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Starbucks Facing Increased Consumer Pressure to Go Deforestation-Free

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Like one of its baristas, Starbucks has given consumers warm words but has been a bit slow in delivering the goods.

In 2013, Starbucks announced it would source 100 percent of its palm oil from certified sustainable suppliers by 2015, but the company has been slow to take meaningful action, and a campaign is calling on Starbucks to strengthen its policies.

Starbucks has been a leader in the ethical sourcing of coffee, tea and cocoa for years. 99 percent of Starbucks coffee is now ethically sourced; largely thanks to its development and implementation of the Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices (CAFE), a third-party verified program for farmers to meet environmental quality and human rights standards.

And when it comes to palm oil — the ubiquitous and highly controversial oil said to be the leading driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa and South America — Starbucks is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), alongside brands including Unilever, Nestlé, P&G and General Mills. Yet the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)’ most recent Palm Oil Scorecard gave Starbucks only 10 out of 100 earlier this year. UCS corporate policy advocate Miriam Swaffer calls palm oil a glaring hole in Starbucks’ sustainability standards.

“If Starbucks wants to be a true sustainability leader, then it must adopt sourcing policies for all of its products that ensure the protection of forests and peatlands, which includes a specific timetable for implementation,” she said in a statement. “Without such policies in place, Starbucks’ customers are left wondering whether their morning scone is linked to the destruction of rainforests and tiger habitat.”

Several other fast-food breakfast and coffee companies have committed to the use of responsible palm oil with the RSPO, including Dunkin’ Brands, McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme. Like Starbucks’, these companies’ so-called commitments are not without faults. Dunkin’ and McDonald’s both committed to purchase 100 percent of their palm oil from RSPO-certified sources by 2020 — commitments that are considered weak. More recently, Dunkin’ Brands Group Inc., announced a new commitment to source sustainable palm oil in its US stores by 2016. However, its US stores only include half of their global Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins locations. McDonald’s has been publicly criticized by investors and NGOs for its lack of urgency and transparency in acting on its plans and policies.

“Nearly 200,000 concerned citizens from around the world have called on Starbucks, the world's largest coffee chain, to go deforestation-free. Starbucks has a real opportunity to make a huge difference for the rainforests of Southeast Asia, and the people and animals who call them home,” said Fatah Sadaoui, campaigner with “Starbucks needs to move beyond warm words and make a firm commitment: a time-bound, zero-deforestation policy that covers all its commodities.”

Consumer pressure prompted Starbucks to update its Sustainable Palm Oil statement to support a “zero-tolerance approach to deforestation,” but the statement only covers company-owned stores, not its global operations. So on Monday, campaigners launched an online ad campaign to pressure Starbucks further, with a video that highlights that not all Starbucks products are as sustainable as its coffee:

Starbucks is well-positioned to lead the fast-food industry in sourcing products that are ethically produced and deforestation-free. Its competitors are only half-heartedly making commitments, and Starbucks has the experience from its coffee supply chain achievements that it can apply to its other commodities. Now, as consumers make it known that they love orangutans, tigers and forests as much as their morning coffee, it is up to Starbucks to pick up its pace.

Hannah Furlong is an Editorial Assistant for Sustainable Brands, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]

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