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Leon Kaye headshot

Starbucks Accused of Lagging on Deforestation Commitments

By Leon Kaye

Forget the The Donald’s vapid threat to end Starbucks’ lease at Trump Tower over those supposedly 'politically correct' red cups. The coffee giant has bigger headaches. Yesterday, a coalition of NGOs, including the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), has accused Starbucks of contributing to deforestation worldwide.

Insisting that Starbuck’s demand for paper and palm oil has links to the Southeast Asian haze crisis, this coalition is urging the company to make far bolder moves in order to cut deforestation and irresponsibly-sourced palm oil and paper out of its supply chain. Backed by a petition with 300,000 signatures and 70,000 social media messages, the letter admonishes Starbucks and says its supply chain is “endangering customer trust and loyalty.”

Calling Starbucks out for what they infer are lukewarm pledges to prevent dodgy paper and palm oil from entering its supply chain, these NGOs urge the company to follow the lead of one of its largest competitors, Dunkin’ Donuts, which announced a change in policy last year.

Watch for these accusations to intensify as consumers become more aware of the havoc that palm oil is wreaking on people and the environment in Southeast Asia. Warnings about the health effects of partially hydrogenated oil have led to a surging demand for palm oil in recent years, which has replaced one problem (clogged arteries) with a bevy of others (demolished forests, land grabs, human rights violations). Vague promises such as “pursuing,” “a stronger focus” or “we are working to ensure” will not cut it with stakeholders who seek policies that are transparent and backed up with traceable evidence.

As with many companies, Starbucks has promised to procure palm oil certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — to which both sides on this controversy agree does not have strong enough teeth to ensure such supplies are traceable and verifiable.

As a result, UCS has given Starbucks an “F” (10 out of 100) on the responsibly-sourced palm oil front. If there is any consolation for the company, however, it has plenty of peers: Walmart, Whole Foods and another coffee competitor, McDonald’s, do not fare much better,  according to UCS’ analysis.

Much of the discussion of deforestation in Southeast Asia has centered on palm oil, but environmental organizations, from the more corporate-friendly WWF to the strident Greenpeace, have also raised concerns about the risks the paper industry poses in this region. While the larger companies within the pulp and paper industry, such as Asia Pulp and Paper and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd. (known as April), claim they are halting deforestation, UCS and its allies maintain that the industry, and its customers including Starbucks, are not doing enough on the sustainable procurement front.

By its own count, Starbucks goes through at least 4 billion cups annually. Considering all that paper, not to mention the palm oil-laden pastries, that fly out of Starbucks’ stores on a daily basis, the company cannot deny its environmental impact. And the company has a long road ahead until the sustainability crowd is satisfied it has turned a corner.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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