When Holli, a 33-year-old mother of six, started collecting Stanley cups in 2019, she was part of a small but dedicated fan club. The company occasionally launched new colors, and Holli joined Facebook groups to exchange cups with other enthusiasts.
At one point, his home in the state of Arizona (USA) had more than 200 Stanley cups, a collection that earned him millions of views on TikTok.
Four years later, Holli’s interest in her Stanleys is starting to wane. Limited edition releases, once sporadic enough to be exciting, are becoming increasingly common. Facebook groups are full of members, and the resale market is increasingly saturated.
After donating several unused Stanleys to friends, family and the church, Holli says her collection is now down to 112.
“When people talk about excessive consumption… It’s the business world that’s driving it,” says Holli, who declined to share her last name. “They’re the ones who are going to have to start slowing this down.”
“They” in this case is Stanley, the company behind the Quencher H20 Flowstate Tumbler, a 1.3-liter metal tumbler known as “the Stanley.”
The US$45 reusable cup is part utilitarian, part status symbol and part internet craze: there are limited color releases, testimonials from influencers and collaborations with big brands.
When Stanley and Starbucks teamed up to launch a pink cup for Valentine’s Day, Target store customers camped out to get one, even starting fights. These cups now sell for over US$300 (approximately R$1,500) on eBay.
At first glance, the Stanley cup craze appears to be a response to a vexing problem: Non-reusable water bottles generate up to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, as well as a lot of plastic waste.
A big part of the Stanley spirit is that this is a cup made to last: One woman attracted 95 million views on TikTok when her Stanley survived a car fire, and unmelted ice still remained inside it.
In practice, however, the Stanley cup has become an icon of excessive consumption. Metal cups, shopping bags, steel straws and other reusable products are often marketed as a way to replace single-use alternatives and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But this calculation only works if the reusable product is actually reused — and it definitely doesn’t work if the product is never used.
“These companies that sell non-plastic water bottles and flasks can really tap into this mentality of ‘this is a healthy product that, if you can reuse it endlessly, will have a much smaller impact on the environment and people’s health. ‘” says Erica Cirino, communications manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
“You’re selling a solution, but it’s not a solution if you’re selling a billion of them that will never be used for anyone to drink.”
Although the Stanley brand has been around for 110 years, Stanley’s modern history begins in 2017. That’s when The Buy Guide, a popular blog for women, first published about the tumbler. Up until that point, it had been marketed as camping gear for men.
Quencher gained popularity through social media influencers and word of mouth among moms, but not enough to catch Stanley’s attention.
In 2019, rumors were circulating that the company planned to discontinue its cup, so The Buy Guide founders purchased 10,000 cups wholesale and began selling them. In five days, they sold 5,000. An hour after posting the other 5,000, they sold out.
This success piqued Stanley’s interest, and The Buy Guide helped convince the company to keep its cup and start marketing it to women.
Thus, in 2020, the glass had already acquired a life of its own. Influencers displayed their collections online, in display cases with dozens of different glasses.
A variety of accessories — straw covers, carrying cases, pendants, and even snack trays — popped up for those who wanted to personalize their cups, and the Stanley cup hashtag on TikTok became crowded with people showing off never-used Stanleys.
The company’s revenue jumped from US$70 million in 2019 to more than US$750 million last year.
The Buy Guide co-founder Ashlee LeSueur, 44, says Stanley and the site now have a “financially and professionally beneficial” partnership, with perks that include her receiving a new cup with each color launch.
Before Stanley, LeSueur bought cases of single-use plastic water bottles for his family. Today, she alternates between three Stanleys, and her family no longer buys plastic.
“It completely changed the lifestyle in my house,” says LeSueur, who lives in Carlsbad, California. “Plus, it’s a lot cuter, and you’re doing something good for the environment.”
Houston resident Amina Malikova switched from single-use packaging to Stanley in May 2023. Today, at age 24, she owns 13 Stanleys (her favorite version is the “Flamingo Pink”) and has racked up nearly 5 million views on your videos about the cups on TikTok.
She has a habit of matching her glass to her outfit and shares her collection with the seven family members who live with her.
“We see all the time that [nossa cliente] “She wants her Quencher to match her look, her nail polish, her car, her mood, her kitchen,” Stanley President Terence Reilly told CNBC in December. “We’re meeting what she wants from the product.”
Stanley and its competitors —Hydro Flask, YETI, S’well and CamelBak also make reusable bottles and cups—are an answer to water bottles. The world produces more than 450 million tons of plastic per year, which does not completely disappear in nature.
Only about 1% of rigid plastics are recycled, and exposure to plastic has been linked to cancer, birth defects and lung disease. A recent study found that a 1-liter bottle of water contains an average of 240,000 plastic nanoparticles small enough to enter the human body.
“Getting people to switch from disposable water bottles to reusable ones — that cultural change would be very positive for the environment,” says Greg Keoleian, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. “I don’t think everyone is going to have this huge collection.”
But making a reusable metal cup has its own carbon footprint. Steel production is responsible for more than 7% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. This means that a reusable container needs to have multiple uses to be environmentally effective and should ideally be made from recycled materials.
While little data exists on these tradeoffs specifically for water sold in bottles, a 2010 report commissioned by Nestlé found that a reusable bottle would need to be used 10 to 20 times, depending on size and material, to offset the components and energy. needed to manufacture it.
Stanley is not unaware of these reservations. The brand, which is based in Seattle under the HAVI Group umbrella, does not disclose the carbon footprint of its cups. But it says the Quencher is made with 90% recycled stainless steel.
Last year, Stanley committed to producing at least 50% of its products with recycled stainless steel by 2025, a goal the company said in a statement it hopes to achieve early.
According to Stanley’s 2023 impact report, 23% of its products are currently made with recycled stainless steel. The company is also working with manufacturers to expand the use of other recycled materials and is looking into renewable energy sources.
In 2022, Stanley attributed 94% of its emissions to the production and transportation of its coolers, lunch boxes and camping gear.
What Stanley doesn’t yet offer is a buyback or recycling program for end-of-life cups.
Hydro Flask has an exchange program for its old bottles and separates recycled materials. YETI offers a recycling program, although only for its Rambler cup and the service is only available in-store. But even these sustainability efforts need to expand quickly to keep up with sales.