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Shareholder Activists Hit Starbucks on Recycling

Dale Wannen
Dale Wannen | Thursday March 25th, 2010 | 11 Comments

As I stood and watched the line of 12 in front of me at Starbucks the other day, I daydreamed about the load of cups Starbucks must go through every day.  A little googling turned up the fact that  it’s actually 3 billion paper cups and 1 billion plastic cups a year.  To put that in tangible terms, that’s 8,219,178 paper cups and 2,739,726 plastic cups a day.  Wait, 10 million cups a day?

While I wait for those of you who spewed hot lattes onto your laptops to clean up after yourselves, please be assured certain groups are doing something about this.  Starbucks annual shareholder meeting just ended Wednesday in Seattle.  This meeting was entertainment-infused:  Sheryl Crow sang some of her hits and informed the crowd that she “drinks Starbucks coffee every morning” (something tells me we will be hearing more Sheryl at our local Starbucks). But that’s not all. There was shareholder activism to witness.  As You Sow Foundation , a shareholder advocacy organization  put forth a proposal using shareholder advocate John Harrington’s shares, asking the board of directors to adopt a comprehensive recycling strategy for beverage containers.  (Full disclosure: Harrington is my boss.) Although those baristas can stir up a mean mocha,  Starbucks as a whole has a poor record when addressing recycling issues.

Starbucks makes the argument that it has no control over recycling.  Its excuse: local governments control the waste stream system.  As a paperboy in my younger years, I would be late on deliveries sometimes.  Making excuses for this behavior didn’t work, and my clients would show this in the 50 cent tips I received.  In the same terms, Starbucks shouldn’t be making excuses. It should be positioning itself as a leader for change.  Eleven percent of shareholders voted in favor of As You Sow’s proposal, which equates to over 42 million out of the 740 million shares outstanding shares saying “yes.”

Other issues that As You Sow Foundation confronted were the lack of recycled content in the ETHOS water bottles.  If you have noticed, this water is marketed as a way to help children get clean water and Starbucks has contributed more than $6 million to water-stressed countries through sales of it.  That’s all well and good, but distributing millions of plastic bottles with no recycled content isn’t going to help these children in the long run.  By putting at least 10% of recycled plastic into the bottles, Starbucks would simply match its competitors Coca-Cola and Pepsi in their strict recycling mandates. So next time you order that Iced White Chocolate Mocha or grab that bottle of water while Sheryl Crow blares from the speakers, ask the barista if you can use a ceramic cup, instead.

Dale Wannen is a portfolio manager with Harrington Investments a Napa, CA, firm specializing in Socially Responsible Investing. He previously worked as a financial advisor for UBS in San Francisco. Also, Wannen is currently an MBA student in sustainable management at San Francisco’s Presidio Graduate School and, as an avid bird enthusiast, sits as the treasurer and board member for the non- profit San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory.


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  • Florence M. Boughner

    Love their coffee, but they need to see Panera Bread for instructions on how to make great pastry.

  • Florence M. Boughner

    Love their coffees, but they cold take a few lessons from Panera on how to make terrific pastries.

  • nickaster

    Great post. I think this represents a huge opportunity for Starbucks. Generally speaking, I think Starbucks gets much more criticism than they deserve, but they're a big target and that's how it goes.

    What I think they should do is make a much more obvious and concerted effort to get people to bring their own containers. Really make it sexy, advertise it with celebs, and so on. Sell some fancy Starbucks mugs and give everyone 25 cents off, or 10 cents off a coffee. I suspect it counld actually save Starbucks money if done right – no cups to make, ship and store.

  • http://blog.babyganics.com/ robert_jenkins

    That's a LOT of cups! Imagine what kinda dump the Starbucks cup dump will look like in just a year. If people don't start recycling, we'll be running out of space… for cups to dump in!

    • zach

      then imagine that these cups are only the tip of the waste iceberg…

  • http://www.thepoint.com/campaigns/starbucks-eco-cup-switch-in-2009 Cat Lincoln/@DearBadKitty

    I'm SO GLAD to hear about this action! I've been trying to stimulate a grassroots movement to get Starbucks to move faster on their recycling and compostable cup program for more than a year, writing about it on GreenDaily.com, tweeting, and finally starting a a group on The Point called “Starbucks Eco-Cup Switch!”

    Our goal is to gather concerned coffee/tea drinkers, who agree that when we have critical mass of 1,000 we will all contact S'bux on the same day, telling them that we want a better cup choice ASAP.

    We have 375 people in the movement so far. I know there are many more people out there who are horrified by the billions of non-recyclable cups used each year.

    Let's hope Starbucks hears us and uses their size and commercial purchasing power to make a bold move to sustainable cup practices!

  • http://www.rcbc.bc.ca/ Mairi Welman

    Check out trailertrashed.org for the creative viewpoint of some young people on exactly this issue.

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  • http://www.earth2017.com/ Bill Roth

    Thanks Dale for a great post and insights on the magnitude of the challenge in our disposal retail business culture.

  • http://www.aboutcoffees.com/ K Cups

    The scary thing is, that all of Starbucks cups only represent about 1-4% of the market. Do the math before we are buried in paper cups.

  • http://www.aboutcoffees.com/ K Cups

    The scary thing is, that all of Starbucks cups only represent about 1-4% of the market. Do the math before we are buried in paper cups.

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  • Jenny Sant’Anna

    I’d love to hear an update on this. Just a policy change of asking people that are staying if they’d like to use a “to stay” mug, or asking everyone else if they brought their own mug would likely begin to have a major impact. I now try to forego the coffee if I forget my mug. Sometimes that is hard to do, but oh well.