Starbucks Asia Pacific President Sara Trilling on the company’s planet-focused aspirations

Senior Vice President and President of Starbucks Asia Pacific Sara Trilling

As Starbucks marks its 50th anniversary, Senior Vice President and President of Starbucks Asia Pacific Sara Trilling talks to Global Coffee Report about the company’s planet-focused aspirations and why it’s so much more than a coffee brand. 

From its beginnings in Pike Place Market, Seattle in 1971, Starbucks set out to be a different kind of company. Over the next 50 years, former CEO Howard Schultz, backed with a formidable leadership team now led by President and CEO Kevin Johnston, helped turn one tiny shop front into a global roasting powerhouse with more than 33,000 stores and 400,000 partners across 84 markets. 

Senior Vice President and President of Starbucks Asia Pacific Sara Trilling says it’s Starbucks celebration of coffee and deliberate intention to leverage its scale for good, that has resonated with audiences most.

“Starbucks is not just a coffee company— we’re a people company, tapping into the convening power of coffee. We believe in creating a positive impact for our partners, customers and society around three core areas – inclusion, opportunity, and community,” Trilling tells Global Coffee Report.

Six stores in India are staffed entirely by women, bringing the company goal closer of women comprising 40 per cent of the Starbucks India workforce by 2022.

“Everything we do is through the lens of humanity – creating a warm, welcoming experience for all who visit our stores, and a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable workplace.”

Curiosity is what led Trilling to Starbucks. When she first heard about “this company from Seattle”, she was immediately intrigued by its mission statement “to inspire and nurture the human spirit one person, one cup, and one neighbourhood at a time”.

“This clear focus on taking care of people sparked my interest. I wanted to know if they really meant it. And that was what ultimately convinced me to join the Starbucks family. That curiosity continues to drive me, and as I’ve grown as a person and a leader, my love for this company has kept growing as well,” Trilling says.

Prior to joining Starbucks in 2002, Trilling worked in design, and had the opportunity to manage a range of projects for a woman-owned business. It was during that time she learnt that good leaders feel comfortable not having all the answers, as long as they have a curiosity about people and seek to learn from others. In Trilling’s nearly two decades with Starbucks, every role has been a new adventure, from innovating the brand’s global retail store footprint to elevate its operations into profitable growth.

Trilling says the many positions she’s held across the organisation have given her new perspectives and skillsets, all of which have led her to the people-focused position she holds today, growing store operations and cross-functional support of the Asia Pacific region’s 14 markets.

“I believe Asia is one of the most dynamic and exciting regions we operate in, and the opportunity to learn and grow alongside so many phenomenal Starbucks partners has been truly life-changing,” Trilling says. “I am so proud of the connections our partners create for their communities every day, and I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of Starbucks in Asia.”

Starbucks Reserve Chao Phraya Riverfront at Iconsiam, Bangkok marks Starbucks 12th Reserve Bar in Thailand.

Protecting the planet
At the top of Starbucks’ goals for growth is an environmental commitment to the planet. In January 2020, Starbucks shared its multi-decade commitment to becoming a resource positive company by storing more carbon than it emits, eliminating waste, and replenishing more freshwater than it uses. 

Then, at its 2020 Biennial Investor Day in November 2020, it formalised specific 2030 goals to cut its carbon, water, and waste footprints by 50 per cent. Trilling says these global goals are rooted in science, grounded in Starbucks’ mission and values, and informed by comprehensive market research and trials. 

“Since January, we’ve expanded plant-based menu options, found better ways to manage waste with greener cups and lids, and partnered with likeminded companies across industry on our sustainability journey. As we continue to progress against these goals, encouraging reusable behaviours and waste reduction is an important focus for Starbucks in Asia,” Trilling says.

The region is home to 60 per cent of the world’s population and several fast-growing economies. Trilling says working together with its employees, customers, and communities to protect the planet we share has never been more important. “By shifting toward a circular economy, we can help communities thrive for years to come,” Trilling says.

From financial year (FY) 2019 to FY2020, Starbucks reported an 11 per cent reduction in carbon emissions against its 2030 carbon goal, 4 per cent water reduction, and 12 per cent reduction in waste. Starbucks’ 2020 sustainability report said this level of annual reduction was “not anticipated”, but primarily due to reduced business activity in FY2020 as a result of COVID-19, and is not likely to be typical going forward. 

The company has, however, made further steps forward. In FY2020, Starbucks launched pilots in Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Rwanda, and Kenya to reduce its environmental footprint in green coffee. This included alternative coffee processing and new wet mill innovations designed to save up to 80 per cent of water, as well as precision agronomy practices to help reduce its carbon footprint.

On 24 July, Starbucks celebrated its 21st anniversary in South Korea by opening its largest store in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggido.

