Some mornings—okay, most mornings—the only way I can get myself out of my warm, cozy bed is by picturing the cup of coffee that’s in my very near future.

And if I’m not brewing it at home, I have to make a serious choice between the two closest and most convenient coffee chains. Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts?

In the past, I’ve used the state of my wallet to decide. A medium cup of black coffee costs $1.60 at Dunkin’ Donuts and $1.99 at Starbucks, so even though I enjoy Starbucks’ ambience more, if I’ve been spending a lot of money, it’s Dunkin’ all the way.

Now that I’ve got a little more discretionary money—and I’m more conscious of its power—I’m ready to choose based on ethical factors, not financial ones.

Palm Oil and Plastic Cups

Dunkin’ has taken several steps to reduce its environmental impact in the past couple years. On September 16, 2014, the senior director of corporate social responsibility Christine Riley Miller announced the company will only use responsibly sourced palm oil by 2016.

“While we’re a relatively minor user of palm oil, we understand that sourcing even a limited amount irresponsibly can contribute to a number of negative environmental and social impacts.”

The production of palm oil not only leads to global deforestation but also is a significant factor in climate change. So it’s pretty awesome that Dunkin’ is taking this step.

What about Starbucks’s palm oil policy? In February of 2013, Starbucks announced it was shifting towards 100% sustainable palm oil—by 2015.

Although both companies made the same pledge, Starbucks beat Dunkin’ by an entire year. The first round goes to the green and cream cup!

Speaking of cups, Dunkin’ Donut’s 2012 corporate responsibility report indicated the company was hoping to find a safe alternative to its famous foam cups, which aren’t biodegradable and usually end up in landfills. One year ago, Dunkin’s Brookline, Massachusetts stores started testing a double-walled paper cup. By 2015, the company will decide if it will use the cups in every store; if so, the roll-out will begin in 2016.

Meanwhile, Starbucks had previously made it a goal to serve 25% of its beverages in reusable cups by 2015. But the corporation has since modified that goal:

“We have experienced challenges in consistently executing and tracking our ‘for here’ serveware use in stores around the world. Because of these challenges and the fact the majority of beverages are consumed outside of our stores, we are resetting our goal to focus on increasing the use of personal tumblers,” the Starbucks site says.

The new goal is to serve 5% of all in-store drinks in personal tumblers, which seems pretty paltry to me.

So when it comes to cups, Dunkin’ Donuts is the clear winner—unless, of course, you’re considering Dunkin’s use of styrofoam.

The Coffee Itself

Obviously, what’s in those cups is pretty important as well. Both Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks promote their Fair Trade coffee, which means they—or their suppliers—have paid an above-market price for the coffee to ensure farmers get a fair price for their crops. The idea behind Fair Trade is reduce the cycle of poverty for farmers and workers in developing countries while protecting the environment and promoting sustainability.

In 2004, Dunkin’ partnered with Fair Trade USA, a non-profit that certifies fair trade products, to purchase ethically-sourced coffee for its expressos, cappuccinos, and lattes. That means 100% of their expresso beans are Fair Trade certified.

Comparatively, Starbucks reports that last year 95% of its coffee was ethically sourced: 3% through Fairtrade International (essentially a global version of Fair Trade USA) and other external organizations, and the rest through the corporation’s Coffee and Farmer Equity Program. By 2015, Starbucks has promised to join Dunkin’ in selling 100% ethically sourced coffee.

While the numbers look the same, I’m going to give this round to Starbucks. I really like that the retailer has its own organization for ensuring its farmers, workers, and suppliers are treated fairly and that the environmental harms of growing coffee are minimized.

Social Progress, and Corporate Responsibility

I’ll take my coffee with a side of equality, please.

I’m all about equality—and so is Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Last March, he told stockholders that if they were unhappy with the company’s support for gay marriage, they could “sell [their] shares at Starbucks and buy shares in other companies.”

Starbucks has been an active political supporter of same-sex marriage for years, repeatedly fighting bills that restrict marriage to men and women and endorsing bills that would make same-sex marriage legal.

In comparison, in 2008 Dunkin’ Donuts was found to be one of the least gay-friendly brands. That was six years ago, but still, the corporation certainly hasn’t been flying any huge rainbow flags from its headquarters like Starbucks has.

And while Starbucks starts its employees at $11.50 an hour and has been an active advocate for raising the minimum wage, Dunkin’ Donuts has stayed mum on the subject.

In fact, many of its employees have spoken out as not being able to live on the salary they receive from Dunkin’ Donuts.

While there are certainly many more aspects of social responsibility, I’m proud of Starbucks for its strong stance on gay marriage and living wages and disappointed that Dunkin’ Donuts has not followed suit as it did with environmental issues.

After comparing these two corporations, I’m happy to pay the extra price for a cup of coffee from Starbucks. America may run on Dunkin’, but I’m getting my morning boost from a company that benefits the planet, advocates for civil rights, and treats its employees well.


Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a regular contributor to Her Campus, The Prospect, and her college newspaper. Her work has been featured on xoJane and The Huffington Post. The only thing she loves more than writing is dessert. Follow her on Twitter: @ajavuu.