Fast food chains have been trying to convince customers that they’re responsible corporate citizens for the last thirty years or so. In their public relations efforts, they’ve tended to focus on operational efficiency, healthy options, and corporate philanthropy. But a new crop of eco-fast food restaurants are integrating green practices into their business models and day-to-day operations and once again calling into question what it means for fast food to be sustainable.
The Slow Food Movement was founded in 1986 as a protest against fast food, specifically against the establishment of a McDonald’s in Rome’s Piazza de Spagna. Slow Food continues to promote good, clean, and fair food by “defend[ing] biodiversity in our food supply, spread[ing] taste education and connect[ing] producers of excellent foods with co-producers through events and initiatives.” Opponents of slow food say that this is not practical. Consumers are unlikely to give up convenient, tasty, inexpensive food options entirely, even as many embrace the idea of eating locally and sustainably.
This leaves traditional fast food restaurants in the unenviable position of figuring out how to become more sustainable. That, in turn, goes against core corporate values. Most of them were originally established with efficiency as the guiding principle (and the way to profitability). However, McDonald’s has made strides in key areas, including product offerings and supply chain management. Chipotle, too, is recognized as an industry leader when it comes to sustainable practices and sourcing.
Sustainability efforts range from promoting healthy food choices like salads, carrot sticks, and milk to using green building techniques and sourcing sustainable ingredients. Still, a typical fast food cheeseburger is neither sustainable nor healthy, weighing in at 11 pounds CO2 equivalent, with 295 calories and 11 grams of fat. (As a point of comparison, a glass of skim milk is about 1 pound CO2 equivalent, 90 calories, and has less than 1 gram of fat.) And most customers are choosing a burger and a coke over a salad and milk—almost five times as often in fact.
New eco-fast food chains are popping up around the country. Amanda’s, Elevation Burgers, and Otarian are promoting convenient, ecological, tasty, and inexpensive fare. They have an advantage over industry behemoths like McDonald’s and KFC when it comes to sustainability at least. They’re able to integrate sustainable values into their business models from the beginning, mitigating the accusations of greenwashing and hypocrisy leveled against traditional fast food chains.
- Amanda’s in Berkeley, Calif. promotes healthy and ecologically friendly burgers and fries. They serve naturally raised beef (in smaller portion sizes than conventional fast food establishments), house-made sodas, and baked sweet potato fries, amongst other goodies.
- Elevation Burgers is a franchise with about fifteen locations in six states, serving grass fed organic beef, local produce, and a variety of vegetarian options. Elevation Burgers plans to open about 15 more stores in 2010.
- Otarian serves vegetarian fare in fast casual restaurants in New York and London. A recent Newsweek article criticized Otarian for using too much packaging, and its owners for living in a mansion. A quick perusal of the site and the menu shows that its head and shoulders above McDonald’s or even Chipotle when it comes to promoting sustainability. (Of course, not serving meat really helps when it comes to carbon footprints!)
These companies are choosing environmental and social sustainability as guiding corporate principles, over pure efficiency and cost savings. They’re banking on customers choosing healthier and greener food, even if they’re not 100% perfect. I hope they succeed. Even if don’t replace every McDonald’s and KFC, it sure is nice to have options.