The sustainability platform SWISSCO announced that Starbucks had become their latest member, raising the profile of the organisation.
Starbucks may sell a lot of coffee, but it doesn’t actually consider itself a coffee company. They say they want to be a customer’s Third Place’, a definition which expands their ambition beyond coffee. In fact, according to the company’s Global Environmental & Social Impact Report 2021, Starbucks used 10,000 tonnes of Cocoa beans in a range of products sold worldwide last year.
I have conflicting views about Starbucks. The company seems inextricably tied to the culture set out by its current ‘interim’ CEO, Howard Shultz. Shultz cuts an avuncular figure who talks earnestly about ethical issues. But not everyone agrees that their public statements are borne out by their actions.
I am watching Schultz’s masterclass on business leadership. He speaks like a somewhat boring but pleasant uncle who lets you benefit from his experience. Dressed in a grey/green jumper and an open shirt, two of the 13 videos are dedicated to ethical topics. “Values and Profits” and “Hire a Values-Based Team”.
The ethical lecture seems a little incongruent with the dubious tactics Starbucks has deployed recently in its attempts to quell a growing demand by its employees to form unions.
So, what does the company’s track record for sustainability look like?
Starbucks has a Global Farmer Fund and Farmer Support all of which aim to provide support to the company’s producers and strengthen all three pillars of sustainability in the coffee chain. Additionally, the cornerstone of the company’s ethical sourcing approach to buying coffee is Coffee Farmer and Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices, which was one of the coffee industry’s first set of ethical sourcing standards when it launched in 2004SWISSCO Announcement
However, if you Google the question “Is Starbucks sustainable?” you will get a feed full of articles from the company itself – a sign that their SEO department is earning its money, but also a few independent articles that conclude, for various reasons, that Starbucks is better at promoting sustainability than implementing it. Examples include links to deforestation in Peru and slavery in Brazil.
However, I do not think the authors of these critical articles take into account the size of the company. When you are as big as Starbucks, with over 34,000 shops worldwide, sheer size means two things:
- You are limited to working with providers who can deliver at your scale.
- Sometimes, because of the numbers involved, you will get it wrong.
Starbucks sources most of its beans from Cargill, its Tier 1 supplier, which itself does not have a particularly good sustainability record, but when it comes to cocoa in bulk, the options are even more limited. I would like to know what Starbucks pays for its cocoa. The company says it wants to be more transparent:
Moving forward, we are working to provide additional transparency across all cocoabased products sourced across the company globallyGlobal Environmental & Social Impact Report 2021
Unfortunately, trying to follow the links in the report on Cargill’s cocoa sourcing leads to a broken web link, so I could not find out if this figure is disclosed.
However, I did find that the company avoided the Rainforest Alliance’s misleading mass balancing in order to obtain certification, opting for the more expensive Segregated certification, which means that all cocoa is verified to the source.
Starbucks likes to develop its own certification programme. For coffee, there was the C.A.F.E. framework, which the company says is delivering results.
Developed in collaboration with Conservation International, C.A.F.E. Practices is a verification program that measures farms against economic, social and environmental criteria, designed to promote transparent, profitable and sustainable coffee growing practices while protecting the well-being of coffee farmers and workers, their families and their communities. Evidence shows that farmers participating in the program have higher productivity than country averages, which has helped Starbucks create a long-term supply of high-quality coffee while positively impacting the lives of coffee farmers and their communities. Starbucks’ goal is to ethically source and verify 100% of its coffee through C.A.F.E. Practices.
At the very least, Starbucks could bring new thinking and apply the expertise of the work already done in the coffee industry to cocoa through the SWISSCO platform. I hope they keep regular updates, refrain from marketing gimmicks and are as transparent as possible about what actually works.