Starbucks Holds Cup Summit, More Talk About Reducing Environmental Impact

This week Starbucks released their 2009 Corporate Social Responsibility report. There are 10 goals in total that run the gamut from coffee production to storefront design. Among these goals, Starbucks tracked 2009 initiatives such as increasing loans to the coffee producers that work for them, reduce water waste, develop more LEED-certified stores, and encourage Starbucks partners to increase community service hours.

Starbucks has a long way to go before reaching their goals. As of today, only 299 stores have a recycling program in 7,529 company-owned stores in US & Canada. That is as little as 3 in 10 stores. In addition, licensed stores in places like Target, do not have any recycling program in place whatsoever, although Starbucks says they are working on the issue.

Current Starbucks Initiatives: More Branding Opportunities
One of Starbucks goals is to develop a “comprehensive recyclable cup system by 2012.” That’s basically jargon for saying Starbucks wants to improve on the type of cup they use, how it is recycled and figuring out ways to educate partners and customers on recycling. Starbucks has an interesting way of justifying this goal.

It’s important to realize that their paper cups are very important to their branding. There’s nothing more iconic than seeing someone on their way to work with a Starbucks cup in hand. And, the fact that they are crating this goal points to the fact that the “to-go” market is a huge part of Starbucks business. However, Starbucks says their biggest barrier to creating the right solution is that recycling programs differ from city to city, and really, it’s not whether a cup is recyclable, rather “will it be recycled?” It’s also an interesting development given shareholders recent negative vote on another recent recycling proposal we covered a couple weeks ago.

At Least Starbucks is Being Transparent…(Sort of)
Starbucks is just starting to create online awareness and transparency of their social and environmental initiatives using social media. One example was the second annual Cup Summit via on Thursday. The Summit was hosted by Jim Hanna, Starbucks director of environmental affairs. Peter Senge, an MIT Professor of organizational learning also sat in to talk about how a company like Starbucks can change their cultural behavior and attitudes to improve the environment. A press release suggests that Peter Senge’s group and Starbucks have been working together since 2008 to employ a “systems thinking” approach to solving the environmental problem at all levels of the value chain.

“We’re aggressively pursuing strategies that address this problem to mitigate and reduce the impact of our global environmental footprint,” Hanna tells TriplePundit, (because climate change poses a threat to their coffee business.) While I admire Starbucks for being so vocal about what they are doing, and we know that scalability is a difficult problem, no one can deny that Starbucks is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Many people rely on them for coffee, so there is no doubt that Starbucks is really good at what they do. That also means they can cause some serious damage or make a huge impact today. The Cup Summit was a fascinating case study with lots of academic talk about “systems thinking,” but let’s get serious: a company like Starbucks with so much power has huge potential to do better.

How Starbucks Can Change Their Impact, Now
Forget lobbying. That will take years before it has any effect. Starbucks is a master at deploying training programs to Starbucks partners just in time for their latest marketing campaign, and they haven’t really used that core competency to their advantage. Here’s one way to reach environmental goals at the store front: if baristas can sell coffee, they can sell activism too. Build a video to teach partners to be environmental ambassadors, sell more mugs or give out more cup discounts. Training baristas to have conversations about reducing environmental impact and the small changes a single store should make is much easier than convincing the local government to change municipal recycling programs.

If the 2010 Global Responsibility Report is so important to Starbucks, they can make it happen. They need to put more weight behind those words, not by focusing on politics because that’s not their strength. Do it through the partners.

Customers have the opportunity, too, to start the conversation. Starbucks says that they don’t have the infrastructure for every store to carry ceramic mugs and properly sanitize them, which is bogus. As a customer, it’s an easy act of activism to simply ask for a ceramic mug any time you are in their stores. And if you have to take out, bringing in that reusable mug isn’t such a bad idea either.

Also: check out the MIT Beta Cup Challenge to participate in developing a better to-go cup for your coffee.

Clara lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and considers herself an international citizen. She has an MBA from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and currently works in San Francisco as a marketing analyst. You can find her tweeting, blogging or simply continue an existing 3P conversation by commenting on a post.

7 responses

  1. You're absolutely right – Starbucks should start with activism and the promotion of re-usable mugs. But realistically, disposable cups will still be in wide use, and their environmental impact must be reduced. Starbucks, with its 16,635 stores in 49 countries, has the clout and global reach to be a force for change. Starbucks can change the way it manages its waste and spur cities to improve their recycling and composting capacity. When Henry Ford manufactured the first Model T, there was no infrastructure in place for refuelling, but it soon grew up once the demand was there.

    I have a business suggestion for Starbucks. Stop using oil-based plastic and use bioplastic cups and lids instead (like these ones which reduce CO2 emissions by 77%). Install composting bins in Starbucks stores and in the immediate vicinity where customers may throw away their used coffee cup. Start a sister company, Starbucks Organic Recycling, which collects all the packaging and food waste together and composts it, turning it into compost, topsoil or biogas in just 6-12 weeks (like this:… ). Sell the compost and topsoil, and use the biogas as a source of renewable green energy. Then offer your eco waste management services to the canteens and restaurants of the city, like this one:

    Hey presto…Starbucks would make money, generate their own energy, improve their image, reduce their carbon emissions, reduce landfill (by 3 billion cups per year) and become known as the company who kick-started America's commercial composting industry and enabled cities across the world to reduce their impact on the environment.

  2. Pingback: Millenium Marketer › Starbucks, the 800 pound gorilla
  3. @lucyfrankel Those are great ideas. I especially like the idea about creating a sister organization where Starbucks can gain extra revenue. One other thing that is interesting about this particular story: Starbucks seems to be having trouble managing the scalability of their organization and staying in line with their stockholders.

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