Is Starbucks Unintentionally Killing Orangutans?
23 January 2013 - Santa Monica, CA - Starbucks, perhaps the world’s best known and the largest coffeehouse company, sells more than just a good cup of brew. Starbucks also sells the image of a model corporation that is on the cutting edge of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the local, national and international arena. Starbucks prides itself on its environmental stewardship and fair trade record. It uses recycled materials in its containers and has partnered with environmental organizations such as Conservation International to further its CSR. It has CSR goals to purchase increased volume of organic and fair trade coffee from villagers in the growing countries such as Indonesia.
Yet, unknowingly or unwittingly, Starbucks may be part of a supply chain that is killing the endangered orangutan. How can that be?
In addition to selling coffee, Starbucks sells bakery goods with over 50% of their listed breads and pastries (25 of 45) containing an insidious ingredient. It isn’t sugar or refined flour. It is palm oil, also known as palm kernel, palmitate and a dozen other names). While the health benefits of this oil have been debated, its environmental impact and legacy has been without a doubt deleterious to the well-being of wildlife and bio-diverse habitat. Millions of hectares of forest in Indonesia and Malaysia have been converted to palm oil estates. Tens of thousands of orangutans have died as a consequence over the past several decades. As the utility of this vegetable oil is itself diverse, more and more forests are under threat by global consortia and companies looking to provide the human population with increased supplies of palm oil for food, cosmetics and biofuel. Companies in a rush to capitalize on palm oil have not just converted forests, they have destroyed watersheds, polluted rivers and streams, and poisoned local people with pesticide use. Numerous reports have been written about the threat of palm oil and growers and environmental organizations in recent years have moved to working together to bring the industry towards environmental and economic sustainability through the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
To Starbuck’s credit, they list their pastry ingredients on their website with each item. What they fail to do is indicate if their palm oil or palm oil constituents are from sustainable sources. Sustainable palm oil is oil that has been certified as sustainable by an organization such as the RSPO. Starbucks is not a member of the RSPO, which, incidentally, met in Singapore last October to advance the mission of sustainability in the industry.
Starbucks could very easily have its suppliers replace palm oil with a substitute or if none could be used, certified sustainable palm oil. Most of the uses of palm oil in Starbucks bakery items are for pan spray, vegetable shortening, chocolate, or other glazes. All of these have more natural or easily changed substitute ingredients. Some might be slightly more expensive, but they would show the company is cognizant of the deleterious consequences of using palm oil and would demonstrate its commitment to better environmental stewardship. If palm oil was an unavoidable component of the pastry, then perhaps the company could insist on having its supplier bakeries purchase certified sustainable palm oil. Again, it might cost a bit more, but it would help stimulate the marketplace that will need to grow to make sustainable palm oil financially sustainable.
Currently, there is far more certified sustainable palm oil in storage tanks waiting for purchasers as manufacturers of most products using the oil are looking for cheap feedstock for their process. This is one of the major challenges for sustainable palm oil initiatives like the RSPO. Another is getting the Indonesian and Malaysian growers to adopt and implement the principles and criteria of the RSPO in a timely manner which would show that these highly profitable companies are not just “green washing” by being part of the consortium. Many of these P&Cs could be phased in much sooner than many of the growers are claiming.
Finally, Starbucks could also join the RSPO and commit towards sustainable palm oil similar to large corporations like Procter and Gamble, Unilever and others. In the end, it is in everyone’s best interest to properly manage natural resources and to allow wildlife, like orangutans, to thrive in forest ecosystems. Starbucks’ corporate ideas do embrace a positive future for its consumers and the environment. This would be one significant way to insure that future for coffee drinkers and orangutans alike.
written by Dr. Gary Shapiro, President, Orang Utan Republik Foundation
Note: When asked about their use of palm oil in their baked products, Starbucks corporate communications office has stated: "Rest assured that the palm oil we use is sourced responsibly. In this case, we have obtained the ingredient from suppliers certified by the RSPO in Malaysia. Starbucks does not obtain palm oil from suppliers who have negatively impacted the habitat of orangutans in that country"1. When asked to divulge the suppliers or the type of supply chain used (e.g., mass balance or book and claim), the following response was given: " Unfortunately, the information you are requesting is proprietary information, which we are unable to divulge."2 Should we believe Starbuck's response that does not provide any substantial proof of sustainable sourcing of palm oil beyond its claim? Until we know more specifically, shoppers can refer to a guide that shows what baked goods are "orangutan safe", that is, does not contain palm oil; and those that are still considered "threatening".
1 email received on November 6, 2012 from Stephanie E, Customer Service.#306641-9979568#
2 email received on December 7, 2012 from Rachel B, Customer Service.#306641-10094875#