Greener Partners

Greener Partners

For Starbucks, fostering local leaders is key to delivering on its commitments to the community and the environment.


By Amanda Sawit

Like its logo, the effects of Starbucks global sustainability commitments can be seen pretty much everywhere.

For more than 30 years, the coffee company has integrated sustainability into nearly every facet of its stores, from the way they are designed, decorated, and maintained, down to the waste management and recycling of products after use.

Greener Apron completion pin

Starbucks designated thousandth LEED-certified store, located in the campus town of Ames, Iowa, was awarded LEED Silver under the Interior Design and Construction (ID+C) rating system and posted notable resource savings, including a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption. Image courtesy of Starbucks Coffee Company.

Much of this has to do with the coffee company’s global efforts to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. But it didn’t reach more than 1,200 LEED-certified stores overnight. Early on, Starbucks was a key developer in the LEED for Retail program, looking to adapt green principles to construction and commercial interior strategies for retail businesses. It was also among the first to pilot the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Volume Certification program, which streamlines certification by focusing on similarities in design, operations and delivery.


The rest is green building history. As of last year, Starbucks stores make up 20 percent of all LEED-certified retail space worldwide, and it was the first retailer to certify stores in France, Germany, Spain, Thailand, and the Philippines.

At the physical level, Starbucks is taking steps to reduce consumption, shrink its environmental footprint, and provide a model for sustainable business operations. But all employers know that real change can’t happen without employee buy-in.

So Starbucks looked to harness existing interest amongst its partners (employees) to take their personal investments in sustainability further, and to offer optional education opportunities that would grow a global network of sustainability literate partners, with an eye toward solving complex environmental challenges through business.

Leadership Though Learning

Greener Apron, which launched its pilot phase in May 2016, was born out of that desire to further engage partners around the company’s green practices. Through this voluntary certification program, partners learn about sustainability in short modules in partnership with Arizona State University’s (ASU) innovative digital immersion learning system.

The aim: to cultivate passionate sustainability champions within each store. Those who have received their certification act as dedicated resources at the local level, helping to solve issues and implement unique programs within their communities.

The idea started with a meeting between ASU and Starbucks in the summer of 2015, following some informal research Starbucks had conducted, which found that sustainability and the environment were key areas of passion for many of its partners. ASU, through its Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, jumped at the opportunity to fulfill those interests.


“Because the mission of ASU’s Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives is to move from knowledge to action, we were particularly interested in working with Starbucks to drive change from the store level by surfacing new ideas that could be implemented more broadly,” says Patricia Reiter, Executive Director of the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives. “The Greener Apron program goes far beyond the standard corporate training to build a community of change agents and empower them to engage their colleagues and communities in sustainable practices. Starbucks stores have become vibrant community centers and through the Greener Apron program they can also become exemplars of sustainability.”

ASU, a leader in green building and climate action, repurposed some of its existing curriculum in addition to contributing some unique content to the platform. Starbucks, on the other hand, had to create the majority of the business-specific content from scratch. From January to March 2016, Starbucks developed most of the curriculum working with internal subject matter experts from across the company, including facilities, store development, sourcing and supply chain, operations, the global social impact team, and more.

The program works because it comes from a shared passion that both retail and non-retail employees have for sustainability, says Nicki McClung, who worked on the Starbucks-side development of the Greener Apron curriculum, “We chose to work with ASU because of their existing leadership in both online learning and sustainability. We relied heavily on their expertise to help guide our decision making to create a course that was both fun and educational. The hope is that in the future, ASU can build on this experience to create employee engagement opportunities for other organizations,” says McClung, who sits on the Starbucks Global Social Impact team.

Once created, content review and collation was led by ASU’s team, and then built it into ASU’s learning platform of choice—Blackboard. Beta testing was conducted in April 2016 and minor improvements were made before the official pilot launch in May.

The result: a three-module program that takes between 3 to 5 hours to complete. The first module, featuring ASU content, introduces high-level sustainability concepts, while the second module, specific to Starbucks operations, features content on waste management and reduction, water conservation, coffee sustainability, store design, and business goal-setting. The third module brings home concepts explored within the first two, focusing on projects that are community-, store- and home-specific, as well as zeroing in on best practices to activate ideas and engage others.

The pilot went out in three waves, lasting from the end of May to the end of July 2016. Altogether, 1,228 participants from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong enrolled in the pilot, 83 percent of whom were retail store partners. Interest quickly exceeded expectations; initially, the company anticipated a few hundred participants at most, and ultimately wound up capping the number of participants due to capacity issues with Blackboard.

Despite the challenges, feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with partners engaging on Blackboard as well as on Facebook and Instagram. Based on partners’ instinct to branch out to more social platforms, Starbucks also focused on building out chat and information sharing functions within the learning platform itself, ahead of the program’s phase two launch. During the two-month campaign, partners shared their ideas for recycling, for-here ware, composting, energy-reduction and other initiatives for individual engagement.

Ashley R., a store manager who participated in the beta testing was especially pleased to see the inclusion of the Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices in the coursework. Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices help the retailer keep track of it’s sustainable sourcing practices by evaluating the triple bottom line aspects of coffee production, and is third-party verified by SCS Global Services.

“[Understanding] the influence we have in our stores has really impacted how I see my business as a store manager,” Ashley added. “I hope to see more partners take this course so we can all see how improving our small behaviors in our work together can make a huge impact.”

