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How Much Sustainability Makes a Company Sustainable?

Tim Hortons understands corporate social responsibility. They are proud of their Making a True Difference initiatives including Tim Horton Children’s Foundation, local programs such as Earn-a-Bike and Timbits Minor Sports, sponsorships of national sports leagues and local community programs, environmental events and their Coffee Partnership. They issue an annual Sustainability and Responsibility Report. Clearly, Tim Hortons knows how to talk the talk. But are they walking the walk of corporate social responsibility?

Customers spend more than $6 billion annually at Tim Hortons. That’s $16.4 million worth of coffee, baked goods, soups and sandwiches per day. Where does that coffee come from? Where do those cups go? These are the kinds of questions we must ask to assess whether Tim Hortons is doing more than just talking the talk of sustainability.

When hockey legend Tim Horton opened his first coffee and donut shop (Hamilton, ON, 1964), it was as a way to supplement his NHL salary. At the time of his untimely death ten years later there were 40 Tim Hortons restaurants. By 1991 there were 500 stores, growing  to 1000 by 1995, doubling to 2000 by the year 2000, and exploding to 3000 by 2006. Such growth presents both challenges and opportunities.

Tim Hortons: A Part of our Canadian Identity

The mayor of Yellowknife exclaimed during William and Catherine’s recent royal visit, “You’re on the edge of some of the little remaining, but accessible, wilderness in the world. Twenty minutes in any direction you won’t be finding any cigarette packages or Tim Hortons cups.” As quintessentially Canadian and ubiquitous as the Tim Hortons franchise is the Tim Hortons coffee cup, discarded by loyal Tim Hortons customers.

Those discarded cups cannot be ignored. And the company does not pursue FairTrade or other coffee certifications. Yet Tim Hortons is known as a “leader in sustainability.” So let’s explore a little deeper. As with all things in life, the truth lies somewhere in shades of gray.

Eco-labels for Coffee Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

Tim Faveri, Tim Hortons’ director of sustainability and responsibility, views certification as an important and commendable movement, but he considers many such programs too one-dimensional. Some offer a price premium to farmers, without really assessing the social and environmental impacts of the crop production on the farmers and their communities. Additionally, the premium price is often paid to a co-operative, rather than to individual farmers; there is the potential for some individual farmers not to be paid a fair price. Faveri advocates for a triple bottom line approach to coffee partnerships with externally verified audit systems in place, rather than certification labeling. He explains that third party certification can lend itself to blind allegiance to a certification label, without ongoing evaluation of the big picture and changing realities.

“The overall vision of the Tim Hortons Coffee Partnership is to help build sustainable coffee communities by supporting coffee farmers in key areas that will improve their coffee business and their lives.  We focus on improving economic, social and environmental factors,” he says. Tim Hortons believes that their unique approach goes beyond typical coffee certification programs by working with farmers to overcome the challenges of improving coffee quality and yields, learning sustainable farming practices and finding quality education for their children. “We’re on the right path with meeting our stakeholders’ needs and, more importantly, meeting the farmers’ needs,” Faveri explains.

From Cup to Carry-Out Tray

But what about those cups? A Sierra Club representative was quoted as saying, “The Tim Hortons cup is easily the No. 1 recognizable item of litter in the country.” But that quote was from 2005. What has Tim Horton’s done since then? They have developed customized recycling units for their restaurants; by 2011 more than 800 of their restaurants had them in place to recycle hot drink cups rather than sending them to landfill. Further, Tim Hortons became the first “quick-service” restaurant company in North America to use a waste material (hot drink cup) and manufacture it into another product in their restaurant (carry-out tray). They have an educational initiative, the Litter Awareness Program, and they partner regularly with local community clean-up programs.  They offer a 10-cent discount to customers who bring in a reusable mug. They use washable china tableware in their restaurants; this is the exception, rather than the rule, in the quick-service restaurant category.

From GRI to Green Building

Many other programs illustrate the Tim Hortons sustainability commitment. Their annual Sustainability and Responsibility Report is developed using Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G3 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. They constantly integrate green building initiatives (e.g., 100 percent FSC certified wood, solar, daylight harvesting, heat exchangers and recovery units) within both their newly constructed and renovated restaurants. They have 6 restaurants designed as Learning Labs, where LEED and other green building principles are explored and best practices are determined to include in future restaurant design. Their Innovation Centre encourages and nurtures a creative approach to all aspects of the business, including supply chain and operations. Efforts to green their business resulted in a 6.7 percent increase in the fuel efficiency of their distribution fleet and a 9 percent reduction in corporate water usage in the past year.

When selecting new owner/operators they consistently value the prospective franchisee’s interest in the local community over business experience. Tim Hortons raises and invests millions of dollars each year for initiatives like Tim Horton Children’s Foundation summer camps and Timbits sports, and donates millions of dollars to diverse local charities in communities across Canada and the US.

Because of its pervasive market penetration and its sustainability initiatives, Tim Hortons is successfully educating and raising awareness of today’s broader sustainability issues.

Brad Zarnett is the Founder and Director of Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). Join us on May 17, 2012 either in person in Toronto or by webcast to hear more about Tim Hortons.

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One thought on “How Much Sustainability Makes a Company Sustainable?

  1. This is all wonderful what Tim’s is doing.

    But they still have 1,000’s of drive thru’s across Canada, constantly busy with a half dozen cars idling in a line up that continues for 3 to 4 hours, twice a day, every day.

    Climate change will not be slowed by recyclable cups, it will be slowed by reducing unnecessary carbon emissions.

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