Starbucks Shareholders Vote Down Recycling, Company Resists Cooperation

Starbucks, a company not new to environmental criticism, was recently faced with a seemingly modest proposal by a Starbucks shareholder to consider a more aggressive strategy and set of goals for recycling the materials that are consumed within and leave their doors. The measure was voted down after the Board of Directors advised shareholders to vote against it, directing attention to their existing recycling strategy. The Board’s response: we have a plan and don’t need any help executing it.

The measure was supported by As You Sow, an organization that used the same approach to get the attention of beverage giants PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, which received less than 10% of shareholder votes, but led to major recycling initiatives.

Starbucks, much like bottled water as a whole, is a target for criticism not for its direct contributions (3 billion coffee cups in landfills per year, if you are curious), but arguably more so for its glaring iconic place in our throwaway consumer lifestyle. Bottled water is currently up against direct attacks by groups such as the Story of Stuff Project. The situation is a classic example of short term financial objectives seemingly at odds with long term environmental impact.

Unquestionably Lagging “Shared Planet” Strategy

Despite all of Starbucks’ trademarked Shared Planet objectives and successes, the company is behind the competition when it comes to environmental impact. Rather than simply make recycling easy for its customers, the company clearly shows its disinterest in doing so by displaying the location of the nearest recycling center, rather than supplying recycling bins (oddly, I can’t imagine Starbucks displaying a sign with locations across town where I can pay them more money; they make that easy). Except in San Francisco, where the company seemed to have no problem adding recycling and compost bins to comply with new laws. Starbucks appears to be lobbying for better recycling infrastructure but seems to be talking quite the talk for a company that doesn’t have recycling bins in the stores of cities that collect recyclables today.

The proposed measure reveals that there are no plans to use recycled plastic in the bottles of Starbucks’ Ethos Water (the cause-driven bottled water brand the company acquired in 2005, which funds safe water programs), despite the significant progress of Nestle, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo to use as much as 100% recycled content (or even bottles partially made from plants) in theirs. Entertainingly enough, Starbucks actually licenses the bottling of Ethos to PepsiCo, but clearly it just isn’t a priority in the current strategy. Perhaps Starbucks is waiting for PepsiCo to lobby for the change, which likely comes with an additional cost, as part of their current arguably passive environmental strategy.

Company at Odds with Environment, Activists, a Huge Missed Opportunity

Activists are just evangelists, they just typically focus on where the entity can change to align its interests with those of their own. The huge missed opportunity in this case was that Starbucks didn’t really have to do anything to adopt this recommendation. As the Board stated in its advice to vote against the measure, they already have a strategy in place. Great, so that box is checked. The problem was that they aren’t open to a little help, and “aggressive” seems to be a word that would be palatable when describing their growth, not their environmental strategy.

Think about is this way, we live in a world of unlimited information and transparency (in fact, the brand’s popularity on social media channels was celebrated during the shareholder meeting). Therefore, scorekeepers and activists with access to all of this information, such as GoodGuide, Climate Counts, Greenpeace, As You Sow and others, actually help sell the products that top their lists. The rankings for laundry detergent on GoodGuide, for example, is the type of promotion that cannot be bought, at any price, for Seventh Generation products, which top their lists.

Starbucks, however, wants to do it their own way. In the end, the situation could become a success story, as it did with Coke and PepsiCo, or Starbucks could continue to ignore the call for action and wait until our country’s political infighting slows enough to enact policy reflective of the limitations of our natural resources.

Image: Jason Simon

Ryan Mickle is one of the partners and pundits behind 3p. He is a consultant, speaker, and passionate advocate for transparency, values-driven business, and empowering "consumers" to become evangelists in our new, decentralized media landscape. Ryan holds a BA in Economics from Berkeley, and he loves traveling, running marathons (love may be too strong a word), yoga, and contributing to the gross national happiness (GNH) in business and otherwise.

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