The holiday coffee-drinking season is upon us! On November 1, Starbucks locations in the US and Canada unveiled four new versions of the company’s much-anticipated festive holiday cups ready to be filled with seasonal favorites like gingerbread lattes, peppermint mochas, and caramel bruleé lattes.
As you enjoy your favorite holiday drinks this season, it should warm more than your belly to know that the coffee industry as a whole — including major players like Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts — is making good on an ambitious commitment to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product.
Coffee faces some serious challenges over the coming decades. Worldwide coffee consumption is expected to triple by 2050 (from today’s impressive rate of 600 billion cups a year) while global coffee production is under threat from a variety of sources. Rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns associated with climate change are making it harder to raise healthy and productive coffee plants. And since 97% of specialty coffee is grown by small shareholder farmers in limited-resource countries like Rwanda and Indonesia, it leaves the door open to unethical labor and environmental practices along the supply chain.
In response to these threats, the coffee industry has taken up the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a 2015 pledge to protect and preserve native forests, to introduce more sustainable growing practices on coffee farms, and to improve labor conditions in order to ensure the long-term livelihood of tens of millions of workers in the coffee supply chain. The Sustainable Coffee Challenge brings together coffee suppliers and retailers, NGOs, and government agencies to reach a goal of 100% sustainably sourced coffee.
Starbucks, one of the founding partners of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, has already achieved 99% sustainable sourcing, and McDonald’s has pledged to reach the 100% milestone by 2020.
As a sign of its commitment to supporting coffee-growing communities across its global supply chain, Starbucks has already invested $100 million in farmer loans and training centers, and a program called Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) created in partnership with Conservation International. The C.A.F.E. program improves supply chain visibility through a farm-level scorecard that tracks 200 social, economic and environmental indicators and is verified by third-party organizations.
We recently highlighted the story of S&D Coffee and Tea, one of McDonald’s major coffee roasters, which has partnered with SupplyShift to collect and verify on-farm data — fertilizer and water use, farm management plans, and more — at its 4,500 coffee farms in six Central and South American countries.
The environmental impact of the coffee supply chain doesn’t end with the shipment of high-quality beans to your local coffee shop. It ends when your single-use coffee cup gets dumped in the landfill. For more than a decade, the coffee industry has been searching for the perfect disposable coffee cup that can safely keep a beverage hot but can also be easily recycled.
Dunkin’ Donuts recently announced that it would phase out all polystyrene cups from its global supply chain by 2020. Polystyrene cups — also known by the brand name Styrofoam — have already been pulled from Dunkin’ Donuts stores in California, Hawaii and New York. The company is switching over entirely to paperboard cups, although that, too, is an imperfect solution.
Starbucks has been long been exclusively offering paperboard coffee cups at its stores, and even introduced cups made from 10% post-consumer recycled materials as far back as 2006. But even though it’s technically possible to recycle Starbucks coffee cups, obstacles have stood in the way.
First, disposable paperboard coffee cups include a thin plastic liner that prevents the paper from soaking up the coffee. This plastic liner has to be separated by recycling facilities so that the paper pulp can be recovered. Not all recyclers have the technology to filter out the plastic, and many that do couldn’t get good prices for reselling the paper pulp, so they stopped accepting the cups.
While that situation is improving, and more municipal and private recycling programs are accepting plastic-lined coffee cups, there is also an ongoing search for a novel type of single-use coffee cup that is 100% recyclable. The NextGen Cup Challenge, backed by brands like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Yum! as well as NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund, is crowdsourcing new ideas for cup materials and design, offering startup capital for the top six entries.
The best solution would be for coffee lovers to bring their own reusable cups and travel mugs to their favorite coffee shop, and there are signs that this consumer behavioral shift is already happening. Back in November when Starbucks released its holiday cup designs, it also gave away free reusable red cups at all of its stores. The reusable cups were so popular that many locations quickly ran out.
Consumers wield tremendous influence in the coffee industry. If you get as much satisfaction supporting sustainability efforts as you do from sipping a holiday spiced coffee, choose to buy your holiday beverages from coffee shops committed to caring for the planet and their farmers.