McDonald’s Commitment to Certified Sustainable Palm Oil

I’ve never been a particular fan of McDonald’s. Initially, this stemmed from my observation that upon unwrapping a Big Mac, it  never looked as appetizing as pictures of the product seemed to promise. Still, the taste was pretty good, and the convenience was a plus. So, when transiting through an airport or on a long car journey, I would occasionally pick one up.

What really put me off them for good, however, was reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, detailing how McDonald’s, operating at such a vast scale, could shift whole food production ecosystems on its own. And not in a good way. Pollan explains how beef, chicken and potato farming were all transformed and intensely industrialized as these inputs were sucked into the vortex of the corporation’s demand for cheap food. I then moved on to reading Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and the health impact angle compounded my resolve to avoid eating their fare altogether. That was five years ago, and I don’t think I’ve eaten at McDonald’s since.

I’m not necessarily about to start now, but it’s promising to see that the company appears to be taking corporate social responsibility seriously.

McDonald’s recently announced its commitment to sourcing 100% sustainable palm oil by 2015.

This is an important commitment since a report by Greenpeace details that Indonesia, a major producer of it, has deforested 28 million hectares of rain forest to produce palm oil since 1990, leading to huge greenhouse gas emissions. Indonesia, together with Malaysia, produce 90% of global output according to the WWF, so attaining this company goal would be a laudable achievement. Furthermore, McDonald’s Sustainable Land Management Commitment will require that all agricultural raw materials will come from legal (need that be said?) and sustainably managed land sources.

McDonald’s has chosen to use the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) as the framework for its corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, which is perhaps the most widely recognized and comprehensive standard in use today. The framework alone however, does not ensure an organization crosses the CSR finish line. Critics will be able to point to their report and find fault, as it deals in a fair amount of generalizations as opposed to specifics. For example, in reference to North American beef production, the company concludes by saying, “McDonald’s USA also continues to use purchasing preferences to support suppliers that advance innovative solutions to reduce waste and other environmental impacts.” This sentiment is easy to get behind, but it falls short of being a prescription for actionable steps.

However, we are talking about a gargantuan organization, and such entities do not turn on a dime. While recognizing the limitations, when a company of this size puts its GRI report online, it begins to offer a level of transparency that you would not have seen in the past. By doing so McDonald’s will, like it or not, invite critics to identify holes and press them for specifics. Once that process begins, it’s hard to go back and since companies like McDonald’s can change whole food production ecosystems single-handed, incremental steps can nonetheless have a huge impact. So their direction seem a positive one – but is it too little too late, or noble beginning?

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.