Big-Portion Sustainability

This year, McDonalds will expand its international chain with over 1,100 new locations. And this is great news for the environment. Surprising? Many ecologically aware eaters talk about small and local initiatives: independent farms, CSA produce boxes, and farmers’ markets. But large-scale environmental benefits can be achieved through changing our existing, large-scale food system.

Without a doubt, the dialogue started by the sustainable food movement has had an influence on how McDonald’s presents itself. At least some of the initiatives McDonalds has taken towards sustainability are there to appease societal demands that corporations have a conscience.  McDonald’s website offers emotional video clips about how the company supports the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, Food Animal Initiative, funding research on how to make commercial scale agriculture sustainable, and the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, looking for sustainable approaches to an industry that has contributed to deforestation in Malaysia.


In a world of greenwashing, corporations’ environmental initiatives come across as insincere, self-serving marketing tools. But when it comes to large-scale business sustainability, there is more than just marketing at play: sustainable choices to reduce consumption and waste are also easy ways to cut costs, creating a strong, profit-based commitment to wiser use of resources. And a company as large as McDonalds can institute changes that have wide-reaching influence.

As Joshua Brau, a Yale Business School student who has worked with McDonald’s explains, “Shareholders typically have a single concern: maximizing returns. And these companies see there is a substantial business case for reducing environmental impact,” going on to say that, at McDonald’s, “the sincere interest in doing good is in line with company objectives. Less energy consumed and higher efficiency translates to increased profits”.

In McDonalds restaurants, LED lights and efficient fryer fireups save energy, and sustainable building practices are being incorporated into new locations. When purchasing from suppliers, McDonalds uses a Supplier Environmental Scorecard to measure packaging waste, maximize recycled materials, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Using this index, companies that produce food for McDonalds, such as East Belt Bakery, were able to improve their input to output ratios– making food more efficiently and saving money in the process. Pleased with the results, East Belt introduced this index to the North American Bakery Council and helped 50-60 similarly large bakeries use less energy and resources in production. In 2007, the Australian Food Company, a supplier to McDonalds, cut their water use 30% through practices such as rainwater collection and new cleaning systems as suggested by the Environmental Scorecard. And in Canada, suppliers using the scorecard cut water use 56%, energy consumption 67% and waste production 67% between 2005 and 2006.

Good environmental choices are often good business choices, and companies as large as McDonald’s have huge environmental impact when they make money-saving changes. As McDonald’s VP of Corporate Social Responsibility Bob Langert explains in an interview on Daily Finance, “We as a company spend $1.7 billion on energy around the world. Energy efficiency can cut that cost. The other big issue is waste. That includes packaging that turns into waste and other waste in general. We spend $1.3 billion on processing waste. So reducing our packaging and figuring out ways to divert waste will be necessary and help our bottom line. It’s the right thing to do, but its also business related”.

These figures beg  the question of how genuine environmental intentions must be: is sustainability at McDonald’s of a lesser value because it self-serving? Does sustainability have to be a grassroots initiative?

The reality is that environmentalism has been ignored for too long, in part because the private sector views it as a financial burden. By equating wise use with profit maximization, an environmental consideration of how we eat can reach a wider eating public. Environmental eaters should promote and patronize farmers’ markets and co-ops, but also applaud the corporate sustainability measures, even if incidental, that are creating a large-scale norm of efficiency and ecological consciousness.

One thought on “Big-Portion Sustainability

  1. Steve Ross

    R
    This is an interesting perspective and so well written! Are you familiar with the book/movie “The Corporation” coauthored by my friend Joel Bakan? His principal argument as I understand it is that CSR lulls us into avoiding the need to regulate businesses that are inherently incapable of behaving in a socially responsible manner. Drop me a line if/when you are familiar with this argument…I’d like to know what you think.

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