Starbucks leads the field with major move to sustainability

The coffee giant has ambitious plans to become a “resource-positive” company, aiming to reduce emissions within a decade. Frances Ball reports on a bold but challenging set of targets 

Starbucks will turn 50 next year. It’s become a commercial and cultural giant and has put its weight behind much of the innovation in the coffee industry in past years, from customer experience in-store to its extensive push into the Chinese market.

It’s not a company that is afraid of a challenge. But its recent commitment to re-focus on sustainable practice is particularly ambitious in scale.

To give more than you take

Starbucks is aiming for a “resource-positive” future, CEO Kevin Johnson announced last week. Don’t underestimate the corporate buzzword, though. If all goes to plan, the company is seeking to reduce its carbon emissions, water usage, and waste by half within ten years.

It’s a programme that will re-shape existing supply chains and operations on a global scale, but Starbucks is hoping that it will be a long-term strategy for success. “This aspiration is grounded in Starbucks mission,” said Johnson in a company statement.

“By embracing a longer-term economic, equitable and planetary value, we will create greater value for all stakeholders.”

The company has set out five main strategies, all of which ultimately point to the goal of eventually giving back more than it takes from the planet’s resources. Plant-based meal options will be expanded, and a shift to reusable packaging will see less single-use plastic. The company will also invest in innovative agricultural practice, in eco-friendly stores and operations, and in better waste management.

Follow my lead

It’s not the first time that Starbucks has invested in sustainable initiatives. It’s been a partner of Conservation International for two decades, and 99% of its coffee is now ethically sourced.

The new pledge for a drastic reduction in resources is along the same lines, and Starbucks is clearly positioning itself as the industry’s leading voice on environmental and ethical issues.

It’s a proactive move, as William Bender FCSI, founder and principal of W.H. Bender & Associates says. “It’s better to be a leader and create the initiatives that your brand will be supporting as using,” he points out.

“It’s a very smart move that a majority of their team members and guests will find positive and be engaged as they roll out to all units.”

A data-driven experiment

That focus on value for all stakeholders is key. In announcing its new sustainability measures, Starbucks makes a very specific reference to the market research and data analysis that it will be carrying out as it makes changes. It’ll also be reporting the short- and long-term progress it makes against its own goals.

Between now and its 50th anniversary in 2021, the company says it will be trying to understand consumer behaviour, and working out the best way to incentivise the use of reusable containers.

The emphasis on gathering data is significant. Consultant Karen Malody FCSI, principal of Culinary Options and formerly the food and beverage director at Starbucks, says that this suggests it is not simply a “do-gooder” project. “With the intense focus today on transparency, sustainability, waste elimination and environmental crisis, brands who take themselves seriously as both leaders and champions of ‘right thinking’ must delve into these serious issues,” she says.

“The challenge of accomplishing the goals set forth by 2030 globally will be enormous,” Malody adds, but “given their global presence, it seems only logical that they would take these steps in order to continuously create, maintain, and retain their position as a respected global brand.”

“It will counteract the fact that many consumers today are so willing to project resentment against ‘big brands’,” she says. “This keeps them human.”

A major challenge

Johnson has made no pretence that this will be a simple strategy to carry out. “Our eyes are wide open, knowing that we do not have all the answers or fully understand the complexities and potential consequences,” he wrote in a letter to stakeholders.

The company serves 100 million people every week, in a global network of 31,000 stores. Logistically, it will take a huge endeavour to reach the goal of 50% less waste sent to landfill; 50% less water withdrawn for both coffee making and for operations; and 50% reduction in carbon emissions, all by 2030.

But Starbucks has recognised that its customers care about the environmental impact of their purchases. As Ray Silverstein, the vice president of store development at Starbucks, has said, “Starbucks’ commitment to sustainability has been a meaningful way for our partners to engage and support their communities and neighbourhoods.”

Making ethical and sustainable choices now will, the company hopes, do genuine and urgently necessary work for the planet. It will also engage a generation of customers, who value a commitment to reducing the footprint that their coffee leaves on the world.

The announcement follows the news earlier this month that Chinese coffee franchise Luckin has made good on its 2019 resolution to open more stores than Starbucks in China by the end of the year.

Frances Ball 

Picture: Starbucks Corporation


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