Since it started investing in renewable energy in 2005, Starbucks has steadily increased investments in Renewable Energy Certificates to achieve its goal of powering all company-operated stores worldwide through renewable sources. This facility, located in North Carolina, reflects a move away from energy-offset purchases only, in favor of direct engagement with the energy industry. Image courtesy of Starbucks Coffee Company.

Since it started investing in renewable energy in 2005, Starbucks has steadily increased investments in Renewable Energy Certificates to achieve its goal of powering all company-operated stores worldwide through renewable sources. This facility, located in North Carolina, reflects a move away from energy-offset purchases only, in favor of direct engagement with the energy industry. Image courtesy of Starbucks Coffee Company.

Cultivating Local Leaders for Global Gains

On Earth Day 2017, Starbucks opened up phase two of Greener Apron, expanding availability to partners in Canada. Prior to launching, Starbucks’ implementation team looked at how the content was locally relevant in the key international markets that they planned to enter. The curriculum was also translated into French. Upgrading the platform and user experience, too, was needed in order to handle the targeted 10,000-plus global users of phase two. So Starbucks decided to migrate platforms, which now also makes it easier for users to talk and share information directly in the platform. It also included the rollout of Workplace by Facebook, an internal Facebook platform that is gradually being rolled out to partners in the U.S. and Canada.

Looking ahead, Starbucks is working to expand the reach of Greener Apron to include more than 5,000 partners worldwide by the end of 2017, and 10,000 by 2020. It’s also using the program as a way to identify sustainability elements and practices that can be further incorporated into core training programs for in-store partners, so that eventually, their employee base is made up of professionals who can advocate for behavior change at the store level.

The retailer has also used Greener Apron as a boon to another employee engagement program called Partners for Sustainability (PfS), which was launched more than three years ago but has since struggled to find the reach and influence needed for large-scale behavioral change. Participants of Greener Apron are invited to join the PfS network to inspire and help colleagues incorporate sustainable practices in their work and lives.

“Greener Apron is the educational tool for how we teach our partners around sustainability, and Partners for Sustainability is a way to bring that education to life through events, newsletters and other engagement and volunteer opportunities,” says McClung, who also sits on the board of PfS.

Although Greener Apron plugs seamlessly into other company initiatives, it wasn’t designed to only serve Starbucks goals. It’s also intended to be a model for businesses of this size and scale to give back to their communities by investing in employees. By offering no-cost courses to its partners, Starbucks is opening the door to environmental education to those who may have otherwise not followed a formal or professional path to sustainability work.

One partner, a single mom who has been with the company for seven years, says that the course material was both “exciting and tangible,” and noted the support she received from Starbucks to pursue further education opportunities. “I’ve thought about going back to school for years but have dragged [my] feet. It’s a bit scary. This class has given me the confidence to move forward with enrollment,” she says.

Greener-Partners-05Sidebar: Scaling Partnerships to Help End Hunger

With more than 8000 company-owned stores (not including “licensed locations,” in airports, hotels, supermarkets, etc.) and 157,000 partners in the U.S. alone, Starbucks knows that any decision affecting store operations creates far-reaching implications. In recent years, Starbucks has taken steps toward mitigating its environmental footprint through food waste reduction, while also aiming to have a meaningful effect on the 42 million Americans— including 13.1 million children—who struggle to put adequate, nutritious food on the table. Through its FoodShare program, launched in March 2016, Starbucks donates ready-to-eat meals from its stores to food banks, pantries, and meal programs throughout the country.


Sean Higdon, a store manager from Front Royal, VA, placed new signs for his store’s Grounds for Your Garden program that showcase some of the lesser known benefits of used coffee grounds. Image courtesy of Sean Higdon.

While the concept of donating food seems simple enough, executing on the idea required some upfront investment in order for Starbucks to scale the program successfully. Previously, food safety policies required baristas to discard salads, sandwiches, and other refrigerated items after the designated expiration date, even if the food could still be safely consumed. So the company funded research and quality assurance testing to develop a way to safely donate fresh food. The challenge, said Jane Maly, FoodShare program manager for Starbucks, was finding a way to preserve the quality of the food so that it could last through the delivery process. To that end, their efforts zeroed in on finding ways to maintain the temperature, texture and flavor of the surplus food so that it could be safely enjoyed.

Since 2010, Starbucks donated unsold pastries through an existing collaboration with Food Donation Connection (FDC). In order to donate its more nourishing and fresher ready-to-eat foods, Starbucks established a partnership with Feeding America—the largest domestic hunger-relief and food-rescue nonprofit in the U.S.—to redistribute unsold food. Through this process, refrigerated vans pick up food from designated Starbucks stores each day and deliver it to the Feeding America network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs.

FoodShare has launched in locations across the nation, including: San Diego, Orange County, Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Colorado Springs, Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Long Island. In the first year alone, Starbucks estimated that FoodShare would provide nearly 5 million meals to those in need. Originally, the plan was to complete rollout across the U.S. in five years, but just five months after formally announcing the program, Starbucks accelerated its timeline to three years. Now, Starbucks intends to rescue 100 percent of its available to donate food—nearly 50 million meals—by 2020.

“[Starbucks] program will have a tremendous impact in communities, and it is also a testament of how we can work together to help more individuals and families achieve food security,” says Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America.