Starbucks’ UK head is proud of the company’s credentials and wants to spread the word

Darcy Willson-Rymer’s introduction to corporate responsibility was immediate and abrupt. In his first week as chief executive of Starbucks UK and Ireland, the Yum Brands veteran found himself in the eye of a media storm. Newspaper headlines charged the Seattle-based global coffee chain with “hypocrisy”. How could it claim to be a green company while instructing its barristas to leave the washing-up tap running continuously? “By the end of the week, the taps were off,” Willson-Rymer says in a candid interview with Ethical Corporation.

The Starbucks UK and Ireland head believes in leading from the front. Commercially, he’s in the right place. Starbucks remains the world’s iconic coffee house brand. On the high street, competition for a cappuccino has become fiercer and fiercer. But the company that weaned the UK public off instant and onto americanos is still out in front. Starbucks has the most stores and the most footfall of any out-of-home coffee retailer.

Willson-Rymer aspires for a similar leadership position in the sustainability space. “We’ve laid out our goals to 2015 and we’ve been very transparent about reporting against those every year,” he says. And the company stepped up a gear in September. Starbucks will now buy 100% of all its espresso brands – more than 80% of its product range – from farmers certified under the rules of the Fairtrade Foundation. It’s the biggest and boldest move by any UK coffee chain to date.

Welcome though Starbucks’ commitment is, couldn’t it have come sooner? It’s a process of taking one step at a time, Willson-Rymer replies. The company has been involved in ethical sourcing for more than a decade, working closely with environmental non-profit group Conservation International. As well as exacting quality standards, approved buyers are required to meet core social and environmental criteria. In addition, the company already pays a premium to producers for the high-end coffee it buys. So shifting to the Fairtrade marque is not new, but it takes what Starbucks is already doing “one stage further”.

Neither is this the decision of a chief executive who spends his life in the boardroom. Willson-Rymer likes hanging out in his stores. He likes to think of them as “third spaces” – not home, not the office, but a place where “human connections” are made. So much connecting has led him to a salient conclusion: customers want the “assurance that we are doing what we say”. Fairtrade gives them that.

From Starbucks’ business perspective, there’s a related benefit. Fairtrade helps the company “tell its story”. That’s not something Starbucks has been terribly good at in the past, Willson-Rymer says.

“Having people understand that we use our scale and size for good … I think we have to do a better job of doing that,” he says. Don’t look out for huge neon billboards, but do expect more newspaper advertising, as well as in-store messaging and on-pack marketing.

An online offensive is also in train. A micro-site can be found on the company’s main web page – Starbucks is also looking to communicate with its 300,000 followers on Facebook, and the half-a-million or more that track it on Twitter – where Willson-Rymer will make the odd Tweet.

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