Glynis Ratcliffe is the senior writer at Broadview magazine. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Chatelaine and The Walrus.
Every time a large corporation announces a “green” initiative that’s supposed to fight climate change, a turtle chokes on its microplastic-laced lunch somewhere.
So keep the turtles in your thoughts in the wake of the news that in March, Tim Hortons’s Roll Up the Rim contest will feature changes as part of a larger effort to make the brand more sustainable.
Practically speaking, this is a good start. Since the promotion was linked to rolling up the lip of the company’s paper cups, a plan to give away nearly two million reusable cups and offering the incentive of three “rolls” every time customers bring their own cup is a productive one.
But once you dig in a little deeper, Tim Hortons’ move looks somewhat half-baked. It won’t be lost on customers considering using the cup multiple times as intended that the cups are made of single-wall polypropylene plastic, so they’re unlikely to keep your fingers cool and your coffee warm. And while they are 100-per-cent recyclable, what use is that when less than 10 per cent of recyclable plastic in Canada is actually recycled? And the hypocrisy of a large company encouraging its customers to go green for a short-term campaign by using their branded plastic cups – while doing nothing to modify their standard disposable ones that continue to be one of the largest sources of litter in the country – is astounding.
These moves, nine months after the announcement of a 10-year marketing campaign to change customer behaviour, rather than an investment in research and development to find biodegradable solutions, speaks volumes. They signal that it’s on us, the consumers, to do the environmental work, while corporations refuse to pull their weight.
This greenwashing isn’t just happening at Tims, either. The grocery-store chain Sobeys has eliminated all plastic bags at checkout stands – although there are still bags on offer for fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh meat packaged in plastic wrap and polystyrene, and single-use packaging in myriad other food products. Many stores offer the convenient option to buy a reusable tote bag should you forget your own, but there’s never accompanying information about how many times a cloth bag needs to be used to offset the carbon footprint it created when it was made and shipped (anywhere from 30 times to thousands of times).
Meanwhile, coffee heavyweight Starbucks committed to eliminating straws by 2020, but that act is really just the tip of the iceberg. After all, the majority of its bakery treats remain individually wrapped upon shipment, where employees remove then trash the wrapper before giving it to customers in an entirely new paper bag. And of the 75 countries Starbucks operates in, only stores in Canada and the United States have recycling programs.
This doesn’t mean we should abandon our efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle. You should take that free plastic cup from Tims if you’re going to use it more than a few times; that still represents fewer disposable cups in the trash. You should bring your own bags when grocery shopping, since their impact goes beyond their carbon footprint; they clog waterways and break down into microplastics, which accumulate in even the tiniest of organisms.
But we also shouldn’t pat these corporations on the back for the inadequately small steps they’re taking toward sustainability. Tiny actions don’t cut it in a world where CO2 levels continue to rise perilously, year over year.
When corporations greenwash – that is, when they deploy public-relations campaigns and marketing resources toward making customers think the company is more environmentally conscious than it is – they buy themselves more time from making truly meaningful changes. This is particularly galling given that, for the loud onus being placed on consumers to enact personal change, it is the private sector that disproportionately sends greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
We can, however, have a say in this. According to a 2017 Carbon Majors report by the Climate Accountability Institute, 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced back to 100 fossil fuel producers. But it’s businesses, households and individuals that actually drive the demand for the fuels that these 100 companies provide. In short, if consumers can bring themselves to buy fewer products, the ripple effect will be felt all the way through the supply chain to these companies.
So when companies such as Tims make mild but buzzy “green” announcements, they’re doing nothing more than marketing. That’s not enough in the face of the current state of our warming world. As consumers, we can’t fall for it.
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