Back in the early 20th century, disposable coffee cups were a thing unknown, trolley cars were practically the only electric vehicles in sight, and labor unions held sway over many worksites. Now the script has flipped, and Starbucks once again is positioning itself to lead the vanguard of change – willing or not.
Starbucks did not start the take-out coffee trend, but the company has enough influence to help reduce single-use coffee cups across the industry. In a recap of its sustainability efforts last week, the Starbucks noted that it is testing a new “Borrow a Cup” model in the U.S. and several other markets.
Borrow a Cup is a twist on the typical industry practice, which is to make customers buy a reusable cup for permanent ownership. As piloted last year, Starbucks customers who chose to borrow a cup added a deposit on their order per cup. A return deadline provided customers with the option of keeping the cup as their own, or turning it in for a credit equal to their deposit. The company also provided an incentive of bonus Starbucks Rewards points for participants.
A high-tech version of the Borrow a Cup program launched in Singapore earlier this year, with a return deadline in May.
Starbucks also continues to encourage customers to bring their own personal cups. As for those choosing disposables, the company has been working with a paper manufacturer to improve recyclability for paper cups, and it has introduced a new waste management app to help its partners step up their recycling efforts.
Starbucks also included the notorious “forever” chemical PFAS in its sustainability recap, declaring that it is on track to eliminate PFAS from its U.S. packaging by the end of this year. By the end of next year, the company expects to eliminate PFAS from its operations globally.
The announcement was hailed by public health and environmental groups, including Toxic Free Future.
“Though the company’s announcement comes after similar commitments by other major restaurant chains, their timeline is faster than many—including McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell that have made commitments to phase out PFAS in food packaging by 2025,” the organization said.
Toxic Free Future also credited Wendy’s with committing to an earlier 2021 timeline.
The COVID-19 pandemic has motivated fast food companies to reduce or eliminate indoor seating, making more room for drive-through lanes or grab-and-go.
In contrast, when the pandemic struck in 2020 Starbucks argued in May of that year that its model of a “third place” for people to linger between home and work was needed more than ever.
Now, as restrictions continue to ease, the third-place model has emerged as a perfect fit for the growth of the electric vehicle (EV) market. Though low-speed charging systems can take hours to recharge a vehicle battery pack, EV drivers can recharge their cars in a matter of minutes at a DC fast-charging station, while taking a break or running an errand.
Accordingly, this year Starbucks will install Volvo-branded DC fast-charging stations at up to 15 stores, under an arrangement with the leading EV charging company ChargePoint. The charging stations will be spread along a 1,350-mile route from Denver to Seattle, where the company is headquartered.
Starbucks references EV “range anxiety” to underscore the value of its sit-down stores as a third place.
“These DC Fast Chargers will be placed at Starbucks stores about every 100 miles, adding much needed peace of mind for EV drivers, who we know see today’s limited charging infrastructure as a major barrier to purchase,” the company explains. “While customer’s cars are recharging outside, drivers can relax comfortably inside with their favorite Starbucks beverage.”
The electric vehicle revolution has yet to hit the mass market, but within the next few years millions of EVs will take to the road. When that happens, other fast food companies may need to rethink their decision to focus on the quick in-and-out model.
Starbucks has also found itself on the cusp of change as surge of interest in unionization sweeps through workplaces around the country, most recently underscored by the unionization of an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York.
Somewhat ironically, Starbucks has sailed through one customer boycott after another over the years. The union movement has presented the company with its first effective “boycott,” in the form of worker action against its anti-union policies.
In recent months, employees at three Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York have voted to join a union. Out of thousands of Starbucks stores nationwide, these three are the first and only stores in the U.S. to organize – so far.
The voting was finalized after eligibility challenges raised on both sides, as described by Buffalo News reporter Matt Glynn.
“The organizing campaign was closely watched nationally because of its implications elsewhere for Starbucks and potentially other fast-food chains, where worker turnover is high and pay is toward the bottom end of the pay scale,” Glynn also observed.
Another reason to keep an eye on Starbucks’s reaction to the union movement was raised by Associated Press reporter Dee-Ann Durbin last month. She noted that longtime Starbucks leader Howard Schultz “consistently — and successfully — fought attempts to unionize Starbucks’ U.S. stores and roasting plants” during his tenure.
Schultz bought Starbucks in the late 1980s and stepped down as Chairman in 2018, to be replaced by former COO Kevin Johnson.
Now Johnson has retired, and Schultz has returned as interim CEO until a replacement is found. The unusual shift in leadership surprised and puzzled industry observers. However, the growing strength of the union movement could explain the return of a CEO with an anti-union reputation.
Image credit: Athar Khan via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.