During the month of September, a McDonald’s promotion gave away free Angus beef burgers and paid the fares for public transportation users in six US cities– Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, and Washington DC.
Such news elicited an emotional cocktail of optimism and skepticism. With Nike, Apple, and PG&E recently forfeiting their membership to the US Chamber of Commerce citing differing views on climate change, this seemed as if another major corporate player was starting to acknowledge the business imperative of sustainability. At first glance, the program almost seemed to be rewarding public transportation users for their climate conscious choice.
But don’t get too excited. It appears that this marketing campaign has more to do with ‘giving Americans a break’ during these economic hard times than sustainability. The president of the Greater Atlanta McDonald’s Operators Association explains, “The McDonald’s owner/operators enjoyed giving back to the community this summer with free McCafé coffees and paying peoples’ toll booth fees, and now we want to give downtown commuters some economic relief and a free sample of our new premium Angus burgers.”
Is there any social or environmental basis for this self-purported act of altruism? Free burgers as economic relief is hardly a helping hand in a country besieged by obesity, diet-related disease, and skyrocketing health care expenses. There is nothing in McDonald’s marketing collateral that suggests they are attempting to encourage the use of public transportation, nor any indication that they are concerned about the carbon footprint of the beefy products they pedal. More likely, targeting public transportation users has to do with market segmentation, and not the betterment of their customers.
Nonetheless, it’s hard not to think about carbon when the words “hamburger” and “public transportation” are uttered in the same sentence. The McDonald’s offer begs the question: which is worse, driving or eating a hamburger?
In a report titled The Cheeseburger Footprint, Jamais Cascio estimates that the average cheeseburger generates between 6.3 to 6.8 pounds of CO2 emissions. He references Fast Food Nation, among other sources, to approximate the number of cheeseburgers consumed per American annually- roughly 150. Multiply that by a population 300,000,000, and the resulting collective carbon footprint of the American appetite for cheeseburgers is (conservatively) 195,750,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent (remember cows create methane which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2).
Cascio goes on to calculate the global warming impact of driving SUVs in comparison to eating cheeseburgers. He concludes, “the greenhouse gas emissions arising every year from the production and consumption of cheeseburgers is roughly the amount emitted by 6.5 million to 19.6 million SUVs. There are now approximately 16 million SUVs currently on the road in the US.”
Here’s some food for thought: all things considered, our food choices may be as important, if not more, than our transportation choices when it comes to climate change. Which is a bummer because ironically, nothing beats a burger and a beer after a nice long bike ride.