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Starbucks Drops the Spin for a Candid Q&A

| Monday June 22nd, 2009 | 7 Comments

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Update: Starbucks offers a 10-cent discount in all of their stores in the U.S. and Canada to customers who bring in their own reusable mugs for their beverages. Customers staying in a store can also request that their beverages be served in a ceramic Starbucks mug. More information about their “Mug Pledge” is available on their Shared Planet website.
Starbucks. A name synonymous with coffee and other frothy caffeinated delights. Or, if you read my Cause Marketing series, it’s a name I often liken to greenwashing, and have on more than one occasion questioned their authenticity when it comes to environmental consciousness — especially as it relates to the glaring fact that their cups are not recyclable in a majority of states in which they have stores. But I’m not alone. A quick google search with the terms “Starbucks cups not recyclable” will return a host of results and commentary around this issue as consumers struggle to understand why a company who claims a deep commitment to the environment would neglect such a critical element. And we’re left speculating if their CSR practices are only marketing deep.


As luck (or smart brand monitoring) would have it, my April Fool’s post entitled, “Starbucks Ditches All Non-Recyclables” got the attention of Starbucks themselves, who contacted me directly to reinforce their position as an evironmentally conscious company, and graciously offered to grant me an interview with Jim Hanna, their Director of Environmental Impact. At first, I was a bit skeptical, thinking that they’d dictate “pre-approved” questions that showed them in a favorable light. After all, they are the master of spin communications. But I was pleasantly surprised at their willingness to answer tough questions, and respond to allegations of greenwashing and why they haven’t implemented a full scale recycling solution to date. And I was even more surprised at the candid interactions and responses to my interview, which instill greater confidence that they are indeed working hard on a long-term solution, and explains why they haven’t yet standardized recycling across the Starbucksverse.
3p: Starbucks recently assembled a group of thought leaders to develop a comprehensive recyclable cup solution. Why did you decide to do this? Was it in response to the continued scrutiny by green consumers about your cups being only 10% recyclable?
Jim Hanna: The Starbucks cup is a widely recognized symbol of our company. The environmental impact of our disposable paper and plastic cups is an area of concern to our customers and we are committed to significantly reducing this impact by 2012. As an extension of our long-term commitment to reducing the environmental impact of our cups, we hosted a summit on May 12, 2009, at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle. The summit gathered representatives from all facets of our paper and plastic cup value chain. Discussions addressed obstacles and opportunities with the goal of prioritizing and agreeing on criteria for a comprehensive recyclable cup solution.
Our commitment to reducing the environmental impact of our cups dates back to the late 1990s, when we established a relationship with the Environmental Defense Fund. In 1997, we introduced the recycled-content cup sleeve as a way to reduce “double cupping.” After five years of supplier engagement and efforts to secure government approval, in 2006 we launched the industry’s first paper beverage cup containing post-consumer recycled fiber (PCF). Currently, we are working to ensure all of our single-use cups will be recyclable by 2012 in communities where our stores are located.
3p: Peter Senge, PhD, one of the speakers at the Cup Summit was quoted as saying,

Starbucks holistic approach has the potential to make a significant impact on not only its company operations, but on the entire foodservice industry.

