Packaging as a Portal into Starbucks and Sustainability

Packaging is the starting point and is the gateway to great conversations. It’s essential that we get that part right because that puts our customers and consumers on the path of either trusting the brands they’re using or not trusting them. If we can build that level of trust, if we’re doing the right thing around packaging, then that gives us the ability to engage in deeper conversation around our total environmental footprint and how our customers can play a role in driving that impact down by “voting” with their dollar.

Jim Hanna, director, environmental impact, Starbucks Coffee Co.


This is just one of many thought provoking comments from an interview with Jim Hanna, posted at Packaging Digest.  Sustainability can seem complex, and it is easier for companies to focus on specific measures such as Zero Waste, which he says are “often distractions from reality,” or landfill diversion which “doesn’t necessarily equate to environmental efficacy or environmental mitigation.”  That led me to ponder if we should be throwing reusables, which aid in landfill diversion, in the same camp – as a diversion to sustainability? I will revisit this comment a little later.

Jim observes that the North American consumer typically equates sustainable packaging with end of life management of it, but that the overall sustainability impact is much larger. None the less, because this is what the North American customer sees, it is important to get that piece right as a starting point in the more expansive conversation around sustainability. In the case of Starbucks, for example, the energy efficiency of its retail outlets is of significantly greater environmental impact than packaging, yet it is what happens to those empty cups that is of greatest public interest.

Other gems include his statement, obvious but not said often enough, that it is not enough for a company to simply toss hands in the air and say there is no recycling infrastructure in place:

Sure, we are great at playing defense and activating our trade associations to (rightly) oppose material bans or Draconian fees on packaging. But we’ve never been effective at sitting down with local lawmakers ahead of time to hash out good policy that drives infrastructure development and acceptance of our products into recycling streams, leaving us vulnerable to bans, fees, extended producer responsibility (EPR) and other last-resort policies to divert our products from landfills. We need to take a second look at our engagement strategies as an industry.

And as for use of reusable mugs, they currently comprise two percent of the business as Starbucks looks to push it up to five percent, including greater emphasis on offering ceramic mugs to in-store consumers.

So getting back to the comment about landfill diversion as a distraction, and by supposition, reusables as a distraction, what is the bottom line?  Any of these initiatives, if pursued myopically in the absence of  a broader lens, could be considered “a distraction.” As I said in a recent article, good can be the enemy of great. In concert with other initiatives, however, reusables continue to play a powerful role in helping many companies to achieve their sustainability aspirations with respect to eliminating solid waste, reducing damage, improving freight efficiencies as well as other benefits.

Read the complete interview at Packaging Digest.


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