It was the announcement heard round the coffee-drinking world.
This summer, Starbucks committed to eliminating single-use straws by 2020. Over the past few years, businesses have been shifting toward waste reduction—like eliminating plastic straws and other nonessential items—which is the result of careful cultural listening. Consumers have been making lifestyle changes to reduce their environmental footprint for years, and they are demanding that the products they purchase follow suit: 91% of global consumers expect brands to address social and environmental issues.
If there was ever a time for brands to start an ongoing conversation with consumers about their values, it’s now.
The food industry is uniquely situated to quickly adapt to this shift, given the consumable nature of its products. Consider Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain that places sustainability at the center of its ethos. Every utensil, bowl, lid and leftover bit of salad that comes from the store is compostable. In fact, everything purchased inside of a Sweetgreen is either recyclable or compostable, so that nothing ends in a landfill. The commitment to sustainability is part of how the restaurant developed a cult-like following that has driven a 50% increase in new stores in the last two years. Continual efforts, like the recently introduced new bowl meant to cut back on food and water waste, lets customers know that sustainability isn’t just a trend, but part of Sweetgreen’s fabric.
As with any type of purpose-driven strategy, self-serving efforts are easy to spot. For years, hotels have encouraged guests to reuse linens to “save the earth” to reduce their use of water and chemicals. But the reality is clear to savvy guests: fewer washes means a lower laundering cost. That doesn’t mean the hospitality industry doesn’t sincerely value water conservation, it just means that hotels can benefit from transparency in their approach to sustainability.
Take Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which offers a “Make a Green Choice” program, in which guests are rewarded with loyalty points or a food and beverage voucher when making sustainable choices. This reflects a conversation between brand and consumer, one that benefits both and diminishes the lopsided benefit to the brand. With 79% of travelers placing an importance on properties with environmentally minded practices, it is clear that conservation is not just a niche concern, but a broadly accepted demand.
For decades, the directive has been “more.” Shop more. Buy more. But what happens when a company urges customers to consume less—even if that includes its own product? Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia shocked Black Friday shoppers a few years ago when it ran an ad that urged, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It asked consumers to “buy less and reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else,” and included a list of initiatives Patagonia was taking to support a culture of reduced consumption. This campaign was more than just a bold move to endear the brand to the environmentally conscious—it put potential customers in the hot seat as well, asking them to consider the impact of their actions.
The differentiating point between this waste reduction trend and environmentally motivated brand tactics of the past is that it is in many ways a two-way street, requiring a conversation between brand and consumer to truly succeed. Reducing one’s environmental footprint requires adopting habits that may be at first unfamiliar and uncomfortable for both parties. It’s a new frontier that not all brands are willing to explore, but as with so many trends, early adopters are likely to be rewarded for seeing the bigger picture sooner.