North American culture has, finally, shifted towards climate change awareness. Because of this, making sustainable lifestyle choices is becoming increasingly common, and is supposedly more accessible than ever with eco-friendly products like vegan leather, oat milk, and paper straws becoming a standard option for consumers. Large companies and corporations often participate in the green movement by providing these options, while benefiting as well by staying in the public's good graces for presenting themselves as environmentally aware and active. The term used to describe this process—that of companies displaying themselves as eco-friendly to gain public support, despite the harm they are doing to the environment outside of their under-achieving and over-advertised eco projects—is called greenwashing.
Tim Hortons, as a brand, publicly boasts environmental stewardship after having removed plastic straws from their stores. According to National Geographic, Plastic straws account for about 0.025% of the plastic in the ocean. Tim Hortons’s non-recyclable cups, on the other hand, have regularly accounted for up to 22% of litter found along Canadian shorelines during GreenPeace’s yearly “Top 5 Plastic Polluters” audit, consistently placing them near the top of the list—even after plastic straws were removed from the equation. Straws were never the real issue, but brands using them as a scapegoat and as a cheap solution, is.
Sustainable consumption is not as simple as putting a paper straw into a plastic cup. The singular fixation on the small (though still important) issue of plastic straws distracts from the more significant problems with plastic pollution, which are often perpetrated by the same brands who boast their early compliance with the removal of plastic straws, and allows for a false sense of security in terms of “doing enough” for the environment. It is the critical goal of the anti-plastic movement to eliminate the use of single use plastics, so, in an obvious sense, brands removing plastic straws is a good thing—it becomes a problem, however, when companies are allowed to absolve themselves of labelling the damaging role they play in the climate crisis simply because they compiled with one wide-spread media movement and then hid behind that thin layer of performative activism while profiting off of good publicity from it and continuing their pollution, unnoticed.
Realistically, many companies could not function under true, effective sustainability while maintaining capitalistic success because their profit relies on cheap but unsustainable processes and products—but at the same time, they need to prove to their increasingly environmentally-aware customers that they are not the “bad guys” to maintain their consumer base. The compliance of many big brands with the sustainability movement is rooted in maintaining customer satisfaction, not in actual stewardship—awareness of this is critical for holding the right people accountable and making effective change in response to it.
Written by Hayley Apted
A Brief History of how Plastic Straws Took Over the World, retrieved from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/news-plastic-drinking-straw-history-ban#:~:text=One%20study%20published%20earlier%20this,straws%20pollute%20the%20world's%20beaches.&text=Eight%20million%20tons%20of%20plastic,just%200.025%20percent%20of%20that.
Nestle, Tim Hortons Top GreenPeace Canada’s Plastic Polluter List for Second Year, retrieved from: https://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/press-release/26011/nestle-tim-hortons-top-greenpeace-canadas-plastic-polluter-list-for-second-year/