“One double-tall, extra hot, no foam, half-sweet, skinny vanilla latte.”

Famous for its extensive line of custom-made espresso based drinks and friendly baristas, Starbucks has always tried hard to differentiate itself from the competition. Nowadays, this is not just about meeting customer demands over the counter; it is also about meeting customer expectations, behind the scenes.

From the airport in Dubai to one of its 151 locations spread throughout Toronto alone, for years Starbucks has been, and remains, one monster of a coffee making machine. With over 1,100 stores in Canada and revenue of over 11.7 billion dollars (US) in 2011, Starbucks is the largest coffee retailer in the world.

Ethical initiatives

From the ethical sourcing of coffee to waste production, Starbucks has been on the radar of activists for years and has been working hard towards bettering their reputation as friend, and not foe, of the environment and community, to the point where – in all honesty – it’s getting hard to keep up.

Even as this article goes to viral, Starbucks is circulating a press release introducing the new Starbucks EarthSleeve, designed with less raw material makeup by using 85% post-consumer fiber content and improving truckload yields by 15%, reducing the environmental impacts of transportation.  It seems like every time the hoopla has died down from one initiative, another pops right on up.

According to Jim Hanna, however, Director of Environmental Affairs at Starbucks, sustainable initiatives are not being introduced simply for branding purposes:

“Our sustainability objectives have been driven by a number of facets and are a core part of the company. This is something that is extremely important to our customer base and we are making an effort to to operate in ways that align with their values as well as those expressed by partners (staff members) that we employ around the world.” According to Hanna, sustainability has always been part of the Starbucks mission, however a bit of research shows us that there have been some pretty important mile markers along the way.

As far back as 2001 the company made a commitment to produce a yearly Report on Global Responsibility (download 2011 report), outlining ongoing sustainability efforts from community involvement to environmental stewardship. In  2004, Starbucks, in partnership with organizations like SustainAbility and in collaboration with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), launched C.A.F.E. Practices, a green coffee sourcing guideline to evaluating, recognizing, and rewarding producers of high-quality sustainably grown coffee.

The accumulation of these efforts (in addition to ongoing initiatives) have been recognized by organizations like Ethisphere, an international think-tank who produces an annual list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies. After all their efforts, it’s no surprise that Starbucks has been one of 23 companies to make the list every year since its launch in 2007.

Sustainable stepping stones

As emphasized by Mr.Hanna, in order for Starbucks to reach overarching goals they set in terms of sustainability, the company had to make “accumulative changes” that would add up gradually; save a bit of water here, some electricity there, etc. To give you an idea of what these changes look like, here is a snapshot of ongoing green initiatives, in-store and beyond:

Goal: Build greener stores

“The Starbucks store at Church & Gerrard in Toronto is 100 per cent LEED certified with: 75 per cent waste diversion from landfill (through recycling and organic waste collection); 30% water usage reduction; 25% energy optimization; 90% of the store naturally lit with daylight; accessibility on public transit; and an interior showcasing locally reclaimed décor and art for a one-of-a-kind comfortable experience.”

Starbucks has:

Goal: Develop a truly comprehensive recycling program and reduce waste

Starbucks has:

  • provided customers with complimentary five-pound (2.27-kilogram) bags of soil-enriching coffee grounds that would otherwise end up in the landfill
  • developed a recycled-content cup sleeve in order to prevent customers from “double-cupping”
  • held three separate “Cup Summits” comprising of government officials, raw material suppliers, cup manufacturers, retail and beverage businesses, recyclers, competitors, conservation groups and academic experts with the goal of coming up with recycling strategies that work
  • set a goal to make 100 percent of cups (approximately 4 billion cups a year) reusable or recyclable by 2015
  • invested in processes that convert used cups into napkin paper for Starbucks and other customers

Goal: Reduce energy consumption by 25%

Starbucks has:

  • adopted LED lighting across the board
  • committed to seeking out energy efficient equipment for use in-store
  • tested Energy Management Systems (EMS) in nearly 700 company-operated stores throughout the US, that are, at present, reducing HVAC consumption by about 20%
  • offset energy required to operate Starbucks stores by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from wind farms all over the U.S
  • committed to covering 100% of electricity consumption with renewable energy by 2015

Goal: Reduce water consumption by 25%

Starbucks has:

  • launched a new water filtration system that preserves water quality while reducing waste water by 50% compared to the previous filtration system
  • used analytics to identify stores using an inordinate amount of water and sent facilities experts to diagnose and rectify any anomalies
  • installed efficient water fixtures, such as low-flow faucets, toilets and spray heads used to rinse dishes
  • searched for ways to save water on the exterior of new stores, including landscaping with drought-resistant native species where we can to reduce the need for irrigation

What can business owners learn from Starbucks’ approach to sustainability?

It comes as no surprise that the Starbucks approach to sustainability comes at a cost but that doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons to be learned by other members of the foodservice industry. The possibilities are endless, but according to Mr.Hanna, the risk can be big.

“You have to make the business case for sustainability; you can’t rely on traditional methods like altruism. You have to be wiling to work through every facet of your business including mitigating risk, reducing operating cost, being actively engaged in government policies, and retaining the best employees, all of which have cost ramifications. You need to be able to demonstrate that you can save a lot of money by adopting sustainability practices. It really is necessary to take you beyond doing incremental things to adopting sustainability as a core value of your company.”

The most important step you can take towards building a sustainable future? According to Hanna, it’s collaboration – especially with competitors. “Collaboration,” says Hanna, “has been the biggest differentiator in terms of how Starbucks approaches sustainable strategies”.

Hanna emphasizes creating a collaborative spirit by taking an internal initiative and scaling it across sectors to involve multiple players within the industry.”When we announced the goal to be 100% recyclable by 2015, we brought together everyone in the industry at what we called ‘The Cup Summit’ in order to come up with solutions that weren’t specific to Starbucks. It comes down to people just talking to each other and understanding the ramifications of their decisions. A supply chain is essential…we share common goals, not just around cups, but around every sustainable initiative, including green building strategies.”

According to Hanna, Starbucks aims to be a catalyst for game-changers throughout the foodservice industry. While they strive to overcome challenges in an effort to meet all goals by 2015, they will continue to seek out new ways to work with all members of the industry in an effort to forward initiatives, beyond the cup.

 image credit: alfred ng