You’ve Got a Drive-Thru; You’re Not Green

Starbucks prides itself on how green it is. No negative externalities here — and it proudly advertises on its website its commitment to “Environmental Stewardship.”

I wonder, though, about its total effect on the environment.

On most mornings I stop by my own local coffee shop on the way to the office, park my car (Honda Civic or my wife’s Prius, being an environmental snob), and run in for a coffee.

On the route I drive by the local Starbucks and notice that — whether it’s 8 a.m. or 10 a.m. — there are at least 5 cars lined up at the drive-in window spewing forth exhaust fumes. Those fumes contribute heavily to pollution — I figure each car has to be there for at least 5 minutes of extra pollution.

I don’t care if the customers want to add to the price of their mocha lattes the value of the 5 minutes that they spend sitting in line; that’s their business. But I am bothered by the apparent hypocrisy of the company advertising green yet indirectly generating all the extra pollution.

The Dude

I think there should be a law in which you can only use the drive thru at certain times of day. Much like mowing your grass and so forth. There are millions of cars in drive thrus everyday all day. We could cut a lot of time off our warming problem.

John |

If Starbucks is honestly making an effort to be 'green' with their internal policies I don't see a reason to complain. People have to take responsibility for themselves. It is not Starbucks responsibility to ensure people are not driving to get a coffee. This is an interesting topic and I'm glad you mentioned it, however I definitely disagree.

William McCloskey

People who actually know something about automotives can confirm that it requires very little fuel to idle -- considerably less than firing up the car after parking. I'm bothered more by the author's smarmy assertion that he's somehow superior because he drives a Honda Civic and a Toyota Prius. He could, like, walk.


I've heard 30sec is the break-even point or idling v restarting. It probably varies widely among cars.

If as far as possible everything that was bad for the environment was taxed appropriately, then everyone would automatically be carbon-neutral, or whatever neutral (could apply to unfair trade too), and no one could boast about being better for the planet. Every consumer would on balance be buying greener.

Most enviro-unfriendly stuff is done not my individuals but companies, and though most people aren't homo economicus, the people who run big companies are. And appropriate taxes would make a big difference at the corporate level.


After reading all these posts I am getting very uncomfortable with the direction of the "green debate" is going in America. It seems more and more like the Salem Witch Trials or the McCarthy hearings, everybody is suspect of their neighbor of being one of "them" (a polluting fiend). Everybody seems incredibly confident in their beliefs that idling causes damage, or that it doesn't, or there is threshold where you should turn it off. There is no consistency. The Prius driving eco-snob or the Prius driving polluting-snob, which one is it? Is there anything that anyone can do that could make everybody happy? I think we need to stop demonizing people for trying. Finger pointing to the biggest offenders doesn't solve much. How many green crusaders are really happy with the guilty polluting feeling that they carry around when they forget their canvas bags, or have to idle in the drive-thru. We need to lighten up a bit.



#38 and #44 are right on. The market shouldn't have to bear the burden of rhetoric forced as dogma.


I don't think we need to blame anyone here- but, IF YOU BUILD IT (drive-thru)THEY WILL USE IT! I live in a town with horrible ground-level ozone levels. At my sons' school a lot of the parents wait in a long line (drive-thru style) to pick up their kids rather than park and get out! Bad for the kids, bad for the environment! Ubiquitous idling cars ultimately leave a huge carbon footprint.


I think we can all agree that a happy middle ground would be for starbucks to build an awning over their pick-up window that is only 5 feet in height. That way all of those gas guzzling SUVs would have to park and wait. Of course, one problem might be that some motorcycle drivers, most of whom are averaging between 50 and 70 mpg while having loads more fun would be excluded from the drive through. Then again, do we really want motorcycle drivers drinking anything while driving? perhaps alternatively we can have the CO2 from the emissions be used to from the mochachinos that starbucks pumps out. thats recycling, right?...


To #9, Adam

Your ignorance is showing. Starting the car uses the same amount of gas as 10 seconds of idling.

Hyper-milers routinely turn off their engine to coast and at stop lights.


Al Marsh (#7) wrote: 2) I bet 90% of the drive thru customers would go to a DIFFERENT COFFEE SHOP if sbux didn't have the drive thrus. They would go somewhere that does have a drive thru and contribute the exact same ammount of co2 by sitting in a drive thru line at Tim Hortons, for example, instead of sbux

Maybe they would. Maybe 100% of them would. But this piece is about Starbucks advertising itself as being green, not other coffee companies.

In general, yes, driving to coffee shops -- whether Starbucks or other ones -- (or fast food places) is less green than taking the bus or biking or walking. No one is arguing otherwise. But the point here is that every little bit counts. And if you're going to drive then it's more green to park and go inside than idle in a drive-thru line.


Hooray @38 - too many people think they know it all when it comes to the "green debate", and displays of piety and purity are very weakly based. Few people know the facts about any single aspect, much less all the aspects of environmentalism. Indeed, what aspect do you want to focus on? Pollution and use/waste of resources are probably the most measurable, while climate change and ecological footprint are much more theoretical and faith-based.

Much of this nit-picking is based on an analysis culture, where the bulk of analysis is done by people who are not experts. MSNBC interviews newspaper reporters giving their political opinions, Oprah interviews teenage mothers and cheating spouses for their views on relationships, and [former] politicians lead the environmental movement. The truth is nobody knows what they're talking about.

Environmentalism is pretty simple. Small efforts have small impacts - turning off a light switch, skipping a shower, carrying a cloth shopping bag - these are not going to save the planet. Turning off your engine at Starbucks is not going to make a difference, either. Large actions likewise have large impacts - a 2000 sf versus a 4000 sf home, use of private jets or other air travel, being a no-car or 1-car family - a single large life choice probably outweighs a lifetime of tiny adjustments.

