A few months ago, Sarah Laskow at Grist highlighted a classic example of the flaws with environmental certification programmes. If you stick to the letter of such programmes, you can end up with a situation where something patently environmentally unfriendly can end up bearing a high standard of certification, because the creators were clever about how they executed a project. That means it gets all of the accolades without actually doing any of the things it’s supposed to do, and consumers are seduced by the label. After all, it says it’s green, so it must be, right?
Laskow’s example was a LEED-certified Starbucks in Colorado which on the surface sounds like an interesting project. Using a prefabricated core, the 500 square foot structure is faced with local materials and designed to be mobile. Starbucks hit all the points for LEED certification for the structure, but when you probe a little deeper, the truth of the building becomes much more complicated, and the fault lines in this supposedly green and delightfully environmentally-friendly structure become painfully apparent.
For starters, it’s drive-through and walkup only, which means everyone’s getting their coffee and pastries in to-go containers. That’s not exactly environmentally friendly, nor is the decision to force customers to go somewhere else with their goods. If you encourage people to stay on premises you can use actual kitchenware, and you can create a coworking space, which is actually more ecologically sound; rather than scattering to the winds and using resources in a large number of places, people are concentrating in one area and working there. Or just hanging out, as the case may be; creating community should be part of environmental responsibility too, after all.
And of course it’s important to ask questions about the sourcing of the coffee and other ingredients. While the facade of the building may come from within 500 miles (which many people argue is not in fact ‘hyperlocal’ as advertised with this Starbucks), where are the ingredients coming from? Not a lot of coffee and cacao are grown in Colorado, nor is the state known for its dairy or spice industries. These materials are coming from somewhere, and that somewhere is probably remote. While some of the herbal tisanes may be produced with local ingredients, I doubt it, because of how Starbucks is structured as a corporation. As for teas? Well, Camellia sinensis shrubs don’t grow in large numbers in Colorado either.
This means that in order to supply the needs of customers, goods are flown and trucked in from all over the world every day. That’s not terribly environmentally responsible, even if the company claims to promote ecologically-friendly practices along its supply chain, which it does. Furthermore, there are concerns about the workers behind the production of these goods; while Starbucks has committed itself to fair trade sourcing on a lot of products, the fair trade label itself is flawed, and the company hasn’t committed to 100% fair trade, slave-free supply sourcing.
How environmentally-friendly is this business in the end? Is it more or less so than locally-owned businesses that source products locally and work within the community? I’d argue it’s less so, yet it gets to bear the coveted LEED certification and appeal to environmentally-conscious residents who want to make a difference. And in Colorado, a state where a lot of people take the environment seriously and have the money to make purchases based on projecting their social status as green consumers, that means the company is tapping into a big potential market. If it flies here, it will undoubtedly move through to other states as well, such as California, where many people are also eager to play ‘who’s the greenest of them all?’
This case illustrates the pitfalls of certification schemes developed with very good intentions. Having some kind of standard in place for differentiating between different approaches to building and sourcing projects is important, because it provides a benchmark for people to hit and creates a reference for consumers. But when companies can adhere exactly to the standard without actually embracing its spirit, the value of the certification is diluted, and consumers lose out. How many people visiting this Starbucks are thinking about the environmental issues behind the structure? Probably not that many, and criticisms may be dismissed with the argument that ‘at least they’re doing something.’
Is ‘something’ good enough, though? Because in this case the ‘something’ has less to do with a genuine desire to behave with responsibility and more to do with a desire to tap a huge and well-known market for green products. Greenwashing doesn’t exist because more companies care about the environment. It exists because more consumers care about the environment and companies want to exploit that for money. You can charge a premium for ‘green’ products to people eager to acquire the social cachet of buying environmentally-sound products, and that translates to a lot more profits for parent companies, which are of course going to be looking at the lowest-cost method of implementing ‘green’ changes. Not because they want to be cost-efficient and demonstrate that anyone can go green, but because they want to make the most money.
That means investing in a green veneer; literally, in this case. Costuming a building in a green sheet, though, doesn’t change the underlying issues with the business inside, and Starbucks has a lot to answer for environmentally, and perhaps especially in this case, where it’s attempting to mislead consumers into thinking they’re making a good choice for the environment by buying from Starbucks instead of a local coffeehouse—or simply brewing at home.