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Behind Every Cup of Coffee is a Story

In the run-up to this year’s Earth Day, which was dedicated to plastic use and awareness, Starbucks announced it was introducing new disposable cups that contain up to 20% less plastic.

Even though hot coffee doesn’t come in plastic cups, Starbucks attributes 75% of its beverage sales to cold drinks like iced coffee, iced teas and blended drinks like Frappuccinos, which are all served in plastic. By using these new cups, the company estimates it will reduce the amount of plastic it contributes to landfills by 13.5 million pounds annually. That’s also a significant reduction in the amount of natural resources, in this case oil and natural gas, that will be used to make the cups in the first place. 

But does this initiative really make Starbucks any “greener” at the end of the day? Most of us would say unequivocally YES!

Starbucks is first and foremost a business. Just like Pepsi and any other beverage provider, it measures its viability by being profitable. Profits for a business come from revenues or sales each year exceeding the expenses or costs to provide the coffee or soda it is selling. When a company makes a profit, it either reinvests that profit back into the growth of the company, or it distributes those profits to the owners (shareholders), or a combination of both. 

Companies continuously search for ways to reduce their costs to help make money.  If a company continually loses money, eventually it will cease to operate. If a company can get more from less, those savings go to its bottom line. Therefore, technological efficiencies that reduce overall costs and boost profits are typically an easy decision to implement. 

Wanting to learn more about this initiative, I contacted Starbuck's Media Department which emailed me back stating that, not only would the new cups reduce plastic waste into landfills, but “based on analysis of life cycle assessments, producing the new cups is projected to save, annually, emissions equivalent to taking about 5,200 cars off the road, and conserve about 2,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.” Wow!  I followed up with the Media Department asking  if they anticipated any financial savings in total dollars as a result of their  decreased use of water, plastic and fossil fuels. Their response to me was: “We cannot share any exact cost savings at this time. Thank you for expressing interest in Starbucks."

Maybe they couldn’t, but I find it hard to believe that the financial folks in their accounting department have not run any projected cost savings estimates. My “guesstimation,” based on the figures Starbucks provided, is that the energy, water and plastic savings may be somewhere in tens of millions of dollars annually- ALL to Starbucks bottom line. 

Why should all of this matter to an environmentalist like myself?  Using less water, energy and plastics is good for the environment, isn’t it?  Yes! 

However, using fewer resources to produce a good or service invariably results in more money or profit. That money either gets reinvested back into growing the company, or it gets distributed to shareholders. Whether reinvested or distributed, those profits will then be used to consume and produce more goods and services made of materials and energy, depleting natural resources, generating more waste, and negating any overall environmental benefit from the original innovation. 

When it comes to Starbucks and any other company, the intention of reducing emissions and conserving resources on such a grand scale sounds fantastic and is admirable. Yet, these good intentions can not be viewed in isolation. They are inextricably connected to their economic results. Economic results that most of us environmentally minded coffee drinkers unknowingly overlook as a further driver of growth, resource consumption and pollution.