This Starbucks Executive Shares How Your Company Can Make a Positive Social Impact

Jessica Abo sits down with a Starbucks executive to learn how the company is taking on community service, plastics and pay equity.

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When it comes to social innovation at Starbucks, there are many things that make John Kelly proud, but he admits picking one initiative is like picking his favorite child (he has three). The Senior Vice President for Global Social Impact and Public Affairs says one program that stands out is The Starbucks Foundation Service Fellows Program. It's what he describes as taking service and turning it corporate national service.

"In other words," Kelly told when they sat down at the Social Innovation Summit in Los Angeles, "we're taking Starbucks partners working in 100 stores around the country and they're working 20 hours a week behind the bar as Starbucks baristas, but for 20 or 30 hours, the remainder of the week, we've actually partnered with Points of Light to identify an NGO or a service organization where they're now doing community service at scale and at impact for six or seven months. This is a new model for corporations to do community service at scale and with a bigger impact than just cleaning up a park one day a month. The idea here is that these baristas become catalytic in terms of community service in their communities."

For companies that want to leave a mark on the world, Kelly says creating a positive social impact comes down to being authentic, relevant and tangible. "For most companies, to be honest, and other companies that I've worked for, it is something you do either in a crisis or for PR or for reputation. What we've been doing at Starbucks for more than 40 years is really integrating social impact into the performance of the company, starting with . Whether it's coffee or green building, I think we've been able to demonstrate that social impact when brought to scale with serious investments and given time can be net positive when it comes to business performance." 

Under the umbrella of how Starbucks integrates what's important to its employees into the company's DNA, Kelly says Starbucks worked with the National Partnership for Women and Families over the course of several years to achieve 100 percent pay equity for race and gender in the United States. 

"It takes intentional work but we achieved that for the second year in a row. And we took that to our largest markets in Canada and trying to where we've achieved 100 percent pay equity for women. That's a major accomplishment."

With 350,000 young people in 30,000 locations, Kelly says the company's success comes down to listening to its partners. When Starbucks baristas were unhappy throwing out perfectly good food, the company responded with starting a food share donation program with Feeding America. To date, Starbucks has donated more than 15 million meals around the United States and is on track to meet their goal of donating 100 percent of food available to donate from its U.S. company-owned stores by 2020. 

Also on the horizon is progress on plastics. Starbucks has announced the company is going to eliminate plastic straws worldwide, having recently announced the rollout of a new, lightweight strawless lid for iced beverage. Starbucks is also working with Close Looped Partners to come up with a fully compostable, fully recyclable and compostable hot cup.

"That's an industry-wide problem," Kelly says. "We believe that, that is going to be transformational in the next couple of years as we come up with different materials to test and model in different cities this year. By the next 18 months or two years, we should have a new compostable cup that will divert additional landfill waste." 

Related: How to Build a Community Around Your Brand

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