BUSINESS

Starbucks Is Selling Nearly A Half-Billion Dollars In 'Sustainability' Bonds

The coffee giant is asking investors to fund its environmental efforts for the first time.

Starbucks Corp. is asking investors to fund as much as $496 million on what the coffee giant describes as "sustainability" projects, the latest move in a growing push by companies to reduce the potentially negative impact of their activities on the environment.

The funds would come from debt the company issued this week earmarked for projects such as purchases of "responsibly grown" coffee, research centers to help farmers boost their production, and loans to farmers who may lack access to financing, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It's the first time the Seattle-based coffee chain will borrow money from investors specifically to fund its sustainability efforts. It comes as financial regulators, such as Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, have in recent months encouraged investors to buy more securities meant to finance environmentally-friendly projects.

Issuing bonds that fund sustainability efforts are growing in popularity as pension funds and nonprofit endowments increasingly aim to improve society through their investments. It's the latest outgrowth of a strategy that includes the avoidance of investments in tobacco growers, gun manufacturers, and oil and gas companies.

Big banks, including HSBC and Crédit Agricole, are working with companies and investors to spur investments in projects that offer environmental and social benefits. Crédit Agricole, a French lender, formed a sustainable banking team in 2010.

Starbucks elected to issue debt rather than use its existing stockpile of $1.3 billion in cash and cash-like securities. The 10-year notes carry a 2.45 percent interest rate, just 0.74 percent higher than what the U.S. government pays investors to borrow for 10 years, according to the latest data from the Treasury Department.

Linda Mills, a Starbucks spokeswoman, declined to comment ahead of the transaction's planned completion on Monday.

Sustainable coffee growing practices could help many of the world's estimated 25 million coffee farmers, according to the Rainforest Alliance. Farmers, many of them in developing countries across Africa and Latin America, face huge risks due to the fluctuating price of coffee -- one of the world's most heavily traded commodities -- and erratic weather influenced by pollution-caused climate change.

Some farmers have even thinned out nearby forests in order to maximize the amount of sunlight for their coffee plants, a tactic the Rainforest Alliance says has "devastated lands throughout the tropics."

Starbucks says it has tried to ensure that the coffee it sells is grown in accordance with certain environmental standards.

In 2004, Starbucks launched new criteria to guide its coffee purchases with the aim of buying "ethically sourced" coffee, according to its most recent global responsibility report.

The criteria, known as "Coffee and Farmer Equity," cover items such as workers' wages, water quality and the use of chemicals. Coffee growers are graded by third parties to ensure they meet minimum standards, according to Starbucks.

About 96 percent of Starbucks-purchased coffee in 2014 met the company's sustainability standards, it said. In 2008 the company said that by 2015 all of its coffee would be "ethically sourced," according to its 2014 global responsibility report.

The company's sustainability standards have "helped positively impact millions of workers, and improved the long-term environmental and social conditions on thousands of participating farms around the world," it claims.

Proceeds from the company's sustainability bonds will be used to purchase coffee governed by such standards.

Starbucks also may use the money for its "Farmer Support Centers," which the company says help farmers lower their costs, improve coffee quality and increase yields. Further uses for the debt include a $50 million fund devoted to financing coffee growers.

Most of the debt's proceeds will be allocated to projects within the next year, Starbucks said in securities filings. The company plans to keep investors updated on how their money is being used and the environmental impacts of the projects they're funding.

The funds raised from investors will effectively target environmentally friendly agricultural practices, concluded Sustainalytics, a Netherlands-based research firm, in a May 5 report.

Last year, a Starbucks shareholder tried to persuade the company's investors to approve a resolution that would have "encouraged" Starbucks to form a board committee devoted to sustainability. The committee would've assessed the company's response to environmental challenges such as climate change -- but the board of directors recommended that shareholders vote against the resolution, arguing it was unnecessary.

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