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mug full of coffee Gail C. Keck
KEEPING IT REAL: Starbucks might be offering more nondairy options to enhance its coffee, but it’s hard to beat the flavor of real cream.

As for me, I’ll take real cream in my coffee

The Back 40: Starbucks needs a more thoughtful approach before replacing animal-based products.

Most mornings I splash milk in my coffee, mainly to cool it from its taste bud-blistering brew temperature to a drinkable, yet still sinus-clearing, 177 degrees F or so. Usually, the flavor of the milk isn’t noticeable, but recently I’ve been enjoying some heavy whipping cream I found in the back of my fridge. I bought it ahead of the holidays because my sister and brother-in-law were visiting, and they have been known to spontaneously whip up some chocolate mousse if dessert options are lacking. Trust me, if you have someone in your life who is willing to make chocolate mousse, you need to be prepared. As it turned out, we didn’t run out of Christmas cookies until Jan. 7, so the cream was still there when the guests were gone. It was still a week before the “best by” date, so I’ve been adding it to my coffee — and it reminded me how luscious real milk fat can be.

Trading one challenge for another

Meanwhile, at Starbucks, a new environmental plan is pushing more plant-based alternatives to dairy products. Kevin Johnson, the CEO of Starbucks, described the plan, saying, “… I’m excited to be able to share with you our commitment to pursue a bold, multidecade aspiration to become resource-positive and give more than we take from the planet …” As I understand it, that’s his way of saying he wants to leave the world better than he found it. I can’t argue with that sentiment; lots of farmers have told me the same thing.

However, Johnson’s approach is misguided when it comes to animal products. Replacing dairy with plant-based alternatives just trades one set of environmental challenges for another. And it certainly won’t provide quality or nutritional benefits.

Thinking more thoughtfully

Overall, Starbucks seems to be a socially and environmentally responsible company. The company has built a supply chain that gives coffee farmers fair compensation and safe working conditions. The company also diverts waste from landfills,  supports reforestation and conserves water. And it’s building stores that meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the rating system used by the U.S. Green Building Council) standards, so more power to them for that. Or — more accurately — less power to them.

On the other hand, when it comes to the use of animal-based products, Starbucks needs a more thoughtful approach. Simply replacing animal products with plant-based imitations might please stockholders who like easy answers, but it won’t necessarily offer environmental benefits. For example, consider the environmental impact of transporting coconut milk from Sumatra rather than using cream from a local dairy. If Starbucks truly wants to become “resource-positive,” the company should support both livestock and crop producers in improving the efficiency and sustainability of production.

Time will tell if Starbucks customers follow along with the company’s plant-based goals, or demand that real dairy products remain an option. Currently, the company says 15% to 20% of customers are picking plant-based alternatives, but I won’t be one of them.

I’ll stick with the real dairy in my fridge instead of driving 8.3 miles to the nearest Starbucks every morning. That drive would not be a good use of natural resources, and the world is safer if I stay off the roads before I have coffee. So, maybe as a noncustomer, I’m already doing my own little part to help Starbucks make the world a better place.

Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.

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