We Compared Popular Coffee Chains Based On How Sustainable They Are—Here’s What We Found

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"We compared popular coffee chains to see how sustainable they are. Here's what we found out about Starbucks, Dunkin', Peet's, and more."

Millions of people enjoy getting their mornings started with a delicious cup of Joe from their favorite coffee chain. Chances are, you’re one of those people. According to the National Coffee Association, 63% of Americans drink coffee daily. That adds up to 400 million cups of coffee a day—and that’s just in the United States alone.

It comes as no surprise that the coffee industry is booming. There are more than 37,000 coffee shops in the U.S., and larger chains are estimated to be serving upwards of 700 coffee drinks per day. The average American also spends more annually on their daily cup of Joe than they contribute to retirement. As coffee sales continue to rise, it begs the question: Just how sustainable is this industry?

Whether you run on caffeine or simply enjoy the occasional caffeinated beverage, you likely frequent at least one of the coffee chains on the list. Starbucks, the largest coffee chain globally, has nearly 33,000 stores worldwide. Dunkin’, coming in at a close second, runs 11,300 stores worldwide.

While some chains tend to dominate in certain regions, like Dutch Bros in the Midwest, every company on this list earned its spot as one of the most popular options in the country. Curious whether your go-to coffee chain is doing its part? We ranked the following on how sustainable they are so you can be more informed about the impact of your daily latte.

The Coffee Chains We Ranked

  • Starbucks
  • Peet’s Coffee
  • Dunkin’
  • Biggby Coffee
  • The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf
  • Blue Bottle Coffee
  • Dutch Bros

Methodology

We scored each coffee chain on five factors: certifications, cup recyclability, commitments to reduce waste, commitments to a sustainable future, and whether the chain offers planet-friendly options. Each category is scored from 1 to 5, with 1 meaning a lot of work is still needed and 5 meaning the chain is making great strides. 

For sustainable coffee certifications, we specifically looked for Fair Trade, Certified Organic, and Smithsonian Bird Friendly, but also considered those from the Rainforest Alliance and UTZ.

coffee chain sustainability

1. Blue Bottle Coffee

coffee chain sustainability

Total Score: 21/25

  • Certifications: 3/5
  • Cup recyclability: 4/5
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 4/5
  • Commitments to a sustainable future: 5/5
  • Planet-friendly options: 5/5

The first spot on this list goes to Blue Bottle Coffee. Founded in 2002 in Oakland, California, Blue Bottle Coffee is known for working directly with farmers around the world to source the most delicious and sustainable coffees they can find, and serve them at peak freshness. With roughly 40 locations around the world—including California, New York, and Tokyo—one of its biggest sustainability efforts starts right with the coffee itself.

Blue Bottle Coffee attempts to shorten the chain and tries to bring those involved in the growing, buying, roasting, brewing, and drinking of their coffee together with single-origin beans. This method relies on smaller batches rather than mass production, which encourages sustainable growing practices. When you drink Blue Bottle Coffee, you’re drinking straight from the (sustainable) source.

The majority of Blue Bottle coffee is Certified Organic by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). When there are exceptions, the brand turns to suppliers with a legacy of environmental stewardship. Blue Bottle’s “specialty” coffee is certified by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), and World Coffee Research (WCR).

They’re also making major moves when it comes to cup recyclability and limiting waste overall. Back in 2011, Blue Bottle became one of the first coffee chains to switch from plastic-lined paper cups and plastic lids to plant-derived PLA-lined white paper cups with black recyclable PLA lids. They also “recycle all cans, cartons, and glass bottles, and compost food and coffee grounds.” But they’re not stopping there.

The brand announced its goal for all U.S. cafes to go zero-waste by the end of 2020, which, according to Zero Waste International Alliance, means at least 90% of waste is diverted from landfills. While there’s currently no word on whether this timeline was altered due to the pandemic, the current plan includes multiple changes. It aims to implement waste auditing and sorting at cafes, meet with waste collection service providers to confirm proper end-of-life handling of the materials they use, and switch to reusables.

