The Stanley Tumbler, this year’s smash hit, is, at first glance, a win for the planet.
It’s durable. It’s reusable. Unlike the throwaway plastic bottles it’s meant to replace, it doesn’t generate mountains of plastic trash.
But the craze has sparked some less-than-sustainable behavior. People boast about owning dozens of them. When Target released special editions, including a much-coveted Starbucks version, it caused a mini stampede.
Some trend forecasters say the fad is already over. “Some millennials or Gen-Z are already embarrassed to carry a Stanley,” said Casey Lewis, who writes the trendspotting newsletter, After School. “And we know what’s going to happen,” she said. They’ll sit unused, gather dust on a shelf or in a basement, or “worst case scenario, they’ll end up in landfills.”
Stanley mania is a story of how marketing, influencers and the power of social media converged to produce a cultural phenomenon. Stanley sold an estimated 10 million Quencher” water tumblers in 2023, andthe company’s total sales for that year is expected to have reached $750 million, up from less than $100 million in 2020. The #StanleyCup hashtag has been viewed billions of times on TikTok.
But the trend is also an example of how a growing universe of eco-conscious products — things originally marketed to be sustainable — can morph into a catalyst for simply buying more, potentially canceling out environmental benefits. Entranceways have become cluttered with totes meant to save us from the scourge of single-use plastic bags. Cupboards are accumulating odd gadgets, like collapsible steel straws or reusable food containers, meant to cut down on the single-use kind.
“The point of a reusable mug is that, theoretically, you only need one. And you’re replacing dozens or even hundreds of single-use cups with that one reusable mug,” said Sandra Goldmark of Columbia University’s Climate School. But if a person buys lots of those mugs, “you’ve got a lot of water-drinking to do,” she said, to make up for the environmental impact of manufacturing them.
There’s evidence that sustainability sells. A study last year by McKinsey that examined five years of sales data across 44,000 brands, found a clear correlation between consumer spending and sustainability-related marketing.
That study didn’t specifically include Stanley tumblers. And for most products, switching to a more sustainable alternative wouldn’t necessarily mean more consumption. You might not eat more vegetables just because they were grown sustainably, for example.
And most Stanley mug owners probably don’t have museum-scale collections, or even more than just one or two. Even if they do, the climate toll would be far lower than, say, driving a gas thirsty S.U.V. or flying around in jets.
Researchers have coined a term to measure the amount of time a person must re-use an alternative before it fully offsets the single-use product it replaces: the environmental payback period. A 2020 paper found that for straws, coffee cups, and forks, metal alternatives had to be used the longest — anywhere from a few months to a few years — in order to break even.
Several things play into that long playback period. For one thing, making stainless steel is a polluting and energy-intensive process that to usually relies on coal, a dirty fossil fuel.
Stanley advertises that its products last a lifetime. (That they’re built to last was proven in spectacular fashion when a popular social media post showed a tumbler that had survived a car fire, the ice inside it still unmelted.) But more recent marketing has emphasized limited-edition drops and a dazzling array of colors.
Stanley said it is making an effort to manufacture its products from more sustainable materials. The mug’s manufacturer, PMI, which also owns the Aladdin brand, says Quencher tumblers are made with 90 percent recycled steel.
Philippe Pernstich of Minimum, a carbon accounting software platform said that would be tricky. For one, there’s a shortage of recycled steel because it’s in such high demand. Making steel from raw materials is much costlier and energy intensive, and emits planet-warming pollutants.
Some tumbler brands offer trade-in or recycling programs. Companies could lean into that, Columbia’s Prof. Goldmark said. “What if they offered a repair or refurbish service. What if you could get your existing cup bedazzled?” she said. “There’s all kinds of fun ways to let people have fun with your product” rather than “making more and more.”
All told, there’s no doubt that a culture shift to reusable bottles is good for the planet. Single-use plastic water bottles come with their own carbon footprint, release microplastics, and are rarely recycled: the recycling rate for plastics in the United States has been stuck below 10 percent for decades.
“I think the nice thing about this ‘it’ water bottle trend, as silly as it may be, is it does make reusable bottles cool,” said Ms. Lewis, the trend expert. “It makes people want to never leave home without one.”
There’s already a new “it” bottle on the horizon: the Owala. Owala bottles are already all over college campuses, Ms. Lewis said. Their appeal: “When you’re drinking it, when you tip it back, you look like a cute little panda bear.”