Turning a Corner!

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The A&W Beyond Burger

In my ten years of studying and advocating for sustainability in the restaurant industry I can’t remember a moment like this.  The last few months have seen some substantial announcements by large restaurant companies that are game-changers.  A&W which continues to lead the way has recently announced they will stop the use of plastic straws by the end of the year.  They have also launched their ‘Beyond Burger’, a plant-based burger that tastes pretty much like beef.  Starbucks announced earlier this week that they are eliminating plastic straws by 2020 and perhaps more importantly have designed a new lid for drinks that will eliminate the use of even paper straws in many cases.  It should be mentioned that Starbucks has also invested $10 million dollars to develop a coffee cup that is compostable or can be recycled.

Some full-service companies are also getting on board the environmental band wagon.  Earl’s has recently added an ‘Impossible’ plant-based burger’ to locations in the U.S. and you can guarantee it will be in Canada soon.  Large chains are not the only ones getting in on the action.  Small independent restaurants are also eliminating plastic straws.  A recent article in the Toronto Star estimated over 100 operators in the Toronto area had already switched to paper or plant based straw alternatives in their operations.

So the question is, why are things changing now?  If I look back 10 years ago I think companies that were making moves to be more environmentally conscious were doing so to save money. LED lights, low flow toilets, energy star equipment, switching to these were all about getting an ROI.  There was also this idea that if you served some ‘local food’ on your menu you were doing your part environmentally.  Fast forward to 2018 and we are in a different world.  The idea of ‘advocacy’ is forefront in many aspects of our society. Social media has led to an ability to not only advocate but create ‘movements’.   We are constantly getting messages via social media and access to information has never been so easy.

Let’s not fool ourselves, these companies are making these decisions as part of a business strategy.  A&W and Starbucks are leading the way because they realize that more than ever, and especially in younger generations, people are starting to care about how companies are conducting their business.  Companies like McDonalds who have been historically slow to adapt continue to ‘waffle’ and lose opportunities to increase customer counts through positive environmental change.   Earlier this year McDonalds announced that by 2025 their restaurants will only use packaging, including straws, that are from renewable, recycled, or certified sustainable sources.  No way they will keep this goal, it will be accelerated through pressure from advocacy groups, ‘on-line shaming’, and in many cases government regulation.

As people ‘vote with their dollars’ restaurants can no longer turn a blind eye to their environmental footprint.   Switching to ‘greener’ strategies is no longer about cutting costs, it’s about increasing revenue.  Look no farther than a 5.3% increase in sales in Q1 of 2018 for A&W to know that this change is here to stay.

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