Category Archives: Deforestation

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.

Building a Better Future

As the 7 billionth person was born this week (or so we think), our planet continues moving closer to the point where it will no longer be able to sustain us. We are running out of room and resources. Pollution is causing global warming and freak snow storms. One way to address these issues is to change our interaction with our environment quite literally, through biomimetic architecture.

Mick Pearce

Pearce was born in Harare, Zimbabwe. In 2003 he was awarded the Prince Claus Award for his work in creating sustainable and low-energy buildings. One of his most famous buildings is Eastgate Centre, a shopping center in Zimbabwe that utilizes a cooling system inspired by a termite mound.

A Termite Mound; CCizauskas/Flickr Creative Commons

Termites in Zimbabwe farm their own food. The fungus that they grow can only survive at a temperature between 86.0 and 89.6° F, but the temperatures in Zimbabwe can fluctuate between 37.4 °F and 107.6 °F degrees every day. Over time, termites have developed a remarkable passive cooling system that maintains the temperature right around 87 °F with very few fluctuations. The termites build a system of heating and cooling vents to funnel air through the mound effectively allowing air currents to act as air conditioning.

Eastgate Centre, Harare Zimbabwe; GBembridge/Flickr Creative Commons

Pearce, inspired by this system, decided to apply it to the complex he was designing in order to save costs. During the heat of the day, the material of the building itself absorbs the heat from the sun, machines, and people allowing the temperature inside to only increase minutely. As the day cools, the warm air rises and is vented out through the top of the building (this movement is assisted by fans though it does happen naturally). At night, the cool breezes are “caught” at the base of the building (through spaces in the floor) until the building has reached the ideal temperature to begin the next day. Thus, the building mimics the termite mound’s natural air conditioning.

Because of Mick Pearce’s innovations, the Eastgate Centre uses 10% less energy than a comparable building and the owners have saved over $3.5 million just because an air conditioning plant did not have to be imported. This allows them to rent space to tenants for 20 percent less than in a neighboring building that is newer.

Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson

There are too many biomimetic architects to mention them all, but both Michael Pawlyn and Magnus Larsson have fascinating TED talks that express how important it is for architects to look at the world around them for inspiration.

Pawlyn was one of the architects that designed the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. These domes, which are in effect large greenhouses whose elaborate structures are inspired by nature, have completely transformed horticultural architecture. He has strong beliefs that if architects look at how in nature processes are efficient with their resources, utilize closed loops, and gain energy from the sun a better, more sustainable world can be built.

Larsson works with sand. Desertification is a major problem in today’s society, but Larsson is trying to look at this problem as an opportunity. He is working on using a bacteria, bacillus pasteurii, to turn sand into a solid building material. Not only would this provide more support to plants, but it could also potentially allow for living spaces to be carved into sand dunes. This would be in stark contrast to life in the desert today where people are often evacuated due to sand dune movement. This project is also cost efficient. As Larsson notes in his TED talk “for a cubic meter of concrete we would have to pay in the region of 90 dollars. And, after an initial cost of 60 bucks to buy the bacteria, which you’ll never have to pay again, one cubic meter of bacterial sand would be about 11 dollars.” (7:37-7:53) Larsson is embracing sand as a new building material and using bacteria as an inspiration for a better future.

Remember Context

Pearce, Pawlyn and Larsson are all architects who bring nature into their work on a grand scale, but architecture is an art form that is always taking into account its surroundings. Todd Rouhe, cofounder of common room and a professor of architecture at Barnard College, points out that in architecture, “context…is one of the most important things…Environment is everything, whether or not it’s even environmental. And I think that one thing that architects can do to acknowledge the environment…is to pay attention to that context and respond to it…That response can heighten the…sense of the environment.” Just as architects must keep in mind context, both natural and urban, when designing projects, so too must people remember our world and our surroundings as we build and grow.

Ultimately, regardless of scale, biomimetic architecture is a crucial way to continue working towards a sustainable future where nature is more than just an inspiration, but also a lifestyle.