Being an economics website, I would expect to see more faith in the market. Let the market tell people when they are using too much gas/oil. Funny how decades of environmental cajoling barely budged habits, but a spike in gas prices has everyone changing their behavior. Gosh, economics works! It's true! Congratulations!



@ #23 Kim Siever

Gosh I hope you were being sarcastic, but just in case you aren't: Vast numbers of cows are bred solely for meat consumption. Although one person becoming a vegetarian will not likely impact that, if many people cut down on their beef consumption (or eliminated it altogether) fewer cows would be bred for those purposes. (I pick on cows since the whole 4 stomach thing means they produce a lot more methane than our other meat sources.)


I hope you're not driving a first generation Prius: last I checked, they used a massive amount of energy for their construction and were expected to be retired after on average about 100k miles. Fuel efficiency is only part of the picture...


I think a lot of people are missing the point... Yes, it's the consumer's fault for driving and not turning off their engines, but SBux is enabling that kind of behavior. It's the same as if I'm your good friend and I know you're trying to diet but I invite you out to fast food every single day. True, it's your responsibility, but as your friend, I should be helping you stick to your goals rather than supplying you lots of opportunities to slip up. If SBux wants to be environmentally friendly, it shouldn't create a system that makes it oh so easy to abuse the environment.

It's not an either-or scenario. There's enough blame to go around to consumers and Sbux. The people who think blaming the consumer is some kind of retort to blaming SBux are absurd... pointing out one person's faults doesn't make up for another person's.


The upside of being the globe's most profligate consumers of resources is that there exist MANY, MANY ways for us to reduce our impact on the environment. We have a lot of room for improvement, and getting people to think about the environmental impact of choices they make is the first step in that process.

Thus, I disagree with the prior commenter's post purporting to list the "ONLY" way to be green. There are lots of ways to make yourself GREENER - and that's what counts. As people learn more, and think more about the problems they face, they can make choices that will reduce their impact. We should be leery of pronouncements that it is an all-or-nothing venture. While the changes required are substantial and will be nothing short of revolutionary, this process is absolutely not all-or-nothing.


To take this to it's logical end, Starbucks causes greenhouse problems JUST BY EXISTING. Why? Because people drive to Starbucks to obtain something that is utterly unnecessary (and quite girly, if you ask me).

But since I know that was not your intent, the REAL PROBLEM, in my eyes as a process improvement expert, is that the cars are WAITING in line. That is, if they could literally drive-thru (instead of park-and-drive-and-park-and-drive-thru), no more than a 30-second wait until they order and pick-up, say, that would do some good.

But as it is, if you argue about that, I would think that fixing bad traffic signals could do more to fix greenhouse problems than ending all drive-thrus.

Or maybe Starbucks could serve ONLY it's top seller at the drive-thru--making it easier to have a cup of the stuff ready for customers?


"Going green" is functionally meaningless in the absence of capped carbon credits or carbon taxes.


The only way to REALLY be "green" is to:

1. Dispense with your car. (Safely and responsibly, of course.)

2. Don't even use public transit either; buses/trains/etc. use gas and pollute, too.

3. Don't use electricity or other utilities, they also expend energy and pollute.

4. Don't use anything with plastics since it's not biodegradable.

5. Don't by anything that comes from a commercial farm, since commercial farms expend energy, consume water, and pollute.

6. Don't eat meat 'cause animals of all sorts emit methane and other pollutants.

7. Don't heat your home with propane or heating oil (pollutants, you see).

8. Don't even use your fireplace to burn wood or coal since both of those pollute; coal mining is dangerous and expends energy, and cutting down trees robs the planet of carbon-dioxide converters.

9. Don't plant anything 'cause cultivation requires water and that, of course, is bad.

10. Never transport anything except by human power, since beasts of burden present the problems of pollution, methane, etc.

There are more restrictions beyond this on REALLY being "green." What it amounts to is that you would have to roll back in time to a paleolithic, pre-fire gathering culture. But I don't see how the billions of people now on earth could possibly survive.

Unless one is willing to live this way and mean it, one will ALWAYS have to make compromises of some sort. One can either accept that compromises are necessary, or not ... but if not, one should put one's money where one's mouth is and actually do it, rather than quibble over what others are or aren't doing.



I think the larger question is "How are we polluting the earth because we don't want to give up some conveniences"? Plastic (or paper) bags at stores instead of carrying our own canvas bags; driving through (and idling at) ATMs rather than walking into the bank; running the A/C rather than using a breezy fan; a family spread between many rooms of a house, each burning its own light, rather spend time in a common area (just because we want to be in privacy!); one could go on and on.

We may rationalize to ourselves that we are being good stewards of the environment by saying "I use paper, which is biodegradable", or "I shut my engine when I am idling", or "I use energy saver florescent lamps", etc.

But the truth is that each of us can continuously do more, we are just risk averse to making the plunge and face the hardships that are unavoidable (I am just as guilty).

While SB can be chided for hypocrisy, I am not sure they can be assigned any more blame than the next guy or next company.



I think it's a very dangerous thing to demand that companies that are at least TRYING to be better somehow be perfect. If the very attempt to improve your corporate environmental impact means that you'll be attacked for not having everything environmentally perfect, then why bother even trying? Give them credit for attempting to improve, and offer them some advice on how to meet the needs of their customers, shareholders AND the environment. I'm very curious about how you think Starbucks SHOULD handle the issue of people in cars who would like to stay in them and have coffee. (You know, someone with a sleeping infant in the backseat, someone who might have physical difficulties getting in and out of the vehicle, or simply someone who wants to listen to NPR while they wait.)

Also, Jonathan B, as far as I can tell Starbucks has done *exactly* that in the Pacific Northwest...