As part of this change, customers will need to bring or purchase reusable cups, and food items will be sold in reusable containers. “We expect to lose some business. We might fail. We know some of our guests won’t like it—and we’re prepared for that,” Bryan Meehan, CEO of Blue Bottle Coffee, wrote in a blog post. “But the time has come to step up and do difficult things. It’s our responsibility to the next generation to change our behavior.”

Even though Nestlé acquired the brand in 2017, being under a bigger company hasn’t stopped Blue Bottle Coffee from its dream of a sustainable future. It has remained a standalone company under Meehan’s leadership, and he’s noted that he’s helping hold Nestle accountable for creating even more sustainable change in the future. That includes Nestlé committing to be net-zero by 2050.

If you’re searching for plant-based food options, Blue Bottle Coffee has plenty of options there, too. Oat milk and almond milk are offered as non-dairy options for beverages, and unlike many other chains, the oat milk doesn’t cost extra. In fact, they’re currently looking into making it the default option for coffee drinks.

As for the plant-based menu options: The roasted acorn squash and hummus sandwich, tahini chocolate chip cookies, overnight oats, mango chia pudding, and coconut yogurt parfaits, are completely vegan—and that’s not even all of the choice you have.

2. Peet’s Coffee

Total Score: 20/25

  • Certifications: 4/5
  • Cup recyclability: 5/5
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 4/5
  • Commitments to a sustainable future: 3/5
  • Planet-friendly options: 4/5

Peet’s Coffee ranked number two on our list, with an impressive history of being ahead of the sustainability curve.

The chain, which has 236 locations within the U.S., has made continual efforts to be more sustainable. The coffee is USDA Organic and the chain carries coffee with Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and Bird-Friendly certifications. Since 2016, the company has formalized its efforts to systematically evaluate all coffee purchases annually according to key sustainability standards.

Most notably, Peet’s Coffee sits above the rest of the competition in terms of cup recyclability. Their cups and lids are 100% compostable, circumventing the issue with recycling coffee cups (which is where many companies score low sustainability marks). The chain’s popular K-Cups are also recyclable; all you have to do is wash them out, and they’re accepted at most recycling facilities.

Peet’s Coffee’s stores and factories, where the majority of coffee chain emissions come from, are designed to be eco-friendly. They hand-roast 100% of their coffees “in the nation’s first LEED Gold Certified roasting facility” and have continued expanding their LEED status. This includes the use of environmentally sensitive, high-efficiency HVAC systems, which reduce greenhouse emissions, and energy-efficient Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer (RTO) technology, which increases natural gas efficiency by 30%.

The chain has made impressive strides in terms of water, material waste, and energy consumption as well. Their facilities use stormwater runoff and waterless fixtures, and their high-efficiency irrigation systems reduce water consumption by 87%. The company website also notes that more than 90% of their packaging and production waste is recycled, and the use of natural and high-efficiency lighting technology reduces energy used by 40%. However, they don’t appear to use—or plan to phase into—renewable energy.

Looking toward the future, Peet’s Coffee founded World Coffee Research, an initiative that supports the production of more sustainable coffee varieties, farming equipment, and production strategies. The company is also dedicated to providing trainings that incorporate environmental and social best practices, basic accounting, and record-keeping to ensure farmers are well equipped to run their businesses in the most sustainable way possible. However, Peet did lose a couple of points because, other than general statements about their commitment to sustainability, there’s no set plan of action available to the public.

Like many coffeehouses, Peet’s Coffee’s customers can request non-dairy milk at an extra cost. The bakery has several plant-based items to choose from, like this plant-based breakfast sandwich that features the Beyond Breakfast Sausage and JUST Egg Folded on a bagel with melted cheddar cheese.

