Is Starbucks sustainable? Once an independent coffee shop called Il Giornale, Starbucks is now the largest coffee chain in the world. With great size, comes great responsibility.

Let’s find out if the Seattle coffee-maker meets the SR standard.

Busy? Try the speed read.

The scoop: Starbucks does a lot of reacting instead of acting. In that light, I do not consider Starbucks to be a cultural nor sustainable leader in the food & beverage space.

Sooo is Starbucks sustainable? No. Especially in today’s climate, you’re better off making your own cup, or supporting a local indie coffee shop. It’s worth the extra few cents to help a business owner put food on their family dinner table.

Dig deeper → 3 min.

Founder story

Howard Schultz was a coffee visionary who built an empire through American grit, determination and courage.

In 1986, Schultz raised enough money to open his first coffee store. By 1992, Starbucks had its initial public offering with 165 locations in North America.

You can also listen to his podcast episode on NPR’s How I Built This.

Industry standard and company size

Today, Starbucks has more than 28,000 locations across the globe with revenue nearing $25 billion. The food & beverage space is historically problematic for sustainable initiatives. Between food waste and single-use plastic, large companies struggle to engineer long-term solutions.

Ingredient assessment

Starbucks uses acrylamide, a carcinogen byproduct of roasted coffee beans found in high levels through brewed coffee. They faced legal challenges in California for not warning consumers.

Ethically-sourced ingredients

Starbucks reached their milestone of 99% ethically-sourced coffee. This claim is measured according to the Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) practices, one of the coffee industry’s first set of sustainability standards, verified by third-party experts.

This month, Starbucks launched a Meatless Mondays campaign… which is just a fancy way of saying you get $2 off a veggie breakfast sandwich on Mondays this month.

Not really impressed.

For years, I’ve been critical of Starbucks’ outward display of progressiveness… while their menu has terrible vegan options. Even with Meatless Mondays, their cafes rely on animal products for food & drink.

I’m not here to preach about animal eating. It’s about sustainability and practicality. Put simply, any global food supply chain dependent on animals is not sustainable.

Packaging

Starbucks and McDonalds launched a program with Closed Loop Partners back in 2018 to produce compostable coffee cups. It is taking longer than anticipated to materialize. Shocking!

If interested, you can learn more about their “journey to find a more sustainable cup”.

Starbucks also abandoned single-use plastic straws for some menu items this year. Plastic straws are still available for blended beverages like Frappuccino’s.

I went to my local shop the other day to check on their progress, and Starbucks still sells plastic cups and straws in bulk, so my review will continue to reflect that.

Transparency and ethics

As mentioned, 99% of Starbucks coffee is now ‘ethically-sourced’. But they still have a lot of work to do.

This week, the Coffee Barometer released their annual report, published by a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world.

The group found that “while some companies have comprehensive (sustainability) policies in place, many large traders and roasters remain unclear about their commitments (and about) any progress on commitments. No one is doing enough”.

The report did not name any individual companies. But Starbucks, the largest coffee chain in the world, is clearly alluded to.

Starbucks puts up a great sustainability marketing front. But that does not equate with their current progress. Coffee production has been linked to mass deforestation in sensitive areas like Peru. Starbucks is part of that damage.

In fact, slave labor was found in 2018 at a Starbucks-certified Brazilian coffee farm. The scandal was discovered by Brazilian labor inspectors. Yikes.

See article: The cocoa industry has similar problems.

As the world’s #1 coffee company, the Seattle giant fails to take a sustainability lead for their industry.

Company culture

Starbucks had a host of ‘scandals’ reach major headlines in the past few years. These incidents related to race, sex, gender and politics. Due to the vastness of the organization, it’s important to contextualize how local-level employee issues can be complicated. But it’s not a good look.

Starbucks faced criticism after a Reuters investigation found that the company paid significantly less in corporate taxes in the UK over a 14-year period, despite generating over £3 billion in sales – this included no tax payments in the three-year prior.

Not canceling them over it, but there is no rosy picture to paint for Starbucks ethics.

Ongoing evaluation

Starbucks claims to push itself to be better and more sustainable in the future. But their problematic past points to a less than convincing argument.

I can’t give them zero credit for making change. But they don’t take enough responsibility for scandals. And have done very little to steward the sustainability ship given their size and influence.

Starbucks does a lot of reacting instead of acting. In that light, I do not consider Starbucks to be a cultural nor sustainable leader in the food & beverage space.

Sooo is Starbucks sustainable?

No. Especially in today’s climate, you’re better off making your own cup, or supporting a local indie coffee shop. It’s worth the extra few cents to help a business owner put food on their family dinner table.

Did you enjoy this review? Check out our other sustainability brand reviews.

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People reacted to this story.
Comments to: Better brands: Is Starbucks sustainable?
Let's find out if this cup of coffee meets the SR standard.
  • January 18, 2021

    acrylamide is found in all coffee as a byproduct of roasting. Typical Californian regulations misleading the ignorant

    • January 18, 2021

      Makes sense to me. I have a cool camping-friendly coffee maker that doesn’t roast the grounds. Guess it’s best not to roast if you’re looking for a healthier option. Less acidic, organic fair-trade coffee tastes the best anyway.

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