Starbucks' greener stores won't make much of a difference; the problem is cultural.

Lining up for coffee in Sacramento
CC BY 2.0 Lining up for coffee in Sacramento/ via PXhere

The company's goals are laudable but the biggest problems are in the parking lot and the garbage bin.

Starbucks recently announced a Global Greener Stores commitment, and will design, build and operate 10,000 greener stores by 2025.

“Simply put, sustainable coffee served sustainably is our aspiration,” said Kevin Johnson, president and CEO of Starbucks. “We know that designing and building green stores is not only responsible, it is cost effective as well. The energy and passion of our green apron partners has inspired us to find ways to operate a greener store that will generate even greater cost savings while reducing impact.”

They have the World Wildlife Fund on board.

“This framework represents the next step in how Starbucks is approaching environmental stewardship, looking holistically at stores and their role in helping to ensure the future health of our natural resources,” said Erin Simon, Director of R&D at World Wildlife Fund, U.S. “When companies step up and demonstrate leadership, other businesses often follow with commitments of their own, driving further positive impacts.”

Starbucks green pledge© Starbucks

There are many nice things about this pledge, including the drive for energy efficiency, water stewardship, the use of renewable energy, and responsible materials. All lovely things. But as Katherine noted in her recent discussion of single-use plastic straws, the real problem is with one that Starbucks is not even trying to solve.

What needs to change instead is American eating culture, which is the real driving force behind this excessive waste. When so many people eat on the go and replace sit-down meals with portable snacks, it's no wonder we have a packaging waste catastrophe. When food is purchased outside the home, it requires packaging in order to be clean and safe for consumption, but if you prepare it at home and eat it on a plate, you reduce the need for packaging.

It's all about the culture.

standalone starbucks© New standalone green starbucks

It also is a drive-through culture, where people idle their big SUVs waiting for their takeout coffee in disposable cups. Nine years ago I asked Tony Gale, Corporate Architect for Starbucks at the time, about how he justifies building green Starbucks (which is what we are still talking about today).

If one builds a LEED platinum building in the middle of the suburbs and everyone drives to it, there is not much point in the thing. Are you looking at all at issue of drive-throughs, the transportation intensity of your stores?

"It is one of the first things I asked about. We tell our real estate people to look at urban sites first. It is a tough nut, we have looked at a variety of concepts, sloping driveways so you can turn off the car, and more. What we are looking at are quick orders, ways to get them through faster. You need room for about eight cars and we have to find a way to get those cars off the street faster."

But nothing really has changed, other than the SUVs are bigger.

And then there is the issue of disposables. Ten years ago Starbucks promised that 25 percent of their sales would be in reusable cups by 2015. In 2011 they realized that was impossible so they changed it to 5 percent. Now they have given up altogether. "The majority of beverages are consumed outside of our stores; we are resetting our goal to focus on increasing the use of personal tumblers. Our new goal is to serve 5 percent of all beverages made in our stores in personal tumblers."

But they are still selling six billion disposable cups and lids every year. In March they promised to invest $ 10 million to develop a 'NextGen Cup', "the first step in the development of a global end-to-end solution that would allow cups around the world to be diverted from landfills and composted or given a second life as another cup, napkin or even a chair – anything that can use recycled material." But they do not have one yet, because cups all have a plastic liner to keep them from getting soggy and to meet health requirements.

“Developing a plant-based liner that stands up to hot liquids and is commercially viable is incredibly hard, but we believe the solution is out there, not just for cups but for other exciting applications, like making straws greener, in the future,” said Rebecca Zimmer, director of global environmental impact.

The problem is exactly the one that Katherine raised. Starbucks can do all these green initiatives, build their solar powered stores, but fundamentally their business is building standalone drive-throughs where people roll up in SUVs to buy stuff in disposable, non-recyclable packaging, much of it with plastic lids that are no better than straws when it comes to saving the oceans. It's all about the culture.

Starbucks started in urban locations, and was all about a coffee culture. You sat down and had a coffee, maybe did some work or met a friend. You could even use the bathroom. Now, the vast bulk of their business is takeout and their market is in the suburbs, because that is where the majority of Americans live.

This is where it is up to us, to try and change the culture. Walk into your neighborhood Starbucks, demand a reusable cup, sit down and smell the coffee.

Starbucks' greener stores won't make much of a difference; the problem is cultural.
The company's goals are laudable but the biggest problems are in the parking lot and the garbage bin.

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