Shout out to Elizabeth Drivas, a student in my undergraduate business law class at the University of Central Florida, who posed this provocative question to me during office hours on 21 October. In other words, when a successful firm like Starbucks touts its commitment to “reducing waste” and “reusable cups” (see this press release, for example) how much of this shameless self-promotion is just a marketing ploy to attract high-end customers, i.e. the type of customers who are willing to pay $3, $4, or even $5 for a cup of coffee? After some preliminary research (check out this helpful article by Adam Minter on Bloomberg View), it turns out that recycling is not yet cost-effective for Starbucks. Why not? Because those paper cups aren’t just made of paper; those cups have a plastic lining that complicate the recycling process. But isn’t ethics about doing the right thing, regardless of cost? Not necessarily! In my business law class, for example, I take time to compare and contrast various theories of normative ethics (e.g. Kantian ethics, Rawls’s theory of justice, and various theories of pragmatism and consequentialism) to illuminate contemporary debates about sustainability, corporate citizenship, and corporate social responsibility. Bonus questions: If you were Howard M. Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, how much of your firm’s resources would you invest in creating a non-plastic lined cup? In the alternative, what cost-effective steps could you take to reduce the use of paper cups in your coffee shops? Is this even a problem worth solving, given the small fraction of trash Starbucks generates relative to other firms? These are hard questions. If you have any thoughts, we would be happy to pass them along to Mr Schultz.
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