Peet’s Coffee also launched a Carbon Neutral Series coffee subscription this year, which the company says is “a step toward incorporating more sustainable practices in regard to carbon neutrality across our business.” Through the service, the chain “sponsors the planting of three carbon dioxide-absorbing mangrove trees in Southeast Asia” for every two pounds of coffee delivered.

The bottom line? Peet’s Coffee has already taken many action steps to make its products and facilities more eco-friendly, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

3. Dunkin’

coffee chain sustainability

Total Score: 16/25

  • Certifications: 3/5
  • Cup recyclability: 3/5
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 3/5
  • Commitments to a sustainable future: 3/5
  • Planet-friendly options: 4/5

Dunkin’, the second-largest coffee chain in the U.S. with 8,500 locations, is right behind Starbucks in terms of size. But in terms of sustainability, it comes out ahead.

Dunkin’ holds numerous certifications: USDA Organic, 100% Fair Trade Espresso, and Rainforest Alliance. However, these certifications only apply to a fraction of their offerings. While 100% of their espresso is Fair Trade, none of their coffee holds the certification. Similarly, only 30% of Dunkin’ coffee is Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Dunkin’ was previously known for its characteristic Styrofoam cup. Fortunately, they have moved away from this noxious material. Not only is Styrofoam a dangerous pollutant, but it takes 500 years to decompose, during which time it continues to release toxins.

On top of abandoning its foam cup, back in 2020, Dunkin’ transitioned all of its restaurants in New England to double-walled paper cup restaurants. This means that nearly 70% of the Dunkin’ system has switched to these more eco-friendly cups. Around the same time, Dunkin’ also conducted a successful test for a new hot coffee cup lid made of #5 polypropylene that can be recycled in cities and towns that offer #5 recycling.

Dunkin’ has more sustainability success with other products in their store: Their napkins and boxes are 100% compostable and they use sustainably sourced palm oil. Dunkin’ also recently switched from plastic to wooden stirrers and is currently testing alternatives to plastic straws, eliminating even more plastic waste.

In lieu of LEED certification, Dunkin’ has created its own eco-friendly building standards, which they call DD Green restaurants. These buildings use 33% less energy than the average Dunkin’ store. Currently, Dunkin’ runs over 700 DD Green restaurants and aims to reach 1,000 by 2025. However, this is out of the almost 10,000 stores that Dunkin’ currently owns.

In 2019, Dunkin’ reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 60% compared to 2013, and they have pretty lofty goals for 2021. The brand kicked off this year by donating $380,000 to several inspiring organizations with missions that focus on coffee sustainability. One Tree Planted will be able to plant a total of 200,000 trees throughout Honduras and Guatemala, including areas that are essential to regional environmental stability. This will also improve air and water quality, soil health, increasing biodiversity, and providing more jobs for locals.

Since 2018, the popular coffee chain has also been a part of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, whose members set out to achieve aims like sustainable sourcing and farm resilience by 2050. This year, Dunkin’ has committed $110,000 to become a premier-level sponsor of the challenge. The brand also has an impressive animal welfare policy, which ensures its suppliers use ethical practices when dealing with animals. Under this policy, they’ve also eliminated artificial dyes and moved toward cage-free eggs.

Dunkin’ also has plenty of planet-friendly menu options, 20 of which are completely vegan. You’ll find a few different alt-milks to choose from, as well as some food items, including avocado toast, oatmeal, hash browns, and certain types of bagels.

4. Starbucks

Total Score: 15/25

  • Certifications: 2/5
  • Cup recyclability: 2/5
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 3/5
  • Commitments to a sustainable future: 4/5
  • Planet-friendly options: 4/5

Starbucks, the largest coffee chain in the world with nearly 15,000 locations in the U.S. alone, has a tumultuous history with sustainability and faces criticism regularly for their sustainability practices, or lack thereof. However, Starbucks has come a long way in recent years and now ranks above most of the competition.

