The change has been pretty dramatic. Just last year, the then CEO of the company was saying that their "overall vision for sustainability is to be a leader in the North American quick service restaurant sector and across all sectors in Canada". Already well-known for their community initiatives, the company had upped its game over recent years in a number of key areas including sustainable sourcing, recycling, energy and water efficiency, animal welfare, nutrition, and disclosure and reporting. As a result it had made it into the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, Corporate Knights magazine's Global 100, the Carbon Disclosure Project's Leadership Index and various other best-of sustainability lists and rankings. The company was far from perfect, but it was clearly making progress.
Since the turn of the year, however, a lot has changed. The new owners have instituted swingeing cuts in personnel in order to institute "efficiencies", just as they did at Burger King a few years ago. As is so often the case, sustainability and responsibility has been one of the first areas to feel the heat. In addition to jettisoning the dedicated sustainability team, the company appears to have also cut the budget for various corporate responsibility initiatives. There's not much sign of a company aiming to be a sustainability leader any longer. Not unless you think Burger King is a leader that is.
So what to make of the changes? The are at least two things worth noting.
First, it seems like the new owners are convinced a lot of Tim Horton's sustainability initiatives were simply not adding value to the company - or at least not to the share price. This is always a major issue for sustainability champions to address, but is typically tricky to prove either way. Still, the swift move to cut the whole department hardly suggests a careful financial evaluation from the new owners either. 3G Capital seem to be operating on gut instinct (or maybe just ideology) much more than evidence when it comes to the financial value of sustainability.
Second, the quick serve market is increasingly being bifurcated into higher end 'gourmet' brands like Chipotle or Starbucks that see sustainability as part of their superior quality proposition to customers and lower end brands like Burger King or KFC that focus more on price and so seek to minimize the costs of sustainability. The new owners probably saw Tim Hortons as somewhat stuck in the middle (much like McDonald's have become), and have elected to head down the low-end route in order to maintain their strategic focus. This certainly makes some sense from the perspective of competitive strategy, and could see the company pulling back from a lot more than just sustainability as it reins in its costs across its operations. If so, we can expect to see simpler menus and a back to basics approach after a recent period of experimentation with higher end fare. However, if this is the way they want to go, you would expect to see more, not less, attention to the costs savings that sustainability initiatives can bring through more efficient resource utilization. As Wal-Mart has shown, sustainability can also very much be part of a low cost strategy.
All told, things don't look for good for sustainability at Tim Hortons. Although some firms can manage sustainability well with just one or two core staff by integrating responsibilities within other parts of the business, Tim Hortons seems to be more intent on stripping it down as far as possible as part of a broader strategic reorientation. However, there is at least a slither of good news for sustainability enthusiasts in all this. As part of the cutbacks, the new owners have also put the company's private jet up for sale.
Photo by Jeff M For Short. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence