Starbucks sustainability lead urges others to make the business case

While the whipped cream on top accounts for a bigger slice of the company's carbon footprint, recycling the cup is Starbucks' most visible sustainability goal.

While the whipped cream on top accounts for a bigger slice of the company's carbon footprint, recycling the cup is Starbucks' most visible sustainability goal. 

Jim Hanna offered advice to a roomful of environmental professionals Wednesday: Find your own cup.

No, Starbucks Coffee Company's director of environmental impact and global responsibility wasn't referring to a the travel mug he hopes you'll bring into your local Starbucks and fill with steaming coffee — though he hopes you'll do that too.

What Hanna, who spoke at the Northwest Environmental Conference and Tradeshow, was talking about was Starbucks' crusade to implement widespread recycling of its disposable coffee cups by 2015.

As it turns out, the 4 billion disposable cups that Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) churns through every year, represent a miniscule slice of the company's overall carbon footprint. The bulk of its emissions — about 75 percent, Hanna said — are attributed to store operations. Another measurable chunk comes from the nitrous oxide in whipped cream. (Fun fact: That nitrous oxide accounts for a larger slice of the company's carbon footprint than all of its U.S. roasting operations combined.)

But the cup is what people see: Littering streets and tossed into overflowing garbage cans.

"In this case perception is reality," Hanna said.

In order to gain the loyalty of customers and have the opportunity to tell the story about Starbucks other efforts to operate more sustainably, it is imperative that Starbucks fix the cup problem.

Which is what Hanna implored others in the audience to do at their own companies: Find the imperative problem and work toward a solution.

"If the only reason you're invested in sustainability is because it's the 'right thing to do,' you're in trouble," Hanna said.

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