In 2018 I heard rumors of Starbucks removing straws from their drinks with the goal of entirely phasing them out by 2020. Recently, the reality of 2020 hit me in the face. I walked into Starbucks to pick up my drink and I had to ask for a straw (gasp!) Of course, the barista gave me one without issue, but the future is here. Plastic straws are on the way out.
To be clear, many restaurants are getting rid of plastic straws. Starbucks is not alone in this quest, but they’re obviously a big name in the beverage industry. When they make a decision, other companies will notice. So their choice will like have a ripple effect on the food industry.
I also confess I love Starbucks. I spend more money than I’d like to admit there and I’m not going to stop. I respect their efforts to reduce waste and their focus on sustainability. That said, I also hold them to high regard when it comes to customer experiences and innovation, and this is where the issues lie.
If you’re familiar with the Starbucks menu, you may know the cold beverages draw more attention than the hot. Starbucks has received a lot of attention in recent years for its inclusion of cold brew coffee and it has always received recognition for its Frappuccinos. You’ll also know the omission of straws will almost exclusively impact cold beverages. I’ve seen people use straws in hot drinks, but they seemingly discard the wrapper without reading the text that states: “not recommended for use in hot beverages.” This should be an indication that people expect to consume a cold beverage differently than a hot beverage.
The standard replacement for most hot beverages will be a lid made of compostable plastic. This lid more closely represents the lid on hot beverages than the cover and straw combo formerly on cold beverages, but there is one big difference from the hot lid: the opening is much bigger. This new lid will come standard on most beverages, though drinks such as Frappuccinos that have dome lids will come with a paper straw.
This is going to be transition for must consumers, many of whom have had the same coffee routine for years. Change isn’t necessarily bad, especially when it’s done with good intent, but some consumers are going to resist this change. The most likely because the opening is large enough to let liquids splash through or ice to fall through when taking a sip. For most, this isn’t a huge deal. If you drive a car, you’ll notice the inconvenience when a drink is in your cup holder.
The opening in the lid means the there is less materials used by Starbucks. Admittedly, this is kind of the intent, but many customers will also view this as a method of cutting costs. Plastic straws are cheap, but they are an expense to Starbucks who likely spends thousands of dollars on green straws each day. In this scenario Starbucks saves money while the consumer gets less. Starbucks states they’re also going to be introducing the paper straws for dome-lid drinks and available upon request. At least there’s an option for the straw-suckers of the world, but paper straws are only good for those who consume their beverage within 30 minutes. Unless Starbucks reinvents the paper straw, they’re not that great. I’ve used them, and they lose their durability within the time it takes to eat a dinner in a restaurant.
Ultimately, these inconveniences are minor. They’re an accumulation of small annoyances implemented with good intents. As a consumer, this is not enough for me to modify my behavior. I highly doubt this will severely impact Starbucks, though I can guarantee one thing: complaints will be filling the walls of Starbucks for the next couple of years. They may not complain to baristas, but you’ll hear the complaints among customers.
To understand the real struggle with the war on straws, you need to understand how Starbucks views its customers. Looking within the walls of a Starbucks store or reading recent news from Starbucks, you’ll know the company focuses on a few things: sustainability, health-consciousness, tech-integration, and community engagement. Starbuck’s mission to use sustainable materials begins to clash with their focus on technology.
Over the past few years, Starbucks has incentivized customers to use their mobile app. This includes ordering items from their phones, automatically reloading gift cards with money, “star rewards” for purchases (bonus stars for promotional items!), and free drinks. As of 2018, over 15 million customers used the app and it has contributed to same-store growth. Customers like the app and it’s safe to say Starbucks loves this app.
The app may be a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t: environmentally friendly. If you want to order a drink ahead of time, you can’t use your own cup. While this isn’t a huge issue for the average consumer, it does increase the amount of waste Starbucks generates. Plus, UK stores will being charging customers 5p for a paper cup to promote reusability. In such situations, it’s almost like users are being taxed to use the mobile app and order ahead. While this charge hasn't hit the US, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come.
Mobile orders mean Starbucks must use single-use cups and lids. They can’t promote reusable cups if people are going to order prior to being in the store. This leaves the straw as the single item that can be omitted. If someone prefers a straw they can ask for the paper alternative, but that means they need to ask. This slows down the customer journey; an experience that is supposed to be grad-and-go.
This is where Starbucks will be challenged to improve. Once the straws are gone, where else can they reduce waste? How can they promote reusability when the mobile app doesn’t encourage us to reuse?
Starbucks can get rid of the plastic straw, but when we look at this as a step toward sustainability and not the end goal, we start to see the real issue. Starbucks has multiple goals as a brand, and focusing on one goal may hinder progress toward another.
Of course, Starbucks could privately be aware of this concern. In fact, I bet they are, but this leaves customers to piece together changes at Starbucks and build their own narrative. This is how an effort to remove plastic straws could appears to be Starbucks penny-pinching, or an effort charge for a paper cups appears to be a mobile order tax.
If I’m being truthful, I don’t want Starbucks to fail. I love their coffee and I will continue to support them. I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the selfish part of me that doesn’t want to be inconvenienced. The part of me that doesn’t want any changes to my beverage container and the part of me that loves being able to pick up my mobile order without waiting. Just because I question some changes doesn’t mean I want to pollute the enviroment. I’ll let my environmentally friendly side win this debate and support Starbucks when they make a change like this. I know their heart is in the right place, and it makes me feel a little better about my choices.
Still, I view the brand as an innovator. If someone can find solutions to integrating reusable cups with mobile orders and adapt this on a mass scale, it’s Starbucks. If someone can redesign a straw out of eco-friendly materials that won’t disintegrate in my drink, it’s Starbucks. Ulitmatley, I think we’ll see the day when their innovations surpass that of the Unicorn Frappuccino. Win or lose, every change pushes them in the right direction. Someday we’ll hear about Starbucks making a winning change toward sustainability. It will have a great impact… but nothing will ever get more attention than a Unicorn Frappuccino.