The coffee giant was the first major coffeehouse to be 100% Fair Trade Certified, earning the certification in 2000. Its 2020 Global Impact Report states 98.6% of the coffee is ethically sourced according to Coffee And Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) practices, which includes criteria like a safe, fair, and humane work environment for farmers and sustainable agriculture practices. Starbucks partnered with SCS Global Services and Conservation International to develop C.A.F.E. to help ensure the coffee chain “is sourcing sustainably grown and processed coffee.”

Unfortunately, many question how well these organizations are overseeing Starbucks’ practices. A 2019 story from Reuters looked into coffee plantations in Brazil and found coffee produced by forced labor was “was stamped slavery-free by top certification schemes and sold at a premium to major brands such as Starbucks.”

Starbucks has also received criticism for the lack of cup recyclability. Technically, their cups can be recycled, but most recycling facilities don’t accept the materials they’re made of because they require special processing. That means Starbucks has distributed almost a billion cups that ultimately end up in landfills. In 2018, Starbucks launched the NextGen Cup Challenge, a design competition to create more sustainable cups. However, after three years, these cups have yet to reach the stores.

To Starbucks’ credit, the chain has been phasing out plastic straws, switching to a sippy cup-style plastic lid for cold beverages (aside from blended options, or when requested). But the new plastic lids aren’t easily recyclable. Starbucks also encourages customers to use reusable cups, selling a large variety in stores and online. The chain also tested its Borrow A Cup program earlier this year, but there’s no word on if it will be used nationwide.

In terms of plant-based options, Starbucks offers dairy-free milk, such as soy, coconut, and almond—but for an extra charge. They also sell numerous vegetarian and vegan food options, from breakfast items like the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich to lunch items like the Lentils & Vegetable Protein Bowl. All clear syrups are also typically vegan.

Like Peet’s Coffee, Starbucks is utilizing the new LEED Certification program as a benchmark for their stores’ sustainability. While only a fraction of their stores are currently LEED certified, all of their U.S. stores use “responsible building materials and a number of water and energy-efficient technologies,” including mechanical dishwashers that use less than a single gallon of water during each cycle.

Currently, 20 percent of their stores (which make up 80% of the company’s total energy consumption) use renewable resources. Starbucks also pledged to go carbon neutral and reduce their waste by 50 percent by 2030. No other coffee chain has publicly announced similar goals. In addition, the chain has been part of the Sustainable Coffee Challenge since 2015.

Starbucks is also in the process of studying methods at all levels of production in order to make their coffee more sustainable. Starbucks launched programs in Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Rwanda, and Kenya to test carbon and water strategies, impacting more than 92,000 farms.

5. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf

coffee chain sustainability

Total Score: 12/25

  • Certifications: 2/5
  • Cup recyclability: 2/5
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 3/5
  • Commitments to a sustainable future: 2/5
  • Planet-friendly options: 3/5

Consumers searching for The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’s sustainability efforts may find them a little harder to come by.

The brand, which has 176 locations in the U.S., has been certified “green” by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) for over a decade. However, the chain is not Fair Trade Certified, and they only offer some Certified Organic options. Unlike higher-ranking options (like Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks), The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is less transparent about their coffee supply chains.

In terms of recyclability, the company is working to turn the tide. Though their cups are not accepted at most recycling facilities, they launched a pilot program for paper cold cups in Malaysia in 2020 and intend to phase out plastic cups. While disposable paper cups are rarely accepted at recycling facilities, paper is still generally better for the environment than plastic. They also offer paper straws, and its office product provider, Alliant Coffee Solutions, has implemented sustainable packaging for all of the soft coffee pods.

While The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf offers dairy-free milk options, their syrups and powders aren’t, limiting the menu options. As for food, you’ll find plant-based options like vegan banana bread and oatmeal. It also just added a Beyond Breakfast Sausage Sandwich to its menu throughout California.

The chain says it’s “continuing to do the work” where sustainability is concerned by “establishing recycling programs and developing more efficient waste management and energy usage systems.” However, they offer little information in terms of what these initiatives actually look like.

