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Starbucks’ Relationship with Factory Farming

September 8, 2022

Starbucks is the largest coffee shop chain in the world; where do they get their milk and dairy?

Starbucks was the second most valuable brand amongst fast food restaurants worldwide in 2021. Since the founding of the company in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks has opened tens of thousands of stores across the globe. Between billions of dollars of revenue annually and a brand name worth $13 billion, Starbucks leads the pack of coffee shop chains. Beyond simply serving food and beverages, Starbucks makes a point to create a recognizable feeling in their stores. Baristas receive extensive customer service training and stores are designed with earthy tones and textures. Seating is abundant, and baristas are encouraged to create connections with each customer. All of these aspects of a store come from their overarching marketing strategy, which centers on making customers feel like they are in a local shop unique to their community. Nonetheless, Starbucks is a global chain and must source all of that food and drink from somewhere, including their meat and dairy products. 

Starbucks’ mission includes the phrase “one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time,” meaning that they hope to build a positive impact across the world based on small, everyday interactions. This mission is cited as part of the motivation for Starbucks general commitment to environmental responsibility. The company’s current sustainability practices include “grounds for your garden,” which involves baristas making available old coffee grounds for customers to use as fertilizer. One of the most common criticisms of Starbucks from the sustainability sphere has been their use of single-use plastic and paper cups. In March 2022 the company announced plans to phase out these cups by 2025, in favor of customers using their own reusable cups and borrowing cups for one cent. The cups and lids constitute 40 percent of the company’s global waste, with the remaining 60 percent coming from their production chain. A major contribution to the waste comes from the meat and dairy companies who supply the company. The company publishes ethics guidelines for suppliers which provide a view into how Starbucks perceives their responsibilities as one of the most valuable food and beverage companies worldwide.

Looking through the Starbucks website, it is easy to find their general ethics guidelines for coffee, tea, cocoa, and other goods such as the baristas’ aprons and the furniture in the stores. Nonetheless, food and dairy standards are vague and harder to find. Starting with the most thorough standards, the Coffee and Farmer Equity practices (C.A.F.E), are Starbucks’ guidelines for sourcing their coffee. They were developed with Conservation International and launched in 2004. The four pillars of the practices include economic transparency, social responsibility, environmental leadership, and quality. The environmental leadership branch prohibits coffee farmers from turning natural forest into agricultural land and from using unauthorized pesticides. Starbucks hires the third-party company SCS Global Services to verify that their sources follow these practices. Starbucks itself also reserves the right to investigate any facility which produces for them. 

The standards regarding tea sourcing follow the same themes of farmer equity, ecological responsibility, and relying on third-party non-governmental organizations and auditors to ensure the standards are followed. Starbucks’ guidelines regarding cocoa production are vaguer than those concerning coffee and tea, even though they are also verified by SCS Global Services. Their statement on manufactured goods, which include items such as reusable cups, aprons, and furniture, is similarly limited. By far the least detailed, the information on dairy and food sourcing is scattered across many references all around the website. The most in-depth description of their food and dairy ethics is found under their statement on animal-welfare friendly practices which they encourage for suppliers. 

What Starbucks is Doing Right

In 2021 Starbucks published an article addressing the company’s intense reliance on industrial meat and dairy farming. Kelly Bengston, Starbucks’ chief procurement officer, acknowledged that even after the integration of alternative milks into the coffee chain, over half of all milk still came from cows. Nonetheless, Bengston focused on the commitments Starbucks made to moving away from dairy reliance. The company joined the American dairy’s industry Net Zero Initiative with a ten-million-dollar donation in 2020. They also joined the Farm-Powered Strategic Alliance and partnered with Alliance Dairies, a farm with whom they hope to move forward on their Net Zero Initiative goals. All of these partnerships are part of the sustainable dairy farming plan Starbucks developed with The Nature Conservancy.

Starbucks’ most thorough publication of animal-welfare practices lists a set of priorities first established in 2009. Multiple goals listed have years by which the company hoped to achieve them, some including updates on those goals. While not every element of the cruelty present in factory farms is addressed in the goals, the list does reflect a general movement away from the most visible of heinous acts. Dehorning, tail docking, castration, gestation cages, overcrowding, and inhumane methods of slaughter are all mentioned, and alternatives are presented. One specific alternative practice presented is controlled-atmosphere killing, as a replacement for the electrocution and throat-slashing method commonly used now.

Controlled-atmosphere killing (CAK) involves removing the oxygen from the air around the animals, typically birds, so they die from anoxia. The oxygen is replaced with a gas which puts the animals to sleep before they die. Workers do not touch the animals before they are fully deceased, which reduces the possibility of the abuse of live animals. The USDA has approved this slaughter method and it is commonly used in the United Kingdom and Europe. Organizations like PETA strongly argue for the replacement of conventional slaughter methods with CAK.  

The priorities also place emphasis on the reduction of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones for animals. They set the goal to be completed in 2020 and managed to work with their suppliers to remove all non-medically important antibiotics from their poultry two years early, in 2018. Another priority states that by 2024 Starbucks wants to achieve the broiler chicken welfare standards set by the Global Animal Partnership. Part of that process will include moving away from breeds known to face welfare difficulties because of the overgrowth of breast meat which threatens the animal’s health. Yet another priority set by Starbucks in 2009 and accomplished is that 100 percent of American Starbucks’ eggs used in food are cage-free. Finally, Starbucks is requiring their suppliers to move away from gestation crates for pregnant pigs and towards group housing by 2024, which allows for the formation of social hierarchy and better overall pig health.

Another aspect of Starbucks’ position on agricultural responsibility is their 2030 commitments, which outline how Starbucks plans to reduce waste, water, and carbon through this decade. The home webpage for this project lists providing more plant-based options as the first of the five overarching “focus areas.” Other points include improving waste management and streamlining manufacturing and transportation. A striking element of this plan is Starbucks’ commitment to “investing in regenerative agriculture, reforestation, forest conservation, and water replenishment.” The page has links to many reports on social and environmental impacts of the company in recent years. While it is impressive Starbucks has outlined a set of targets with a timeline, these targets deserve some skepticism, which the next section will explore. 

Potential Areas of Improvement

Although Starbucks has published a noteworthy amount of company policy regarding general environmental stewardship and animal welfare, the company still falls short on multiple points. Firstly, the most glaring absence when thinking about factory farming is the lack of explicit ethical sourcing guidelines for meat, dairy, and eggs, even though the company has them for the other types of merchandise. The animal-welfare practices which are available are difficult to find and require digging through standards for other environmental concerns. The names of the suppliers for Starbucks’ meat and dairy products did not seem to be available online.

When thinking about the future of agriculture and hoping to move away from big industry, regenerative agriculture can seem like an easy, simple solution. However, among other problems, the practice promises the major benefits of rewilding without actually committing to completely plant-based diets. This theme of committing halfway seems to be able to speak to most of Starbucks’ approach to distancing themselves from factory farming. They promise more plant-based options even though one or two more options would not be enough to supplement the one option currently available (the bagels are vegan!). While prices may vary, all alternative milks seem to cost a fixed extra fee compared to dairy milk. 

The practices encouraged or required of Starbucks’ suppliers are not particularly stringent when thinking of the power of the meat and dairy industry. Besides the smaller farms Starbucks works with on their sustainable dairy initiatives, many agricultural corporations would easily survive without Starbucks’ business if they did not want to change their practices. Thus, Starbucks must take more decisive stances against factory farming if they would like to be seen as the eco-friendly company they market themselves as.