Another significant contributor is Starbucks’ support of reusable cups, in which the company has offered incentive discounts since the 1980s. Trilling says Starbucks continues to explore new ways to inspire and support its customers make rewarding planet-positive changes without compromising on convenience. 

“Promoting reusability and reducing the number of single-use cups that leave our stores are important factors, but we realise we cannot do this alone,” Trilling says. “Not only do we invite our customers to join us on our resource-positive journey, but we’re also creating partnerships with innovative cup sharing program operators across the markets we serve to scale sustainable solutions for the entire industry.”

Earlier this year, Starbucks announced plans to fully discontinue single-use cups in all stores across South Korea by 2025, beginning with a reusable cup program in select stores in Jeju. Around the world, Trilling says Starbucks is learning from similar programs in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Japan, and is excited by the opportunities this innovative technology will unlock for Starbucks customers globally. It also aims to eliminate the use of plastic straws by the end of the year.

Like many large coffee roasters, coffee grounds remain one of the largest sources of food waste for Starbucks. As such, the company has activated unique programs across the Asian region to transform spent grounds into craft hacks in Hong Kong, specialty merchandise items in Thailand, and in-store artwork in retails stores. Through Starbucks’ Grounds for Your Garden program, customers can even recycle coffee grounds as garden fertiliser. 

“Our reusability initiatives across the region connect customers to the entire coffee ecosystem, helping to cultivate a profound appreciation for all things coffee, while inspiring them to take action to build a more sustainable future,” Trilling says.

Starbucks is pioneering circularity strategies that create positive impact for local communities, while also reducing its waste footprint. In 2015, Starbucks partnered with local farmers in South Korea to donate recycled coffee grounds for agricultural fertiliser to grow produce. Starbucks brings these ingredients back into stores for customers to enjoy including packaged breads, rice chips and dried fruits. A similar program has been running in Japan since 2014.

Across the Asia Pacific region, Starbucks continues to engage customers, partners, and communities in its resource-positive journey, galvanising the power of doing better together with transparency. 

“The future is to become resource positive — giving back more than we take from the planet. And we know we can’t do it alone. It takes all of us,” Trilling says.

Senior Vice President and President of Starbucks Asia Pacific Sara Trilling
Sara Trilling graced the cover of the September/October edition of Global Coffee Report.

Leading with humanity and hope
One of the core beliefs of Starbucks is that when you take care of people, the rest will follow. No-one could have anticipated the global challenges of the past year-and-a-half, but Trilling says she is proud of the decisions Starbucks made early on in the global pandemic to support the needs of its employee partners. 

In a first for the company, in April 2020 it established a US$10 million Partner Emergency Relief Program to support partners in company-operated and licensed retail store markets around the world, including Asia. These one-time, direct relief grants were made available to partners facing extreme hardship as a result of COVID-19. 

In the fiscal first quarter ending 27 December 2020, Starbucks reported consolidated net revenues of US$6.2 billion, an 8 per cent decline from the prior year primarily due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its fiscal third quarter report ending 27 June 2021, Starbucks delivered record performance, demonstrating powerful momentum beyond recovery, and raised its full-year financial outlook. 

The company reported record consolidated net revenues of US$7.5 billion, up 78 per cent compared to the prior year, mainly driven by a 73 per cent increase in comparable store sales. The result is primarily due to the unfavorable impact of business disruption the prior year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and strength in US company-operated sales in the current year. Starbucks President and CEO Kevin Johnson stated “our ability to move with speed and agility and to be out in front of shifting customer behaviours has helped further differentiate Starbucks, positioning us well for this moment”.

While Starbucks is still navigating a dynamic situation, Trilling says there are many signs of growth and opportunity ahead. In November 2020, Starbucks announced its entry into Laos, a new market with a rich history of coffee production and a thriving coffee culture. Starbucks Japan is set to open 100 new lower-impact stores per year, aiming for 2000 stores by the end of 2024, and China remains the brand’s fastest and largest growing market outside the US with 5135 stores. 

In addition to strong market opportunities in the Asia Pacific, Trilling says advancing gender equality across the region will continue to deliver meaningful impact to communities, and employee partners who proudly wear the green apron.

“As a leader, a woman, and a mother of two girls, this work is particularly meaningful to me, and I want people at Starbucks to feel empowered to choose their own path, follow their passion, and find success over the long term,” Trilling says.

In FY2020, Starbucks achieved 100 per cent pay equity for women and men in Singapore, the Philippines, and India. Six stores in India have also opened, staffed entirely by women, bringing the company goal closer of women comprising 40 per cent of the Starbucks India workforce by 2022.

“While communities across Asia continue to address broader systemic issues around important considerations like childcare and cultural expectations, it’s my goal that partners at Starbucks will always have opportunities to learn, grow and succeed in the careers they’ve chosen,” Trilling says, much like she has.

This article was first published in the September/October edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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