6. Biggby Coffee

coffee chain sustainability

Total Score: 11/25

  • Certifications: 2/5
  • Cup recyclability: 2/5
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 2/5
  • Commitments to a sustainable future: 2/5
  • Planet-friendly options: 3/5

Biggby Coffee, another Midwest favorite, has 243 locations in the U.S., largely serving the Great Lakes region. The chain offers less information about their sustainability efforts than larger coffeehouses, but a 2021 study on the companies’ waste is informative.

Their coffee is Fair Trade and partially Farm-Direct, meaning Biggby Coffee pays the coffee farmers directly. The fewer intermediaries in the supply chain, the higher likelihood of a fair and honest exchange. Biggby Coffee is currently 20% Farm-Direct, and the company is aiming to be 50% Farm-Direct by 2023.

Where cups are concerned, Biggby Coffee faces the same struggles with recyclability as many coffee chains. However, they recently commissioned a study examining the coffeehouses’ waste production, suggesting they may be considering more sustainable alternatives.

That same 2021 study states Biggby Coffee’s plastic cups are 100% recyclable, but almost 80% of products made from this material still end up in a landfill. We’re hoping these findings will spur some sustainable change within the company. To their credit, Biggby Coffee started using strawless plastic lids in 2019.

What about plant-based offerings? Fortunately, they offer several dairy-free alternatives to milk. And while Biggby Coffee serves very few food items, several of the limited options are vegetarian.

Much like our search for future sustainability plans for other coffee chains, our efforts came up short for Biggby Coffee as well. Aside from its goal to go 50% Farm-Direct by 2023 and its cup study, the company doesn’t have a sustainability report or information on its website that points to any future initiatives or goals.

7. Dutch Bros

Total Score: 8/25

  • Certifications: 1/5
  • Cup recyclability: 2/5
  • Commitments to reduce waste: 1/5
  • Commitments to a sustainable future: 1/5
  • Planet-friendly options: 3/5

Dutch Bros, a Northwest favorite, is mostly localized to Oregon—yet it still has 446 locations throughout the U.S. Unfortunately, despite its popularity, Dutch Bros provides the least information in terms of sustainability. The company has no certifications and doesn’t require its coffee suppliers to be organic or otherwise certified.

Like many coffee chains, Dutch Bros uses single-use cups that are difficult to recycle, but it also sells reusable plastic cups. Every time a customer brings in a reusable cup, they receive a 25 cent discount.

While recycling seemed to be on the company’s radar in 2011, that doesn’t seem to be the case 10 years later in 2021. This year, a local Dutch Bros employee decided to start her own recycling initiative at the brand’s Rio Rancho, New Mexico, location. She said almost everything they use can be recycled (including milk cartons and energy drink cans), yet the company the store contracts with to haul waste “only recycles cardboard boxes.”

The Dutch Bros’ director of sustainability said the “company encourages recycling at every store, but different states have different opportunities and programs.” Unfortunately at this time, the chain doesn’t seem to have any information available to the public that lays out a plan to better waste management. Or any other future sustainability plans, for that matter.

Where Dutch Bros does shine is its drink options. All locations offer oat, almond, and coconut milk, and they have an extensive non-dairy sauce list. There aren’t many food items available, and according to the website, none are vegan-friendly.

The Takeaway

coffee chain sustainability

Not a single coffee chain on this list received a perfect score. It’s practically impossible for businesses that serve thousands of customers a day to be perfectly sustainable. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up your afternoon coffee run in order to be a planet champion.

While we can’t control how sustainable certain coffee chains are, we can make choices that enable us to be more eco-friendly coffee drinkers. Use a reusable mug to reduce waste, and support the companies that have certifications and practices in place that support people and the planet.

Being an environmentalist isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being informed about your options and doing your best with the resources available.

Reporting by: Kylie Fuller, Briana Dodson, Tehrene Firman

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We compared popular coffee chains to see how sustainable they are. Here's what we found out about Starbucks, Dunkin', Peet's, and more.

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