Coffee shops failing on carbon

High street brands are being warned to wake up and smell the emissions reduction challenges that lie ahead. David Burrows reports.

Coffee chains are “hiding behind” paper straws, reusable cups and recycled plastic rather than confronting their sizeable carbon footprints, according to new research conducted for Ethical Consumer.

In a collaboration with Sorcha Bowles, an MSc student at the University of Glasgow, the campaigning group unpicked the environmental commitments of nine leading chains (AMT Coffee, Caffè Nero, Caffè Ritazza, Coffee Republic, Costa, Esquires Coffee, Greggs, Pret A Manger and Starbucks). As it turned out there was little to unpick – at least in relation to carbon.

Only Starbucks and Greggs offered a decent amount of information on their carbon footprints, including those from their value chains (so-called scope 3 emissions). Starbucks, thanks to its science-based preliminary targets for carbon reduction, came out on top – but was criticised for its reliance on ‘renewable credits’ and offsetting.

Others failed to provide any detail, with some not mentioning their scope 3 emissions at all. AMT Coffee, Caffè Ritazza, Coffee Republic, Costa, Esquires, Pret and Caffè Nero, were all criticised for not reporting annually on their scope 1 to 3 emissions. Caffè Ritazza doesn’t even mention the environment on its website. This is 2021.

Greggs reported its scope 1 and 2 emissions (95,962 tonnes in 2019), but scope 3 data were sketchy. The chain hopes to have completed its scope 3 modelling come the end of the year and then be in a position to set science-based targets.

The importance of measuring and reducing scope 3 emissions for any foodservice business should not be underestimated. Consider the breakdown of Starbucks’ data, published in 2020, where scope 1 emissions (319,600 tonnes CO2e) and scope 2 emissions (285,600 tonnes CO2e) accounted for just 4% of the chain’s global carbon footprint. For instance, the natural gas used to roast all its coffee is only 0.5% of the footprint.

Scope 3 emissions, meanwhile, amounted to a whopping 14.99 million tonnes CO2e. This is where the big reduction gains can be made. With the help of WWF, Starbucks has broken down its value chain emissions showing dairy (21%) and coffee (11%) contributing the lion’s share. This is where the company is focusing its efforts currently – on-farm activities and land use change, or what Starbucks is calling “the first 10 feet” of its supply chain. Though as Ethical Consumer points out, charging extra for lower carbon plant-based milks as many chains do is hardly a constructive carbon cutting initiative.

Emissions from food and waste are also sizeable in the coffee shop sector. And changes to packaging will undoubtedly play a part in reaching any net-zero commitment. It’s still listed as a priority area of work for Starbucks, representing 6% of its global emissions. The majority of Starbucks’ packaging is still virgin material and there is plenty more work to do on reusables, as well as recycling (a graph on page 40 of its baseline report shows shockingly low rates for most of its plastic and paper packaging).

But as Ethical Consumer suggests, progress on plastic is currently being used by many other leading brands to distract from their failings elsewhere. And even then few (if any?) have published the kind of detailed analysis that Starbucks has on their packaging footprints. This is “greenwashing”, according to the report and the chains need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Perhaps they don’t want to. Most of the brands showed a “reasonable understanding” of their climate impacts but beyond the bluster there was little evidence of any serious carbon reporting. Some of these companies are of course in the process of modelling their emissions – which is no mean feat. The results will show them that in a world where consumers and investors are demanding net-zero, a paper straw here and a discount on reusable cups there just won’t cut it.

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