Greening the Fast Food Industry?

green mcdonalds

The world is becoming a greener place. I see hybrids on the road more than any other car. Fortune 500 companies are totally rethinking their corporate operations in an attempt to be more sustainable. The movement is spreading! It’s exciting, undeniably. But with the increased awareness come calculated marketing crusades, questionable motives and high-profile smear campaigns. We all know the dangers of green-washing, but I’m starting to notice an even more manipulative hidden agenda: sustainability “advances” that totally ignore or exclude the human dimension and instead make showy moves in the environmental field. Allow me to explain.

Fast food is right up there with SUVs on my list of unsustainable and unhealthy societal habits. In the last year, American obesity rates have risen in 23 states. Two thirds of American adults are either obese or overweight. Childhood obesity rates have grown by 300% in the last thirty years. America is the 9th fattest country in the world. Movies like Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation have done a great job in highlighting the contribution of the fast food industry to our obesity epidemic. Eating fast food and being obese is, literally, unsustainable for human beings.
The bizarre thing is that fast food restaurants are also starting to “go green.” A Kentucky Fried Chicken/Taco Bell restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky (the 7th fattest state in America) just got LEED certification. The restaurant is naturally lit, and it harvests rainwater for irrigation. The frame of the building is made from sustainably-harvested wood. Yum! Brands, Inc., the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s is the largest real estate developer in the world. It owns 36,000 restaurants internationally. One down and 35,999 to go!
McDonald’s, never one to miss an emerging trend, just opened their third “green” restaurant in Cary, North Carolina. The restaurant was actually a retrofit project, with 99 percent of the original structure being recycled or reused for the new building. The restaurant will be 40 percent more energy-efficient than the previous version, and will save half a million gallons of water each year. Once the restaurant opens for business, they will seek LEED certification as well. Three down and 30,097 to go!
To me, the concept of “greening” the fast food industry is a bit ridiculous; no matter how many restaurants get retrofitted or how many living roofs get added. Even if the restaurant itself is a triumph of green building and clean tech, even if the building is net-zero, even if it adds energy back into the grid; doesn’t it still market and sell horrendously unhealthy food? Food that is engineered to be addictive? This trend is missing the forest for the (sustainably grown) trees.
As the sustainability movement gains momentum, I see a pattern emerging. A business will announce grand plans to increase efficiency, reduce emissions and/or save the planet. But the humans involved are completely forgotten. Systems thinking comes into play here, begging the question: does the green McDonald’s also serve fresh and local produce, free range chicken and fair trade coffee? Are they investing in the health and wellbeing of the customer, i.e. their most important stakeholder group? Or is the LEED certification simply a marketing ploy meant to convince us that they care about sustainability?

Rebecca Greenberg is an MBA candidate at the Presidio School of Management. Prior to her studies at Presidio, her professional experience was primarily focused in corporate retail merchandising at both Gap Inc. and Williams-Sonoma, Inc. Having traveled extensively in the developing world and having worked in corporate America, Rebecca is very passionate about applying business principles to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

8 responses

  1. So, would you rather have them do nothing about their buildings? Perhaps a change to their business model will come, albeit slowly (there have been some positive changes driven by consumer and media pressure), but in the mean time, maybe their efforts on green building practices will raise awareness with other businesses and with consumers to do likewise. After all, one of the easiest energy fixes out there is for us to improve our energy efficiency, and what percentage of the population is making a dent in this?,9171,1869224,00.html

  2. What has the bigger negative impact: McDonald’s food or its buildings? I don’t know the answer, but this makes me want to find out.
    My first, gut reaction: a green roof on a McDonalds location equals lipstick on a pig. But I hope I’m wrong.

  3. I still think we should give praise where it’s due. Better building practices are good, therefore I’m happy to see KFC and McDonalds and whoever making a statement with these buildings. We can hold the rest of the battle for later on.

  4. i must agree with Ginnie and Jerry. While the fast food industry is inherently (sic) unsustainable, progress in green building needs to occur. the more entities that practice green building principles, the more common and therefore more accessable to regular people. And yes, a savings is a savings. Restaurants use a great deal of energy and water. curbing that helps everyone. Would it be better if we as Americans stopped eating fast food? the answer would be the same as that to the question should we all stop driving cars or keeping the tv on all night. Yes, things should change, but if we are addicted to fast food, where better to be confronted with sustainable concepts that where our addictions are satiated?

  5. Why is marijuana illegal but animal torture and obviously unhealthy-and-horrible-for-you fast food is not?
    Think of it this way – you cannot get the right answers if you’re asking the wrong questions.

  6. This “greenwashing” pandemic within the fast food industry is enabling restaurants like McDonald’s and Taco Bell to side-step accountability as perpetrators of our global food shortage and factory farming(the most environmentally harmful practice.)
    For more information regarding current news regarding the fight to hold the fast food industry accountable for their contribution to issues of obesity and environmental degradation please check out

  7. This is most certainly a cynical marketing ploy. I’d bet my first born that the burgers are still made from beef fattened on soy beans grown on land that was recently cleared of precious rainforest in a developing country. You don’t need to look at the human dimension to see just how shallow this claim of ‘sustainability’ really is.

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