By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Today Starbucks is offering free coffee to anyone who brings in a travel mug rather than a cup. The campaign is part of Starbucks “Shared Planet commitment to environmental stewardship,” according to a press release. By 2015, the company plans that 100 percent of its cups will be reusable or recyclable.

“While our cup has become an integral part of the coffeehouse experience over the years, it has also become an environmental concern,” said Ben Packard, Starbucks vice president of Global Responsibility. “As a result, we’ve set aggressive goals to minimize cup waste through recycling and reusable options, and are collaborating with a wide range of stakeholders to drive meaningful change. In addition to working with cup manufacturers, municipalities and recyclers to make our cups more broadly recyclable, we’re encouraging customers to think about reusable cups the way they think about reusable grocery bags.”

Corporate responsibility has long been part of Starbucks’ brand and strategic plan. This year the company was listed as number 52 on Corporate Responsibility Magazine Top 100 Best Corporate Citizens [PDF]. Packard said, “Even during the tough economic climate of the past two years, Starbucks has remained steadfastly committed to improving the lives of coffee farmers, reducing our environmental impact and giving back to our communities.”

A Robust Corporate Responsibility Blend

Vivek Varma Senior Vice President, Public Affairs writes in Starbucks’ recently released FY09 Global Responsibility Report , “We work to earn this trust from our customers and partners by doing business responsibly. We call this Starbucks ™ Shared Planet™, our commitment to sourcing our products ethically, improving our communities, and reducing our environmental impact.” The report explains that the company’s corporate responsibility program revolves around Ethical Sourcing, Community Involvement, and Environmental Stewardship.

The report notes Starbucks’ dedication to improving the lives of its suppliers:

Our purchases of C.A.F.E. Practices verified coffee in 2008 accounted for 77 percent (295 million pounds) of total coffee purchases, and in 2009 we increased that amount to 81 percent (299 million pounds) of total purchases. We complement purchases of C.A.F.E. Practices verified coffee with purchases of Fairtrade certified coffee to promote sound production standards. This action has made us the largest purchaser of Fairtrade certified coffee in the world.”

The company’s dedication to environmental stewardship also makes sense strategically – as the report notes, because it relies on an agricultural product, the company is vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

And finally, because of its global presence, the company believes it has a responsibility towards improving the communities it serves.

Improving Employee Engagement

According to the company’s Global Responsibility Report, Starbucks is working to leverage its 150,000 employee workforce to improve the communities in which its stores are located.

For example, the report explains, “In 2009, at our annual leadership conference in the U.S., 9,000 of our partners contributed more than 36,000 hours of service to help rebuild the city of New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.”

Additionally, “In the Asia Pacific region alone last year, our partners contributed more than 26,000 hours of community service, with activities benefiting Children in Indonesia, Deoksu Palace Dialogues in Korea, and the Books for Children Foundation in Thailand.”

Yet, according to Starbucks, the company can do better. While the company’s employees contributed 186,000 hours of community service in 2009, the report notes that community service hours were down 24% from the previous year. By 2015 the company hopes its employees contribute one million hours of community service.

This is a pretty big jump. Starbucks doesn’t include its strategy for achieving this goal – and employee engagement is not mentioned in the global responsibility report, or the company’s annual report. According to a recent article by Edward D. Hess the company’s employees are already fairly well engaged – the reason? Treating its employees as partners.

Hess writes, “Starbucks [is] a model for employee engagement and partnership by offering health care and stock options widely to its workforce.” Not many food service chains are willing to offer these kinds of benefits to their employees, and this creates a great amount of loyalty amongst its workforce. Now Starbucks’ challenge is translating that employee loyalty into the passion for community improvement that the company claims is part of its brand. How would you achieve this?