Green One-Upmanship at Seattle Coffee Joints Has Reached Its Cracking (Up) Point

Compostable cups, extra bins, and your garden.

A post this summer on the popular blog, and the dozens of angry comments it generated, revealed a reality that has begun to gnaw at the Seattle coffee giant's employees and its latte faithful: Starbucks (gasp!) isn't stellar at recycling. From Ithaca to Chicago, Boise, and beyond, there were tales of plastic tossed, glass trashed, and green opportunities squandered. Yeah, there's the compost-for-your-garden program (for which Starbucks will bequeath to you its used grounds). And the mermaid cups (along with their attendant sleeves) are made from recycled material. But opportunities for customers to separate their trash don't exist in most locations, and employee practices behind the bar are spotty. Even at Starbucks' flagship location in the heart of Seattle's Pike Place Market, a barista admits that countless quantities of milk jugs simply get tossed, "Sorry," she says, scrunching up her nose in disgust. Starbucks says its policy is that where space and services are available, stores are expected to recycle. The company reports that at the end of fiscal 2006 (i.e., September), 79 percent of the company-owned stores fitting this description had recycling programs in place. Starbucks also says it's testing "front-of-the-house" recycling bins for customer use in select markets on the East Coast. But the lack of an overarching green mandate hasn't gone unnoticed by the latte king's little sister. Tully's, that other Emerald-city based chain, saw an opening and upped the ante with one word: "ecotainer." In September, Tully's became the first chain in these parts to offer 100 percent compostable cups that can be mixed, dust to dust, with coffee grounds, food scraps, and tea bags. The company, which has 150 stores in eight Western states, now has three separate bins for customers to separate their waste into trash, compost, and recyclable materials. Employees are also required (and given the requisite bins) to recycle—and even the lightbulbs in Tully's stores are now energy efficient. Rob Martin, who until this week was Tully's vice president of merchandising and production, says the effort represents an opportunity for the company to be viewed as a leader, to allow Tully's "to forge its own path and not live in the shadow of other, more dominant coffee retailers." (Translation: You snooze you lose, Starbucks.) Prior to September, Tully's was putting about 72 percent of the garbage it created in the landfill. Once all of the company's stores have switched to the new green paradigm (to date they're about halfway there), the company says, Tully's will instead be recycling approximately 78 percent of its waste. And Tully's customers are taking notice. Kathleen Kettner, who frequents the chain's Harbor Steps location downtown, says it didn't bother her that Starbucks didn't offer recycling bins or compostable cups...until now. "When someone raises the bar, you notice when others are not," she says, sipping from her grande ecotainer. None of this seems to be providing the company any immediate benefit. This week brought a mass exodus among its top executives, including Martin. While cups and bins may make customers feel all green and fuzzy, focusing on packaging and trash is missing the point, says Tom Philpott, food editor for Seattle-based, an oft-irreverent environmental clearinghouse. "Of course you want to use the most-recyclable cups and all that, but the most important part of judging the greenness of coffee is where it's grown and how it's treated. It's not hard to show coffee creating complete misery, people working in substandard conditions, growing in clear-cut rain forests," Philpott says. "People should think about how incredibly resource- and labor-intensive coffee is. Even at $10 a pound we're probably not paying enough." To that end, the old buzzword used to be fair trade, a certification born out of the coffee commodities crash in the late 1990s that requires coffee retailers to pay more for their beans in exchange for the promise that farmers live by certain rules, such as staying small, growing in a sustainable manner, and treating workers fairly. (Tully's now serves only fair trade espresso as part of its green initiative.) However, for the green elite, fair trade isn't good enough anymore. The new buzz word is "direct trade," the idea that you really don't know how sustainably your coffee's grown unless you tour the farm, look the grower in the eye, and place those greenbacks directly into his grateful palm. A handful of medium-sized coffee roasters, including Portland's Stumptown and Seattle's Caffé Vita, are embarking on this effort to shorten the chain between consumer and producer. "This is the coffee I feel best about," says Philpott. "You're not getting Guatemalan coffee from Antigua; this is Guatemalan coffee from Farm X." (Local restaurant menus, and the PCC produce aisle, are taking the same tack.) In an effort to distinguish itself from other direct trade enthusiasts who may not be doing it as directly, Vita has another, even more virtuous term for it: "farm direct." Daniel Shewmaker, who (in addition to being a barista) is a sourcer and buyer for Vita, traveled last year to Brazil and Guatemala looking for farms with which to build relations. He and other Vita reps are planning trips this year to Indonesia and Ethiopia. However, even among the good citizens they visited, Shewmaker says, some were more sustainable than others. He describes one standout farm in Guatemala that kept a portion of its land as a wildlife preserve and filtered the water used to wash the coffee beans with lily pads to ensure it was back to the proper pH before returning to the soil. "It's great to meet someone you can trust," Shewmaker says of this farmer, "whose heart is in the right place." Starbucks was actually one of the first to blaze this trail, forging direct relationships with coffee growers long before it was the "new" thing, and the corporation still has a Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices program to encourage environmentally sound coffee-growing practices while improving the livelihood of farmers. However, midlevel roasters say the company's gargantuan size has limitations in the world of small, sustainable growers. Shewmaker says one Guatemalan farm they visited once sold to Starbucks, but said they'd never do it again. "It wasn't so much that they weren't paying the right price but that [Starbucks'] business sensibilities were too demanding," he says. "A lot of farmers want to see their product treated right. It's not just about the price." Vita also recycles everything, is in the process of putting out a bid for compostable cups, and runs all of its delivery vehicles and two of its sales vehicles on Dr. Dan's biodiesel. But Tom Buckley, Vita's vice president of sales and marketing, says it isn't about being a darker shade of green than the competition, it just comes naturally. "People involved in the arts, coffee, and food tend to be more empathetic. We've been doing things right for a while. Culturally, it should be natural," he says, before adding, "Tully's did it on purpose." Martin's retort: "We're offering up a choice, giving customers information and letting the people decide if it's something that's valuable to them. Only in that environment can you be authentic and be perceived as being real." Uptown Espresso owner Dow Lucurell dismisses Tully's new moves as "a marketing campaign, not an environmental campaign." He's currently wrestling with whether to go compostable with Uptown's cups. Problem is, they cost 30 percent more. "I get no demand from my customers. It's very hard for me to say, OK, I'm going to raise the price of my product." Over at Cherry Street Coffee House, owner Ali Ghambari agrees being green is harder for the little guys. Last year Cherry Street contracted with CleanScapes to pick up recyclable waste from both baristas and customers at all five locations, but he says it comes at a premium: about $100 more a month, a 30 percent increase over what he was paying before. "Fair trade coffee and all that sounds good, but we have to pay our employees," he says, adding that while a little green competition isn't a bad thing, he's not trying to be everything to everybody. "I'm not going to listen to people who give me a guilt trip. My house is in order."

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