Can you please share with our readers what encompasses this “holistic approach,” and how it has the potential to positively impact the industry?
Jim Hanna: We’re looking at the entire life cycle of the cup – from cradle to grave – and we’re engaging stakeholders from all facets of our paper and plastic cup value chain. Our goal for the recyclable cup is not that it will merely be made from recyclable materials, but that it will be recyclable in form and practice. We’re not intending to create a solution that will work only for Starbucks; we hope to leverage our leadership position to initiative a movement across the food and beverage packaging industry.
3p: Who else was involved in the summit?
Jim Hanna: More than 30 cup, cupstock and coating manufacturers, recyclers, waste managers, local government officials, NGOs and university researchers were invited to attend alongside Starbucks partners (employees). Participants included Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz; Starbucks Vice President of Global Responsibility Ben Packard; Joel Kendrick, Western Michigan University’s director of Paper & Coating facilities; Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention at Seattle’s Public Utilities; Annie White, Director of the Global Green’s Coalition for Resource Recovery; Jerry Bartlett, the Chief Environmental and Sustainability Officer at Cedar Grove Composting; and Martha Stevenson, a Senior Fellow of the GreenBlue Institute.
3p: Why do you think Starbucks embodiment of environmental consciousness isn’t outwardly evident to much of the market?
Jim Hanna: We take a conservative approach to communicating about our environmental initiatives. For example, we won’t call our cups recyclable or compostable until a comprehensive system is in place to process them at end of life. Since 1971, when we opened our very first store in Seattle, to today with nearly 17,000 stores around the world, we’ve always been committed to doing business responsibly and conducting ourselves in ways that earn the trust and respect of our customers, partners (employees) and neighbors.
We’ve made great strides but we recognize we have a lot left to accomplish. Starbucks™ Shared Planet™ is our commitment to doing business responsibly. Our key areas of focus are: ethical sourcing, environmental stewardship and community involvement. In each area, we have set longer range goals to help us stay on track, measure results and share our progress.
3p: How do you respond to accusations that the reason you haven’t switched to recyclable cups is due to the expense of implementing it across all of your stores? What is the reason you haven’t addressed a solution before now?
Jim Hanna: We want to make thoughtful choices about our disposable cups and other packaging. This means not simply buying an “off the shelf” solution, but assessing the true environmental impacts our packaging has throughout its lifecycle and developing innovative solutions.
In fiscal 2008, we purchased 2.7 billion paper cups. The move to a recyclable cup will be groundbreaking – but the scale and complexity of the effort is a significant challenge. We must be sure that the cups can be ethically sourced and responsibly manufactured. We’re also working to make sure we consider how the cups are disposed after they are used. And we must ensure that commercial recycling is available in our store communities.
The material composition of our cups represents only one piece of the system that will allow us to define them as recyclable or compostable. The lack of recycling infrastructure where we operate our stores is our greatest hurdle. Our cups are already recyclable in many cities around the country, including San Francisco and Seattle, simply because those cities have chosen to create the infrastructure to recycle them. The point of synergy between designing a cup to be more compatible with local recycling or composting systems and working with local policymakers to enhance their recycling infrastructure is where we will really succeed.
3p: Why are recycle bins not available in all of your stores?
Jim Hanna: We’d like the solution to be as simple as placing recycling bins in all of our stores, but it’s much more complicated. Our recycling practices are largely dependent on the availability of commercial recycling services where our stores are located. Other factors are the lack of landlord permission and service termination by the recycler due to continual contamination (most likely done by unauthorized users). Last year, 70 percent of our stores were recycling at least one type of waste where commercial recycling was available. This is often happening where the majority of our waste is generated – behind the counter (and out of customers’ sight) with cardboard, milk jugs, coffee grounds, etc.
3p: What was the outcome of the summit? And what are the next steps toward implementing eco-friendly cups and greater sustainable measures at your locations?
Jim Hanna: We are working to develop a recyclable paper cup system that minimizes the cup’s environmental impact over its entire lifespan – the materials used to make it, the way it’s manufactured, the establishment of common standards of recyclability and the way it’s disposed of after use. The cup summit helped us engage key stakeholders (manufacturers, non-governmental organizations and government officials) to spark a dialogue about potential solutions. We are now in the process of defining work streams and building an official advisory board.
Our goal is that by 2015, 100 percent of our cups will be reusable or recyclable. To help achieve this goal, we have made the following commitments:

  • Develop and launch a recyclable cup system by 2012
  • Have recycling available for our customers in our stores
  • Re-establish ceramic mugs as our global standard for our customers who enjoy their beverages in our stores
  • Convert all of our plastic cups to polypropylene in our stores in North America and Latin America, and Foodservice accounts by 2009

3p: How do you plan to communicate these efforts to your customers and the public at large?
Jim Hanna: In addition to our interactions with media, influencers and bloggers throughout the year, we publish an annual Global Responsibility (GR) Report. The fiscal 2008 report takes a new approach by integrating engaging, customer-friendly content into the Starbucks™ Shared Planet™ website. Visitors to the site can find and interact with sections of the report that are important to them and share parts of the report with friends via social networks like Digg or Facebook.
3p: It’s no secret that I occasionally make greenwashing gibes at Starbucks, but I’d like to better understand the positive impact you’ve had on the environment through your sustainable business practices. Can you share at least three quantifiable effects of your efforts to demonstrate tangible change vs. vague yet well designed marketing materials?
Jim Hanna: We spent several years working with our suppliers to pioneer the industry’s first hot beverage cup with 10 percent post-consumer fiber (PCF). Since adding the new PCF cups to stores in the United States and Canada in 2006, we’ve saved more than 44,000 tons of virgin wood fiber, the equivalent of more than 300,000 trees.
During fiscal 2008, we continued to purchase renewable energy in the amount that represents 20 percent of the total electricity used in our company-operated stores in the United States and Canada. We worked with 3Degrees to buy wind renewable energy certificates for more than 211 million kilowatt hours, equivalent to the electricity used by more than 18,000 U.S. homes.
Recycling is available in 70 percent of our company-owned stores where we control waste collection. In addition, customers in the United States and Canada increased their use of commuter mugs for their beverages to nearly 22 million times, representing 1.3 percent of the transactions in these stores.
3p: A corporate entity as large and profitable as Starbucks does have the ability to make a significant difference, so I hope to see big things from you in the future, leading the way toward a healthier planet and more socially conscious society. What are your long-term goals around this, and what steps are you putting in place to make it happen?
Jim Hanna: We have a set of specific and measurable Shared Planet goals that we hope to meet by 2015. You can find a complete list of goals here, but some of those goals include:

  • Reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by making our company-owned stores 25 percent more energy efficient by 2010
  • Derive 50 percent of the energy used in our company-owned stores from renewable sources by 2010
  • Develop a recyclable cup by 2012 and have 100 percent of our cups be reusable and recyclable by 2015
  • By 2015, we want to purchase 100 percent of coffee through ethical sourcing practices
  • By 2015, have Starbucks partners and customers working together to contribute 1 million hours of community service per year

