Its Cups Runneth Over: Starbucks’ Green Ways


In a former life, I worked at an agency and I can remember the day we celebrated landing Starbucks as a client. The young-at-heart caffeine king had some hip and clever style, which got our creative department’s juices flowing, and they were based in Seattle – a bonus for quick runs from SF to a city that was a pretty cool place to suffer business trips. Most important, though, was Starbucks’ relatively positive reputation. Though all agreed that the coffee monster was a local-corner-coffee-shop killer, clients with an earth-and-employee-friendly rep were few and far between.

I also remember the first time I arrived on-site at the company’s headquarters. Behind the well-designed doors, past the state-of-the-art eco-office interior, and inside the elegant, glassy and awesomely coffeed conference rooms, our kick-off meeting was (drum roll) … just like any other. It was about time and money and effective communication and, you know what? It occurred to me that that was just fine. That’s what a corporation is supposed to have meetings about, and despite a recent and inane court ruling, they – excuse me – it is not human and it should not be expected to display human qualities. I mean, the people were nice and all, but the purpose of our being there couldn’t have been clearer: It was time to do business.

That said, the Starbucks story – and the fact that as we speak the company is so frantically trying figure out what to do about its damn paper cups – is a pretty good one.

Here’s the deal with the cups: About 3 billion of the more than 200 billion paper cups that end up in U.S. dumps each year are from Starbucks. This is a bad thing and the company has been flailing around for years now trying to figure out what to do about it. Reports Triple Pundit, Starbucks says “disposing of the cups is the top environmental concern of its customers. The angst over the problem has reached the highest levels of the company.”

Supposedly, eco-focused CEO Howard Schultz has promised that by 2012 all Starbucks cups will be recyclable.

They even had a really big meeting about it. Earlier this year, Starbucks hosted its second Cup Summit at MIT, hosting “municipalities, raw material suppliers, cup manufacturers, retail and beverage businesses, recyclers, NGOs, and academic experts together to drive the development of solutions that will make both paper and plastic cups more broadly recyclable.” Attendees even included competitors such as Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s.

This all fits in with the Starbucks’ green-and-all-around good-guy thing, says Fast Company, as “the company is pursuing more LEED certifications and working toward a goal of purchasing 100 percent fair-trade and Coffee and Farmer Equity-certified coffee by 2015.” Indeed, the Starbucks as standout corporate citizen story is well documented – and well marketed.

Now this shouldn’t translate into a non-critical or even a non-judgmental approach to the whole Starbucks phenomenon. Anti-union issues and the previously mentioned local-shop carnage aside, no matter how green a process and product, more stuff – and more stores – means just that, and no spin can erase that footprint. (See “Green? Perhaps. But iPads Don’t Grow on Trees.”) Says Fast Company: “Environmentally… Starbucks has bigger concerns than disposable cups. Its 8,832 company-owned stores and its international supply chain both affect resource use and climate change more than cups in the trash.”

On the other hand, I’m not calling into question the intentions of Schultz and his reportedly hopped-up-on-the-environment team. They do seem to be doing some good in a world where big business is more known for its trail of slime than caring about what is left in our dumps. Nevertheless, they are corporate folk and they represent a money-making team that’s busily trying to bounce back after their stock hit a “multi-year low” in 2008.

What’s good about all this is that a major corporate player knows the concerns of its customers and that it sees its competitive advantage, its winning formula, if you will, as pounding out a constant and consistently green drumbeat. Yes, the only establishment to ever make Cat Stevens seem corporate knows that a good many of us care about those cups and have a habit of buying into, literally, feeling better about our ourselves. (I’m partial to Triple Grande Lattes and my editor, I’m sure, has her own formula regarding the relationship between my word count and my caffeine intake.)

And it’s here where we note what famous criminal Willie Sutton supposedly told a reporter when asked why he robbed banks: “That’s where the money is.” In today’s marketing world, to a growing extent, green is where the money is.

So consider Starbucks a bit of gauge regarding one of our biggest hopes – the extent to which committing to the approach makes sound economic sense in terms of how it plays with consumers. This is not to say that the corporate world will ever see the light. In fact, it has no eyes to see. What it does have is a nose for coin. And Starbucks is following its nose. As a result, hopefully, they’ll figure out what to do with their damn cups.

Image: serendipitys

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at