Last week, McDonald's exhibited bold leadership by agreeing to shift their entire seafood supply-chain to Marine Stewardship Council-approved fish. This assures that fish products from McDonald's will now be sourced from stocks that are sustainable, well-managed and environmentally sound. This amazing move signifies a leap forward for both the labeling model promoted by the Marine Stewardship Council, and for the McDonald's brand.
The McDonald's brand began to show signs of aging when the documentary “Supersize Me” was released in 2004, which showed Morgan Spurlocks’s health and happiness deteriorate due to his experimental consumption of McDonald's food three meals a day. McDonald's subsequently became the scapegoat for the obesity crisis just in time for Jamie Oliver to decry its chemical rich “pink slime” liquid beef ingredient on primetime. Then, despite notable global sales and good performance of its stock, Ad Age published a study showing that it was perceived as being low quality compared to other fast food firms. Indeed, the McDonalds brand was a mismatch for a world in which Whole Foods and Trader Joes have proliferated in urban centers, where quinoa is a craze, and Starbucks has come to redefine fast food.
McDonald's has been more cognizant than any other national food brand of the risk of regulation, obsolescence, or both. Rather than doubling down on unpopular business decisions like industry peers Papa Johns and Chick Fil A, McDonald's responded to every controversy it endured by complying with consumer wishes. First, the Supersize branding was killed. Then, apples, fruit and walnuts, yogurt, side salads, “real fruit” smoothies, oatmeal and unsweetened milk debuted on the menu. "Pink slime" was eliminated from burgers. In response to an expose of one of Smithfield’s despicable pork facilities, McDonald's agreed to require suppliers to phase out the use of gestation crates. After numerous reactive changes to media fiascos, last week’s switch to sustainable fish shows McDonald's getting ahead of consumer demand for a change by changing on its own. It is an inspiring, heartening development that has a meaningful impact on fisheries; McDonald's is one of the largest volume fish consumers in the U.S.
McDonalds is also becoming a success model for sustainability integration, despite formidable sourcing challenges presented by its massive scale and distributed network of locations. The Marine Stewardship Council is also not the first NGO McDonald's has worked with on its efforts; it has previously worked with EDF, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and Greenpeace, which serves to endorse the model of NGO/corporate cooperation. Its example should give CSR advocates hope that even the biggest global firms and with the most inertia towards change can turn things around by using sustainability as a transformative tool for brand and core business.
It will take McDonald's time for their new branding to eclipse its baggage. However, the responsiveness and adaptation to consumer demand that McDonald's demonstrates is a mark of a smart firm engaged with its stakeholders. Further significant steps like the adoption of sustainable fish makes a big difference toward shattering their old image, at least for this millennial. I have been to McDonald's only once in the last ten years, and then only out of desperation, but now I want to go to support their MSC labeled fish.