One Venti to rule them all…

It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking to develop a recycling solution to rule them all, but if anyone can do it, the Starbucks empire seems well equipped for the task. And if they pull it off, it could have significant positve impact on the environment, save thousands of trees, and eradicate tons upon tons of landfill waste. So, there’s no way I can’t get on board with their efforts, and this interview has given me greater reason to believe that logistical roadblocks have played a large role in delaying enterprise-wide recycling rather than capitalistic greed.
Do I believe that Starbucks is taking genuine steps toward addressing this issue? Yes. Do I think their implementation timetable is reasonable given all of the factors involved? Sure. Do I think they could be doing more in the interim? Absolutely. While it may take until 2015 for a complete, turnkey solution to be developed and fully implemented, they could enact an incentive program that encourages – and rewards – customers for bringing their own reusable cups or create recycling teams in cities where commercial recycling isn’t yet available. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that Starbucks has successfully shifted my stance by effectively demonstrating that their eco-commitment is more than just glitzy marketing and creatively executed websites. They’re definitely working hard, and as with anything, there’s always room for improvement, but I will be more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt while they tackle an important issue that has the potential to benefit all of us. But I’ll be drinking out of a mug while I wait.
Photo credit: © GreenvilleDailyPhoto.com


▼▼▼      7 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://theferrisfiles.com David Ferris

    If Starbucks takes until 2015 to roll out a kinder cup, another company will beat them to it. Customers don’t want to wait until Obama’s second term to enjoy a guilt-free cappuccino.

  • Dave Shires

    Excellent interview. I’m glad to see they’re open to actual conversation. Does Starbucks give discounts if you bring your own mug?

  • http://www.padosa.com Padosa

    It’s hard to imagine Starbucks losing many customers over the recyclability of their cups. People complain about Starbucks’ lackluster environmental policies, but around the country the line for coffee is out the door every morning. Environmental consciousness starts with the consumer: until coffee-drinkers make a concentrated effort to reduce waste, there’s little incentive for a corporation like Starbucks to take the initiative.

  • Gennefer Snowfield

    Thanks for your comments, and helping to keep this discussion going. Perhaps Starbucks would be interested in addressing all of your points further in a follow up post. I will reach out to them to that end.

    @David Ferris – I agree that 2015 is very far off, and admit that I had the same reaction when Jim Hanna shared that information. One would think that a viable solution could be developed in much less than 5 years, but Starbucks is thinking about the big picture, and how to standardize these practices across manufacturers, retailers and recycling providers. And given that there’s a Starbucks on just about every street corner in every major metropolitan city, calling that a huge undertaking is an understatement. That said, I do think they could roll out a phased approach to at least get these new cups implemented in some of their stores as an act of good faith, in addition to developing programs that better involve the consumer as a partner in solving the problem by incentivizing reusable mug use et al.

    @Dave Shires – It is my understanding that incentives for bringing in reusable mugs varies from store to store, and that there are no standard operating procedures on that enterprise-wide. I believe that some Starbucks offer a ten cent discount if you bring your own cup, but there definitely needs to be an operational infrastructure in place to make this a more palatable option for consumers.

    @Padosa – You are exactly right in that consumer education should be a big component of Starbucks’ efforts around this issue. While it is probably accurate to say that eco-conscious consumers do not comprise the archetype of the average Starbucks customer, they have a tremendous opportunity to ‘convert’ the masses in adopting a more environmentally responsible lifestyle. In fact, given that their brand is so pervasive in the mainstream, it affords them the unique ability to affect significant change on eco-minded topics such as this. Perhaps that’s another interim step that they can take while they strategize the cup issue to help catalyze awareness and drive consciousness at the individual level. And in recessionary times, who wouldn’t love a discount for bringing in their own mug? It’s a win-win for Starbucks and the planet.

    Please keep the conversation going, and thanks again for your inights around this important issue.

  • Dave Shires

    Thanks for the reply. I’m surprised Starbucks doesn’t standardize – and advertise – the notion of a discount for bringing your own mug. They could really create quite a culture around that – think of the advertisements of people comparing the various different types of mugs they bring in to Starbucks as they wait in line!
    I’ll bet they worry about losing the generic branded cup that – even though you see it mostly as litter – still stands out as advertising for them.

  • http://justthisguysopinion.blogspot.com/ Ray Hartjen

    Consumers also hold an accountability in “green” conversations. It’s so easy to point fingers in one direction, not noticing three fingers on your hand point back at you (go ahead, try it – see?). Starbucks discounts your coffee if you bring your own reusable cup. Recycle is not the only answer. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Thanks for keeping the issue at the forefront of minds.

  • Nick Aster

    Thanks for the update on the mug deal! That’s really great news. I agree with Dave, however, that they could do a lot more to tout this – it really could be a huge community building thing for them. I too can picture an advertisement with all sorts of people standing in line at a Starbucks, each with some crazy mug that “reflects their individuality” or something like that…

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