A dad and his daughter recently staked out a Target overnight, hoping to score the limited-edition reusable Starbucks x Stanley cup. As the dad documented on TikTok, they were able to secure one of just 40 cups released that day after leading a line that stretched the length of the store when doors opened.
At other Targets across the United States, the scenes were more chaotic, with women rushing displays to grab the special Stanley produced with the coffee chain in what have been dubbed Stanley “stampedes.” Another such stampede recently ensued over limited-edition Valentine’s Day Stanley cups.
The tumblers, known as the Stanley Quencher and first released in 2016, aren’t much different from the myriad reusable water bottles and cups that came before them — they’re made of stainless steel and fulfill a basic task of holding and keeping water, something similar tumblers had been doing for decades without the social media hype.
So why are women and girls suddenly standing in line for hours to buy Stanley cups? And what does it mean when something made in the name of sustainability is sucked into a consumption frenzy?
Reusable water bottles have been around for decades. Nalgene was once the bottle brand of choice, but that was later replaced by a parade of others: Yeti, S’well, Hydro Flask. All of them, ostensibly, helped keep plastic bottles out of landfills and oceans.
But the Stanley cup represents something different. Where the sign of a well-loved Nalgene was the amount of stickers it had amassed, the social media fuel behind Stanley cups hinges on one not being enough. Many TikTokers, mostly women, have amassed dozens of Stanley cups, proudly displaying them in colorful rows in their videos. In some interviews, they proclaim their ability to match their Stanley to their outfit, or nail polish. The Stanley cup has become a fashion accessory.
The Stanley phenomenon started when a group of women behind the Buy Guide, a website and accompanying Instagram account that promote and sell products geared toward women and moms, discovered the cup in 2017.
At the time, the tumbler was still largely marked as a camping item for men, the Buy Guide explains on its site. They felt that the cup’s design, which includes a handle and a built-in straw, made it ideal for women, who would be more likely to use it in everyday life, if only Stanley knew how to reach their demographic. After the cups kept selling out on their website, the Buy Guide founders — Ashlee LeSueur, Taylor Cannon, and Linley Hutchinson — were invited to meet with an executive of Stanley’s parent company, Pacific Market International, and they explained how the world of social media marketing worked.
“We would introduce them to an army of influencers who love the cup and would sell it to their followers,” they write on a blog on their website. “We told them our dreams for the cup were much bigger than we were alone. We asked them to give us the chance to show them what women selling to women looks like.”
Fast forward to today, and the cup is responsible for an explosive growth in annual sales for the company, which also sells camping gear like cookware. Revenue jumped from $73 million in 2019 to over $750 million in 2023.
A lot of this growth is due to “color drops,” or the release of a limited-edition cup color, which creates a sense of scarcity, said Jessica Maddox, assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama.
“Corporations can easily make more than one or two, but they tap into the hype machine by making something scarce. And then, typically, they also tap into the hype machine through social media platforms like TikTok, which creates urgency,” she said.
In more ways than one, Stanley is following the tactics of the fast fashion industry, driving an overconsumption of an item that in its own marketing language is “built for life.”
“One of the things that we’ve been seeing is the mimicking of other unboxing trends that have been really big on different social media platforms,” said Kathryn Coduto, assistant professor of media science at Boston University. “The color drops are a fascinating way to tap into that big reveal. It’s part of how Shein took off with the Shein hauls.”
It’s a tactic and marketing strategy that primarily draws in women. “I think there is a hyperfocus on women and their purchasing power, which ties into conversations on influencers … and the pushing of very feminine products happening in the wake of this very hyper feminine 2023 of Barbie and [Taylor Swift’s] Eras Tour and these much larger cultural touchstones and moments,” Coduto said.
And it’s not just that TikTokers are amassing large quantities of these reusable cups. Some videos depict purchasers using bottled water to fill them, negating the typical reason for buying the tumbler in the first place. While the Stanley cup itself is mostly made of stainless steel, which doesn’t leach harmful chemicals, various accessories have since popped up — straw covers, tumbler sleeves, and charms that hang off the handle — all made of plastic, a material mostly made of fossil fuels.
For Maurie Cohen, a professor of sustainability studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who has written several books on consumerism and sustainability, the phenomenon is a reminder of “how utterly trapped we are in the pervasive logic of rampant status and style-driven consumerism.”
All of this is to the detriment of the planet, Cohen said.
There isn’t any public data available on the impact of reusable water bottles, but Cohen said the massive amounts of energy and resources required to produce and transport something like a Stanley cup negates the environmental benefit, if people keep buying new bottles.
And while the company touts a recycling program, Cohen said it’s doubtful that many people utilize it.
“That’s just a diversionary thing. You may have a small number of people who have second thoughts, and at least one way of alleviating the anxieties of those is to say you can send your old one back in. … But that becomes a kind of greenwashing,” he said. Most people end up throwing them away, or purging them from their homes. “It goes to the landfill.”
In a sense, Cohen said, the Stanley cup craze erases strides made by environmentalists to get people to move away from plastic bottles.
“Now like often is the case, somebody recognizes that [the reusable water bottle] represents a market opportunity and we are off to the races. Rather than having one durable reusable bottle now you have to have six,” he said.
The impacts on the planet of this type of rampant consumerism are now at a point where they can’t be ignored. In fact the environmental impact of consumerism has been talked about since at least 1992 during the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil, Cohen said.
Americans have the second highest ecological footprint per capita after Qatar. One 2022 analysis found that, “if everyone in the world had the same living standard as the average American, we would need over five earths to supply enough resources and process all the waste.”
While the Stanley cup is the latest symbol of mass consumerism pedaled to women today, as Maddox points out there is a gendered aspect to criticisms behind the fixation.
“The backlash to the Stanley cups are the same as BookTok and pumpkin spice lattes. Anytime that a group appears to be mainly women or women-presenting, it becomes a subject of immense social scrutiny.”
Still, everyone interviewed for this story agreed that while gender is a component in the marketing and buying of products like these, it’s still not an excuse.
“What is the point of all that consuming? Buying so they can participate in these trends? Buying and then promoting all for an audience that is online only?” Coduto said. “It’s kind of scary when you look at the actual environmental impacts and human rights impacts being made that are not good, not great for humans.
‘It’s easy to forget when you are scrolling through TikTok.”
Image: Natilyn Photography/Unsplash