The epitome of coziness amid holiday shopping fury just might be that gingerbread latte warming your hands in an aromatic neighborhood Starbucks. You could make this scene even warmer and fuzzier if your latte were in a reusable — hence sustainable — ceramic mug. But as much as Starbucks employees would support your choice, they sure wouldn't suggest it.
The Starbucks website says, "Use a [reusable] tumbler at Starbucks; you save 10 cents and another paper cup every time." Starbucks also has ceramic mugs available for customers enjoying their drinks in store. How often, though, do cashiers ask customers whether they'd like a mug or whether their order is to stay? How often do in-store signs suggest reusable cups? Has Starbucks ever asked, as Seattle's Best does, whether or not customers need a lid?
To this day, I've never met anyone who could recall a Starbucks employee or in-store sign suggest a reusable mug or glass. The policy exists, but there's a communication disconnect. A coffee shop isn't required to push reusable cups, of course, but just look at how Starbucks branded itself. Toting the "shared planet" slogan on every cup, it has blatantly positioned itself as a green company. If Starbucks is going to talk the green talk, employees should walk the green walk.
In fact, this holiday season is especially paradoxical for Starbucks as a green company. Starting this fall, as seasonally humungous crowds spill out of stores with plastic-wrapped holiday treats and piping hot paper cups, Starbucks is raising the bar on sustainability. All new stores as of late 2010 will be LEED certified as part of a pilot program with the Green Building Council. This is big news, and such a transformation by an industry leader will surely set standards for other businesses.
Again, this really is wonderful. But one has to ask: for a company taking such complex steps toward sustainability, why can't it cover the simple things first? As Starbucks boasts of its LEED initiative on its website and Youtube channel — complete with uplifting video testimonials from morally fulfilled employees — these employees aren't reminding customers to be sustainable. They're only reminding customers that Starbucks is sustainable.
By 2015, Starbucks plans to serve 25 percent of beverages in reusable cups. But why not add a few dozen more mugs and signs to each store today? A few latte orders per store would cover the cost. As of now, Starbucks says of its progress, "We served 4.4 million more beverages in reusable cups in 2009 than in 2008." While that sounds like a huge improvement, consider how many cups they're pumping out in total. Each year, Starbucks produces 400 billion of the 500 billion paper and plastic cups produced globally.
Starbucks will also use 100 percent recycled content for paper cups by 2015 — another great move. Yet consumers should be wary that cups made of recyclable material still take energy to make. Starbucks ads imply customers will help the environment with every sip from a reincarnated cup, but no paper cup at all is always better than a recycled paper cup.
Another inconsistency is how Starbucks doesn't plan to use paper cups in lieu of its plastic cups, made courtesy of fossil fuels. In fact, all of the sandwiches and salads come in plastic, too. Why not put them in the glass display case? Why not give in-store eaters reusable plates instead of paper or plastic wrapping?
Perhaps New Yorkers forget this is not true coffeehouse etiquette. After all, Manhattan dwellers — especially those in Midtown — have little choice in coffee vendor despite living in the alleged center of the universe. Starbucks real estate snags as many desirable corner lots as possible in affluent New York City areas, and complacent customers might rarely venture to other sorts of cafes and bistros pushing the "full" coffee-drinking experience.
In New York's Little Italy coffee shops, for example, customers more often than not sip their milky froth at leisure. Here, anyone sitting at a table automatically receives his or her drink in a ceramic or glass mug. Aside from morning espresso rushes, the Italians know cappuccino time is meant for chatting, unwinding and self-pampering.
While Starbucks customers are sometimes characterized as hurried, cranky or downright rude at rush hour, the company still flaunts the atmospheric meeting place it provides — an idea borrowed straight from Italy and made commonplace in American culture. Company marketers emphasize the complex yet ultimately soothing sensory experience each Starbucks sitting conjures. So for those of us indulging in this "experience," why the to-go table settings?
At the end of the day, Starbucks has one big reason for pushing paper cups: they aren't just convenient — they're advertisements at penny costs. The company knows when people spot a familiar green label on a co-worker's desk, they just can't help but get that craving. Clear plastic revealing Frappuccino goodness on the streets is equally tantalizing. Yet giving out free Starbucks tumblers with rewards cards or big purchases would do the trick just fine.
Step up to the plate, Starbucks — and use some real plates while you're at it. Being not only an industry leader but an industry creator, you set the precedents and start the trends. Your LEED buildings and recycling initiatives are impressive, but 2015 is too far away. The Earth isn't getting any younger, so why not push dishes this year? You branded yourself as a green company, and you have the capacity to offer more ceramic dishes right away. Conservative consumption shouldn't be a choice customers have to remember. For all of us coffeehouse dwellers, it should be automatic.
Meanwhile, customers have work to do if they want changes from a globally smitten corporation. You latte drinkers out there have to start asking for mugs. And use your tumbler for goodness sake — you all have one you intended to use still sitting in the back of your cabinet. Ask employees why they don't inquire whether orders are to stay or go, and shoot a quick e-mail to the company asking the same.
Be responsible with your gingerbread latte or your peppermint mocha. You might think your drink is inconsequential, but hundreds of billions of those babies pack a punch for the Earth. Sit, or stand, with your ceramic mug. And don't kid yourself; no matter how busy you are, everyone needs to take a breather.