The world is becoming a greener place. I see hybrids on the road more than any other car. Fortune 500 companies are totally rethinking their corporate operations in an attempt to be more sustainable. The movement is spreading! It’s exciting, undeniably. But with the increased awareness come calculated marketing crusades, questionable motives and high-profile smear campaigns. We all know the dangers of green-washing, but I’m starting to notice an even more manipulative hidden agenda: sustainability “advances” that totally ignore or exclude the human dimension and instead make showy moves in the environmental field. Allow me to explain.
Fast food is right up there with SUVs on my list of unsustainable and unhealthy societal habits. In the last year, American obesity rates have risen in 23 states. Two thirds of American adults are either obese or overweight. Childhood obesity rates have grown by 300% in the last thirty years. America is the 9th fattest country in the world. Movies like Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation have done a great job in highlighting the contribution of the fast food industry to our obesity epidemic. Eating fast food and being obese is, literally, unsustainable for human beings.
The bizarre thing is that fast food restaurants are also starting to “go green.” A Kentucky Fried Chicken/Taco Bell restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky (the 7th fattest state in America) just got LEED certification. The restaurant is naturally lit, and it harvests rainwater for irrigation. The frame of the building is made from sustainably-harvested wood. Yum! Brands, Inc., the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s is the largest real estate developer in the world. It owns 36,000 restaurants internationally. One down and 35,999 to go!
McDonald’s, never one to miss an emerging trend, just opened their third “green” restaurant in Cary, North Carolina. The restaurant was actually a retrofit project, with 99 percent of the original structure being recycled or reused for the new building. The restaurant will be 40 percent more energy-efficient than the previous version, and will save half a million gallons of water each year. Once the restaurant opens for business, they will seek LEED certification as well. Three down and 30,097 to go!
To me, the concept of “greening” the fast food industry is a bit ridiculous; no matter how many restaurants get retrofitted or how many living roofs get added. Even if the restaurant itself is a triumph of green building and clean tech, even if the building is net-zero, even if it adds energy back into the grid; doesn’t it still market and sell horrendously unhealthy food? Food that is engineered to be addictive? This trend is missing the forest for the (sustainably grown) trees.
As the sustainability movement gains momentum, I see a pattern emerging. A business will announce grand plans to increase efficiency, reduce emissions and/or save the planet. But the humans involved are completely forgotten. Systems thinking comes into play here, begging the question: does the green McDonald’s also serve fresh and local produce, free range chicken and fair trade coffee? Are they investing in the health and wellbeing of the customer, i.e. their most important stakeholder group? Or is the LEED certification simply a marketing ploy meant to convince us that they care about sustainability?