Starbucks a catalyst for global to-go cup culture
Starbucks expands into emerging economies before reducing reliance on disposable cups, but there's one easy solution they haven't even tried yet.
Thursday, February 24, 2011 - 15:08
TO-GO ABROAD: Starbucks pushes paper cups in global markets despite the option of ceramic mugs. (Photo: Binzy Wu/Flickr)
It's rare when people sip lattes in reusable mugs at Starbucks, but it isn't ecological apathy driving this to-go cup culture. In-store drinkers use disposable cups because no one asks them not to.
Starbucks has ceramic mugs for in-store drinking, but customers aren't reminded of that. Employees never ask whether an order is to stay or go. There are no in-store signs announcing the availability of mugs. There are rarely signs reminding people to bring coffee tumblers or thermoses. How can Starbucks, a company blatantly branded as green, evoke habit change in customers by keeping their mouths shut?
Using ceramic while drinking in-store reduces carbon footprints drastically over time. While Starbucks plans to make cups 100 percent recyclable by 2015, not using paper cups at all is cleaner than recycled paper cups; each one takes energy to make. And when people choose to leave the store with their half-finished drink, the fact that it's recyclable doesn't guarantee it will end up in a recycling bin. Anyone with a to-stay order should automatically receive his or her drink in a mug.
Starbucks creates 400 billion of the 500 billion paper cups produced globally. Yes, this a tremendous amount of waste, but it is also an indication that Starbucks' policies alone can be the disposable cup industry's tipping point. Although the company's waste will decrease somewhat in 2015, four years is too long to wait considering the company's output; each year ceramic mugs aren't pushed, billions of cups go to waste needlessly.
To make things worse, this disposable cup culture is being exported. Thanks to Starbucks, global populations formerly deprived of mobile caffeine now have paper and plastic cups to tote their coffee in. Starbucks didn't invent the disposable coffee cup, of course, but it is making daily use of them a widespread cultural norm. So as Starbucks expands throughout densely populated regions of China, Brazil, and now India, that 400 billion figure is about to climb exponentially.
In India, for example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported only 60 percent of the country's municipal waste is collected, and a much smaller proportion is recycled. A sudden expansion of Starbucks in India could not utilize recyclable cups in the near future.
China, meanwhile, has decent recycling capacity for paper products, but its plastic recycling facilities are flawed and even dangerous. Plastic recycling material is routinely shipped to China from around the globe, but ironically, these Chinese facilities create toxic fumes for employees and the surrounding environment. In a country posing numerous ecological concerns with its recycling plants, the idea of guiltlessly drinking from recyclable, petroleum-derived cups each day is laughable.
Then there's the problem of copy-cat coffee shops abroad. If Starbucks makes recyclable to-go cups a cultural norm, to-go cups will be a norm at other global cafes, as well. Most chains don't have the capacity, expertise or resources to implement paper and plastic recycling programs for cups. As an industry leader, Starbucks must make mugs central to in-store drinking if that culture is to pervade other coffeehouse mega chains.
So how can Starbucks reverse a global cultural trend? This seemingly daunting feat actually has a simple solution; employees must ask customers whether orders are to stay or go.
The aversion Starbucks may have to such a policy is legitimate but solvable. First, Starbucks meticulously and mechanically shaves off seconds from the time each customer spends at the register, so an added sentence could cause ironic controversy. Yet for green companies, "efficiency" is just as much about responsibility as it is about speed. An added sentence will ultimately elevate the "shared planet" mission and ward off hypocrisy, which ultimately brings efficiency to the company's corporate communications strategy.
There's also the free advertising that mobile Starbucks cups offer; the company entices pedestrians and co-workers alike with that friendly reminder on each branded cup. Yet loyalty rewards could give customers discounted coffee tumblers, meaning their mobile advertisement would have an even longer life and more versatile use.
Starbucks also boasts about the 10 cent discount they give customers who use portable thermoses or tumblers. Yet despite the recession, 10 cents is rarely something that fuels habit change. Consistent use of thermoses comes with constant communication via signs and employees.
Such green branding has certainly let Starbucks raise the bar for other mega chains, but ultimately, a green company cannot fulfill its purpose by conjuring brand worship alone. The Starbucks brand is connected to exemplary environmental initiatives, but living up to that image means prompting habit change — not merely complacency. Without greater monetary incentives, the only way to do so is through pervasive, consistent communication strategies.
In other words, Starbucks can't create habit change by making customers feel guiltless about to-go cups; the company must raise consciousness so that customers use paper or plastic cups — however recyclable they are — only when necessary.
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