Learning from Starbucks About Behaviour Change

Starbucks recently released the interim results of a 3-month trial programme in 35 of its London stores, where it is promoting a 5p charge on recyclable paper cups. The experimental charge is coupled with the company’s longstanding 25p discount for customers that opt for a reusable cup. The reusable cup user thus gets a 25p discount and avoids a 5p charge, giving a combined 30p advantage overall. Half way through the trial, 5.6% of customers in the participating stores had opted for a reusable cup, up from 2.2%. That’s a 157% increase but still only a very small proportion of all customers.

In 2016, Starbucks temporarily increased the discount for reusable cups to 50p all across the UK, to no effect. So, why is a 30p bonus working in 2018, where a 50p benefit failed two years before? Informally, Starbucks puts it down, in large part, to the fact that, this time around, staff in participating stores are engaging much more proactively with customers. There is a vital lesson here. The Starbucks experiment shows that behaviour change also depends on the way you communicate with people.

As the majority of on-the-go coffee drinkers are loyal to the recyclable paper cup, it follows that coffee sellers – both big and small – must communicate with their customers about correct disposal for recycling. In parallel, bolder out-of-home collection programmes are needed. Today, in the UK there is the capacity to recycle all the paper cups that are used. Food service businesses must team up with their consumers to ensure that those cups are disposed of responsibly so they can be recycled.

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