I have a confession to make: For some time I was addicted to McDonald’s 2009 Road to Sustainability video clip, which highlighted the company’s achievements for that year. This clip has such a catchy tune that I just had to play it over and over until one day I got tired of it and just moved on. But apparently, McDonald’s road to sustainability is more than just a catchy tune – “sustainability is everybody’s business now,” Bob Langert, McDonald’s VP of sustainability said last month in an interview with Bloomberg.
In this interview, Langert put his finger on the biggest challenge McDonald’s is facing – finding how to reduce the impact of raising cattle, which is responsible for the largest part of McDonald’s ecological footprint. This isn’t just a long-term vision, but a goal McDonald’s is pursuing now.
The potential to make a positive impact is huge here given the size of McDonald’s, but how serious is the company about it and is it really ready to take bold steps to make its beef more sustainable (other than eliminating it at all in by opening vegetarian-only restaurants)?
Looking at McDonald’s 2011 Sustainability Scoreboard, one can see that McDonald’s is still at the beginning of the road to sustainability when it comes to sourcing its beef sustainably. “McDonald’s is committed to sourcing all of our food and packaging from sustainable sources, with an initial focus on beef, poultry, coffee, palm oil, fish and fiber,” the report states. “In the area of beef, we are participating in multi-stakeholder initiatives supporting more sustainable beef in Europe, Australia, South America and globally,” it adds.
McDonald’s is indeed part of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB), “a global, multi-stakeholder initiative founded in February 2012 to advance the sustainable production of beef through the commitment of stakeholders in the beef value chain.” The GRBS, which also includes companies such as Walmart and Cargill, and NGOs like the Rainforest Alliance and WWF, aims to improve the level of sustainability in the global beef value chain, but, at the moment, has no specific or quantitative targets.
In addition, there’s the McDonald’s Sustainable Land Management Commitment, in which the company pledges to “work with suppliers who, over time, follow practices to ensure that agricultural raw material used for our food and packing originate from legal and sustainably managed land sources.” When it comes to beef, the company doesn’t detail any plans about how it intends to do it, other than saying that it “strongly supports efforts by governments, industry groups and NGOs to make these systems more transparent, verified and sustainable.”
It’s quite obvious that McDonald’s is very cautious about making its beef supply chain more sustainable. It prefers to work on it as part of a multi-stakeholder initiative rather than on its own and is not in a hurry to set up targets for the short or the long term. Although this ultra-cautiousness might be a bit irritating, we have to remember two things – first, as Langert rightly explains in his Bloomberg interview, there’s no definition yet as to what sustainable beef is. So unlike efforts in other fields, here there’s a need to work from scratch and find a definition that will make sense both environmentally and economically.
Second, although McDonald’s has a growing number of sustainability achievements to present, publishes an annual sustainability scoreboard and reports to the CDP, it’s still lagging behind on sustainability. Just last week, for example, CR Magazine released its list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens 2012. Not only is McDonald’s not on the list, but it placed last in the sector rankings in the Media and Entertainment sector (I was a bit puzzled why McDonald’s belongs to this sector, but I doubt if it would have done better in other sectors).
So should we be optimistic about the outcome of McDonald’s journey towards the sustainable sourcing of beef? On one hand, the company seems to be committed more than ever to sustainability. “We’re on a path to mainstream sustainability. This is transformational for us. We want to be bolder, and we want to make a bigger impact,” Langert told Marc Gunther last year. On the other hand, there are some indications that McDonald’s tends to stretch the concept of sustainability to the extent that it becomes almost meaningless.
For example, Langert talks in his Bloomberg interview about locally sourced food, and after downplaying the importance of local sourcing in terms of making the operations more efficient, he adds that, “for instance, I’m in the U.S., so we’re looking to buy within the U.S. You’re only going to get potatoes, beef, and lettuce in certain parts of the country. To us, that’s buying locally.” Now, this definition makes Walmart with its definition of local (within a state) looks like Whole Foods, and makes the concept of local food practically meaningless.
Let’s hope that McDonald’s will set up better definitions for sustainable sourcing of beef. Hopefully its partners on this journey will help it ensure that its road to sustainability will actually lead it to the expected destination.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development.