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Starbucks sets new sustainability goals for the decade

It wants to halve waste, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions by 2030

starbucks (flickr)

Starbucks announced today that it’s going to slash the greenhouse gases it emits and waste it sends to landfills in half over the next decade. It’s also committing to conserving or replenishing 50 percent of all the water it draws for its operations and coffee production by 2030.

The company also unveiled longer-term strategies to get greener, like switching to reusable packaging and putting more plant-based products on its menu. But it hasn’t yet set a deadline on those initiatives, and there are few details on how the company is going to meet its targets. By its 50th anniversary next year, it plans to unveil more specifics on its environmental goals.

Starbucks has a murky record on achieving its sustainability goals. It met its 2015 deadline to purchase enough renewable energy to power all its company-operated locations in the US and Canada. But in 2008, it also set out to serve 25 percent of its drinks in reusable containers by 2015. A few years after it set that self-imposed deadline, Starbucks dropped that goal to 5 percent. By 2018, it served just 1.3 percent of its drinks in personal reusable cups, despite a decade-long effort to get its customers to switch. If this history is any indication, meeting some of their new goals is going to be a challenge, especially when it comes to reusable packaging or containers.

“Like most things that are worthwhile, this will not be easy,” Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in a letter announcing the company’s new environmental pledges. He added that success would require “transformational change” and for its customers to play a role.

In the future, customers across the more than 70 countries with Starbucks locations might find that they’ll need to pay for a single-use cup, according to Conrad MacKerron, vice president of the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow. (As You Sow jointly issued a shareholder proposal at a Starbucks meeting in 2019 pushing for the company to reuse and recycle its packaging.) Starbucks tested this strategy in the UK in 2018, and found that charging a 5-pence disposable cup fee — along with a 25-pence reusable cup incentive — pushed the rate of hot drinks served in reusable cups up from 2.2 percent to 5.8 percent. Over the next year, Starbucks says it will conduct research into how to get more customers using reusable cups.

Starbucks has a long way to go to shrink its environmental footprint. The company’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions are roughly equivalent to the pollution from almost 14 coal-fired power plants — nearly on par with other giant corporations like Microsoft. Its annual waste adds up to more than two times the weight of the Empire State Building, and the water it uses could fill 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

There is some hope that this round of commitments from Starbucks will be different from previous attempts. “There’s a lot of pressure this time that wasn’t there in 2008 in terms of where their packaging is ending up,” MacKerron says. Over the past decade, mounting plastic pollution has led to a push to get rid of single-use plastics like straws. By the end of this year, Starbucks is supposed to hit another benchmark by phasing out plastic straws globally.

To do that, Starbucks is rolling out sippy cup-style lids. It’s going to take more innovation if the company wants to eventually ditch single-use cups, too. MacKerron speculates that there could be a program in the future that allows customers to put down a deposit to “borrow” a thermos if Starbucks one day decides to no longer offer single-use containers. But he applauds the company for testing out new ways of doing business at the risk of losing customers who want the convenience of disposable containers. “There are a lot of positive signs that they are taking this very seriously, willing to put themselves out there for a little more scrutiny,” MacKerron tells The Verge.