Hold The Foam: Starbucks Shareholders Demand More Sustainable Efforts

Hold The Foam: Starbucks Shareholders Demand More Sustainable Efforts

With about 27,339 locations worldwide, Starbucks has become a global powerhouse. But also a beacon of hope for sustainable coffee lovers, coffee lovers tragically lost in the corporate world. Walking on any street in New York City is nothing more than an ode to America’s caffeine dependence, dare I say addiction. It wasn’t until I went to Europe that I realized Starbucks didn’t just have a hold on it’s American consumers. The Seattle based company, founded in 1971 by three friends from the University of San Francisco, has been able to lure many sailors with its Siren call, but recently stakeholders seem to be rattled with the company’s progress in the sustainability department. In 2015, Starbucks promised that they would serve 25% of their beverages in reusable containers and 100% of all paper and plastic cups would be recycled at company owned and operated stores. Today, the reality is that Starbucks serves 2% of their beverages in reusable containers and only 60% of their stores have cup recycling. Granted, most of the data is  based on North American sales, which excluded the rigorous programs that most European countries have implemented for their countries and companies. Starbucks’ largest growing market China, India, and the Philippines contribute to 44% of the ocean’s plastic waste.

Earlier in March 2018, Starbucks held their annual meeting with the shareholders, where the future of the company was discussed in light of building a sustainability plan that sets industry standards and continues to pioneer new methods. Recently, Starbucks announced a new partnership with Closed Loop Partners and its Center for the Circular Economy to develop a more sustainable coffee cup. Together they will be launching the Next Gen Cup Challenge: a project encouraging young entrepreneurs to submit cup designs by awarding grants and promoting industry collaboration.

Starbucks followed the Next Gen Cup Challenge with the announcement of the plan to use biodegradable, plant based liners for their paper cups. It will be introduced internationally for a six month trial period to assess quality and environmental impact. However, Starbucks is not alone in this sustainability project; this would be the 13th international trial run of its  kind, as many companies continue their quests to sustainable coffee cup solutions.

One of the main concerns for this product launch is just how difficult it is to create a biodegradable coffee cup that would also pass certain health and safety regulations. Notably, making sure that the designed cup does not decompose or spill hot coffee in the process of drinking. Nevertheless, Starbucks, along with other environmentally conscious companies, believe that the solution is out there as long as someone is willing to put in the work. The realization of serious consequences and concerns to our waste problems encourage companies like Starbucks to invest in solutions to find biodegradable cups, as well as limit their plastic straw usage by creating unique cup lids for their cold brews. These lids are currently available in 1,400 stores, and later this year will be implemented in all US and Canada stores. And yet, the shareholders are still asking for more ambitious aspirations for the sustainability proposals that the company is formulating.

“No one is satisfied with the incremental industry progress made to date, it’s just not moving fast enough” said Starbucks Vice President of global social impact, who is overseeing the production of the fully recyclable and compostable cups, which are expected to make their debut within the next three years. The project will also be “open source” so that other companies and industries can benefit from this sustainable innovation as they continue to stress plastic usage is a huge global problem that they are committed to helping alleviate.

Starbucks has also embraced new companies to collaborate with as they try to appease their shareholders. As You Sow is a non-profit organization that “empowers shareholders to change corporations for good.” They have criticized Starbucks in the past, with their last article addressing Starbucks’ cup usage coming the day before the announcement of the new plan to launch plant-based, compost friendly cups. This plea for more sustainable action comes in the form of As You Sow’s shareholder resolution, asking Starbucks to phase out the estimated two billion plastic straws it uses each year. This resolution has an aggressive outlook on the implementation of a plan that Starbucks had introduced nine years ago, but never acted on.

If Starbucks truly considers the environment its #1 business partner, the company should prove their commitment promised to the shareholders and the public. Starbucks’ lax implementation of their last sustainability plan could have some stakeholders wary of the future. The pressure from their business partners and non-profit organizations  seems like it can be taking Starbucks in a positive direction. However, this can also be viewed as people begging a corporation to do a job they should already be doing. The most recently proposed sustainability initiatives are set to be implemented in the next few years, while research and development is dominating the company’s time and resources. The least the local stores could do is begin holding true to their promises of recycling and encouraging customers to use reusable cups.

Starbucks has made sustainability strides in other aspects of their business. The company  sources their coffee beans and sugar cane from ethical and sustainable growers, as well host philanthropic projects in the countries that they harvest from. Starbucks  provides training opportunities for their employees and hire people who are unique. The company is also very well known for its college opportunities, as some employees receive financial assistance for schooling. In addition, Starbucks chain locations are staying very active within their local communities through providing the latest in music culture and providing a space for creative and innovative outlet.

And yet, even as the leaders in the industry for sustainability, there is always room for improvement. It’s what their shareholders desire, and what the public should demand. A more and more businesses are adopting green practices, It’s going to be exciting the direction the industry is heading in. As consumers, we might actually begin seeing real change across industries, especially in something like plastic straw usage. The Refuse the Straw project has been getting quite a bit of media attention, which can be heightened in stores if the employees and the company reminds people to be more conscious of their choices.

Overall, the tremendous amount of dedication that the shareholders of Starbucks showed as they continue to pressure the company to move in a more sustainable and productive direction is admirable. More companies need people, like those at As You Sow, to encourage businesses  to be the very best that they can be, and deliver sustainability promises to their customers. We should all be looking forward to the progress in this industry, and have one more reason to visit your five local Starbucks Coffee locations.



MacKerron, Conrad. “It's Now or Never Starbucks: Reduce Single Use Plastics and Recycle

Your Cups!” As You Sow, 19 Mar. 2018,

“As Starbucks Seeks Sustainable Cup Solutions, Shareholders Demand More Ambitious

Action.”, 20 Mar. 2018,


“Corporate Social Responsibility |Starbucks Mission Statement.” Starbucks Coffee Company,

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