The Plant-Based Workplace   by Gigi Carter


Is Starbucks Underreporting its Greenhouse Gas Footprint?

Starbucks has been my go-to spot when I travel. My favorites are their oatmeal, Pikes Place drip coffee with soy milk or, when I feel like splurging, a coconut milk cappuccino. Starbucks’ global presence and consistency of products and experience bring a sense of dependability and comfort to millions of consumers daily. But while they do a lot of things right, where they have it all wrong is with dairy. I’m talking about fluid dairy milk that comes from a cow.

The internet chatter estimates that Starbucks goes through 160 million gallons of dairy milk each year. This sounds about right because there are 28,720 stores globally and that works out to 15 gallons of milk per store per day. Each cow produces 22,941 pounds of fluid dairy milk per year, which equates to approximately 2,600 gallons. Thus, roughly 61,500 cows are involved in supplying Starbucks and its customer base with dairy for their coffee drinks annually.

Each cow contributes to climate change in the following ways: enteric fermentation, manure management and storage, and clearing of forested land for either growing feed or grazing. Much of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from cows come from the more concentrated methane and nitrous oxide. To normalize the global warming potential, we translate these gasses into carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) when we make calculations. When considering the direct and indirect factors from farm operations, livestock cows contribute approximately 24,000 pounds of CO2e per cow per year. Thus, Starbucks’ carbon footprint from fluid dairy milk is approximately 1.476 billion pounds of CO2e per year[1] (or 670,000 metric tons). That’s the equivalent of 1.6 billion miles driven by an average passenger car or 730 million pounds of coal burned each year. This does not include all the baked goods and snacks offered at Starbucks that are made with butter and cheese from dairy cows.

Like most companies, Starbucks ignores the environmental impact of the carbon footprint from animal agriculture when they track sustainability. According to their latest sustainability report, Starbucks emits 1,342,419 metric tons of carbon dioxide before the impact of dairy.  It appears they are underreporting their emissions impact by 50%. Since “that which gets measured gets improved,” Starbucks and other major purchasers and consumers of animal agriculture could make a meaningful difference in thwarting the warming of the planet by measuring this impact. I’m not knocking Starbucks—this is a systemic flaw in corporate tracking of greenhouse gas emissions among all companies, even though the Paris Agreement’s “central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change.”

Furthermore, why does Starbucks (and other coffee shops) charge a $0.70—1.00 premium for plant-based milk beverages? I would argue that Starbucks and other coffee shops should lower the cost for consumers choosing plant-based milks and instead, charge a carbon footprint premium for fluid dairy milk that comes from a cow—an incentive program even supported by the Paris Agreement. After all, Starbucks has already acknowledged that climate change will imperil its supply of coffee (and it is a coffee business), so by not offering incentives for consumers to choose sustainable plant-based milks it could be creating its own demise.

[1] 24,000 pounds of CO2e/cow/year multiplied by 61,500 cows involved in supplying Starbucks with fluid dairy milk.

Additional Information:

Livestock and Climate Change by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang

IPCC Report Press Release – October 2018

National Climate Assessment 2018

Photo by Adrianna Calvo |