Blog: Should We Give Our Bucks to Starbucks?

Mon, Jun 22, 2009


It’s hard to imagine a world without Starbucks. The coffee giant serves almost six million customers a day or 2,190,000,000 beverages a year. That’s enough to give every American seven grande cappucinos (though I’m sure there are quite a few people who drink about that amount daily). There’s no denying the power and influence Starbucks has over not only the United States, but the whole world.

But as a certain webslinger always says, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

To its credit, Starbucks seems to genuinely care about the environment. The company’s Shared Planet program is designed to make its stores more sustainable, promote ethical coffee trading and farming, and give back to the community. And though some may find it surprising, Shared Planet is actually making a difference. Check out their 2008 global responsibility report, which provides detailed and honest information about Starbucks’ environmental performance last year.

Of course, with its attractive earthy tones and acoustic-guitar-scored promotional videos, Shared Planet also functions as a big, glossy pile of PR, but can you blame Starbucks for trying to appeal to such an easily-targeted demographic? Actually, you can. Starbucks has a somewhat sordid history of greenwashing, and while Shared Planet is a praiseworthy new step, let’s not forget the propaganda that Starbucks has pushed and continues to push on its customers. In particular, I’m referring to a piece of misinformation the company has yet to publicly clarify, namely that no matter what it says on the packaging, Starbucks’ cups are not recyclable.

This may seem like nitpicking, but think about all the coffee cups thrown out daily (hint: remember the six million customers). The fact that such a basic part of such a giant business isn’t environmentally functional is, frankly, terrifying. Starbucks has recently hosted a summit addressing the issue, and in an interview with TriplePundit, Jim Hanna,the corporation’s Director of Environmental Impact,promised recyclable cups by 2015.

But really- 2015? What about the billions of cups filling the world’s trash heaps in the next six years? Why does it need to take that long to phase out paper cups? Surely Starbucks can do better.

And surely, so can we. Here’s the part where I would tell you that instead of waiting for Starbucks to clean up its act, we need to take the cup issue into our own hands, literally. I would suggest bringing ceramic, plastic, metal, or glass mugs and bottles to your local Starbucks and showing them that you care about the Earth more than two seconds of convenience. Unfortunately, I can’t say that would work: many Starbucks locations do not accept reusable cups.

So what’s an Earth-conscious caffeine addict to do? Well, you could get your fix from Peet’s, which has offered only biodegradable cups since 2007. You could try making coffee at home, which is cheaper, easier, faster, and less stressful than going out to get it. Or maybe you could always stop drinking coffee all together!

Yeah, right.

Matt Lurie takes his black and guilt-free. He can be reached here.

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Soren B. Says:

    The Starbucks I work at on Newbury Street in Boston accepts reusable cups and deducts $.10 from the price for people who bring one in. Also, we offer coffee refills at $.53 to people who bring in a cup they already received from Starbucks. For reusable mugs, we have at the till stickers to place on them indicating what kind of drink goes inside so the barista won’t have to remember and risk erring.

    Also, once a customer told me she used to work at a Starbucks that recycled. Mine does not, and frankly it is obscene the amount of material we simply throw away that is recyclable. I’m not sure if as yet no effort has been made to establish recycling at this particular store, or if the waste pickup servicer (JRM Hauling) does not provide it. I intend to discuss it with my manager.

    If you examine Starbucks cups now, I believe they say they are 40% post-consumer material, and the iced cups now have 15% less plastic in them than before. However, being unable to introduce recyclable cups until 2015 seems downright indolent to me.

    When I was hired, I was surprised by how much Starbucks actually does as part of the Shared Planet program, much more than I had known or assumed up to that point. Many of the coffees sold in Starbucks are traded at higher than fair trade values while not being certified fair trade. One, the Mexican Serena blend I believe, is certified organic, while many of the others coffees and blends are partially or totally organic, despite being uncertified, as organic certification is costly for small-scale farmers.

    In contrast to this, the Equal Exchange brand based out of Massachusetts sells ALL only organic and fair trade products: coffee beans, chocolate, tea, and recently nuts. Granted, Equal Exchange is much smaller than Starbucks, and has only one actual coffee shop near North Station in Boston, but they manage to pull off 100% organic and fair trade products. This leads one to wonder about the practices of a giant such as Starbucks: is Howard Schultz dragging his feet, or are the source farms too impoverished at present to achieve third-party organic and/or fair trade regulation?

    Tangentially, it is worth noting that as of today, June 30, 2009, no Starbucks food or drinks will contain artificial flavors or colors, trans fats, or preservatives. One slice of the banana loaf is still around 350 calories, but it’s not a step in the wrong direction.

  2. MattLurie Says:

    Soren, you’re absolutely right about the difficulties small-scale farm face in obtaining thrid-party organic/fair trade certification. We can push environmental education all we want on coffee traders and farmers, but often what people really need to make a change is more money. In many ways, it’s analogous to the struggle of building owners to get their property LEED-certified: most believe it’s the right thing to do but simply can’t waste the money, time, and effort that it takes.

    I appreciate your note about the Starbucks at which you work in Boston. It’s easy to forget that large chains aren’t just one hive-mind-like entity, but a series of stores each with different policies and managerial styles. Similarly, some of the decisions (to not have a recycling program, for example) we attribute to a company’s higher-ups often fall upon lesser administrators and ancillary services like JRM Hauling, which you mentioned. It’s at once disheartening and empowering to think about the complex web (no pun intended) of power and responsibility because while no one can fix it alone, we can all help out a little bit.

    If you want to connect with other people that care, please consider registering with Padosa. Another useful place to go for any Starbucks-related news is http://starbucksgossip.typepad.com/. I can imagine that might be interesting to you as a barista.

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