Our Thinking

Back in January, an inspiring art installation appeared in front of Toronto’s Union Station –  a 35-foot-long bright orange structure that formed the phrase “Change is good.” No, this was not a holdover from Nuit Blanche, when the city’s public spaces are filled with magical artistic creations that scream innovation.

The auteur was Canadian chain restaurant A&W. And the sculpture was made entirely of the plastic straws – 140,000 of them – that remained after A&W banished the drinking devices from their stores. The chain had pledged last year to replace plastic straws with paper alternatives, and worked with a design firm to create the installation as a way to market the brand’s initiative.

Pretty cool. The discarded straws served a new dual purpose: they were part of an art installation and A&W spared the ocean this last batch of straws. And A&W used the change in their offering as a ‘cause marketing’ opportunity – a chance for the brand to align itself the cause of sustainability. The campaign indeed got a lot of mostly positive pick up in the press and on social media.


But when retailers alter their offerings in the name of sustainability, do they always fare well?


For smaller players, it can be pretty straightforward. Today, many a start-up has a sustainable offering as their raison d’être. A new, hip clothing retailer can have as its offering recycled or upcycled materials from the get-go.


But for larger, more established retailers, it’s not always easy. A sustainable initiative may clash with a brand’s established, long-standing offering. For instance, if a brand has always promised a low price and convenience, customers may not appreciate a change that means a higher price or less convenience. And even if customers agree sustainability is a good thing, they may disagree with the initiative selected, and believe another would have been more worthwhile. Or consumers may point out other aspects of a retailer’s offering that are not so sustainable (e.g. plastic lids) or that are not optimal in some other way (e.g. unhealthy foods, questionable labour practices). And let’s face it, customers often just don’t like change.

Perhaps what’s important is that the retailer demonstrate commitment to a larger, long-term sustainability strategy, and let customers know they’ll be making improvements in a consistent manner. Maybe the retailer does away with plastic straws today and commits to trying to do the same with plastic lids when a good alternative becomes available.


A&W clearly has a strategy to improve sustainability. When they announced they were doing away with plastic straws, many consumers remembered that they had introduced the Beyond Meat Burger a year earlier, along with offering Fair Trade coffee and committing to save energy.


In sum, when done credibly, sustainable initiatives can be good marketing opportunities and, when customers are on board, will strengthen brand loyalty. To boot, when a jurisdiction may introduce legislation such as a plastic straw ban at some point in the future, it reflects well on a retailer to have been ahead of the game.