Chile are the next targets abroad.

Coffee lab in Shanghai

The Starbucks "experiential" Greener Store in Shanghai is meant to be a laboratory of sorts, the first of its kind abroad and in the city of 28.8 million, with sister sites to follow in Seattle and Southern California.

Half of the store's interior materials will be recycled or upcycled. "It's truly modular casework, where you can remove a component and put in a new component without worrying about demolition and redirecting a waste stream, so that you can reuse the basic elements of the frame, and insert a new piece of technology," Adams said, adding how that means less construction downtime for Starbucks, too.

A "Circular Lifestyle Lab" will feature unique art displays by emerging artists who integrate upcycled materials, such as coffee grinds and cardboard, as well as lectures and other events. Wooden planks will be reclaimed from a former flagship LEED-certified store Adams worked on years ago in Beijing, the 1,000th Starbucks to open in China (which now has 5,135 Starbucks). 

Shanghai store workers will wear green aprons recycled from Starbucks PET cups. An above-bar digital element will tell the story of local coffee farms "so there's a local story connection," Adams said. "And it's really about reuse, recycling and waste diversion, so the store is going to talk a lot about circularity."

It’s been a longtime practice for Starbucks to use durable, reusable furniture and other components. Old cafe chairs or baby seats are used to make new seating or are donated. The circular framework of Greener Stores goes further, being based on a granular understanding of the molecules and carbon footprints of the materials in use, Adams explained.

"Is it put together in a way that allows you to truly create a circular rhythm to that material, where there is no waste?" he said. "It's not the end of life, it's end of use, and our job is to find the next use ... We have to understand the inputs, almost at a scientific level, and then understand where they're going to end up and how we can continue their use."

Starbucks' Greener Stores Framework infographic

Half of the Shanghai menu will offer plant-based items, with oatmilk offered for most drinks, and customers get a discount for bringing their own cup.

Sixty more Greener Stores are set for China for the fall of 2022, by which time all new and retrofitted stores there are set to be Greener Stores certified. 

Testing in Tempe

In addition to opening more real-world Greener Stores, a sandbox of sorts is on track to open in December at the ASU-Starbucks Center for the Future of People and the Planet in Tempe. It will feature and incubate sustainable strategies that may later appear in Starbucks stores and that can "inspire others to design, build and operate portfolios of buildings that minimize environmental impacts throughout their life cycle."

Part of that involves running test cafes and spotlighting Greener Stores practices and tools via Starbucks Global Academy. Food and wellness and community betterment are other themes there.

"By making this program open source and expanding it globally, Starbucks is creating a path toward a resource positive future within their own four walls and beyond," said Sheila Bonini, senior vice president of private sector engagement at the WWF, a partner in Greener Stores development with Starbucks, in a statement.

If a Greener Store opens in a forest

How will you know if you're inside a Greener Store? It probably won't be labeled. Certain clues may give it away, such as solar panels or obvious compost bins. As much as Starbucks leadership may wish to engage its clientele in authentic conversations that explore the circular credentials of its operations, they seem to realize that most people probably care more about their coffee flavor than the store’s water-optimizing blender pitcher rinsers or the re-repurposed timber.

"The one thing I've learned is as much as you want to make an impression on the customer for your own reasons, your own priorities, whether you're a designer or you’re in construction, or you're the barista, they're going to take away from it what they came for," Adams said. "And they might get a little bit more if you're lucky."

Ultimately customer impressions may matter less than how sharing corporate best practices with other companies behind the scenes can scale practices to eliminate waste and advance a circular economy. 

"When you do things in a thoughtful way, it tends to be true that if you're using less energy with less components to do something — it's both good economics, it's smart and it's sound logistics because it's got resiliency built in, and it's good for the planet," Adams said. "Where that isn't true, we have to change our practices or invent."

Ninety percent of Starbucks Greener Store locations already use various basic circular methods, including recycling and composting. Food bank donations via Starbucks FoodShare are in their fifth year, and Starbucks' Grounds for Your Garden has handed out spent coffee grounds to green thumbs for a quarter-century.

Other circular efforts by Starbucks include a $5 million investment in the Closed Loop Infrastructure Fund and sponsorship of the open-source NextGen Cup Challenge in 2019 to encourage recyclable and compostable cup designs. Just before COVID-19 descended globally, Starbucks was seeking to dramatically reduce the use of disposable cups.

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