Can the Fast Food Industry Ever Be Sustainable?

Over the last 40 years, Americans have become serious connoisseurs of fast food. In 1970, Americans spent $6 billion on fast food. In 2006, they spent $142 billion, according to Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser. A recently released British report characterized fast food as tending to be cheap, frequently very processed, and creating much food and packaging waste.

The report by The New Economics Foundation is titled, An Inconvenient Sandwich, and looks at the common British habit of eating fast food, like those of us across the Atlantic, and the desire for a more sustainable food system. Fast food in both Britain and the U.S. is cheap. The report points out that “cheap food comes with steep, hidden costs to the people who produce it, sell it and eat it, to the environment and to future generations.”

What if fast food reflected its true costs? It would likely be unaffordable “except by the affluent minority,” according to the report, and that is not true sustainability. So then, can fast food be sustainable?

Chipotle as an example of  a sustainable fast food chain

Enter the fast food chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill, which a Triple Pundit post last year called a “leader in sustainability.” Chipotle’s campaign, Food With Integrity seeks to sources its meat from what it calls naturally raised livestock, which it defines as antibiotic-free and raised on a vegetarian diet. It all began in 1999, when the company decided to start buying pork from naturally raised pigs.

Here are the current statistics for Chipotle’s meat, dairy, and beans:

  • 100 percent of its pork comes from naturally raised pigs
  • 85 percent of its beef comes from naturally raised cows
  • 100 percent of its chicken comes from chickens raised without antibiotics
  • 35 percent of the dairy served is from pasture-raised cows
  • 40 percent of its beans are from organic farms

Suggestions for reforming the food industry

The British report lists suggestions for food policy:

  • Make sustainable food a mainstream issue. Making our food system, including the fast food industry, more sustainable should be a major concern for congressional members, and the public at large.
  • Consider the economic implications of food policy.
  • Change market mechanisms.
  • Support small local businesses.
  • Slow down and rethink the value of ‘convenience.

The report also suggests changes that independent providers of fast food, or ‘casual’ as it puts it, can make. The suggestions are ones that the fast food industry in general need to make.

  • Use locally sourced foods as far as possible
  • Vary the menu to use seasonal ingredients
  • Choose foods from more sustainable production systems, such as Fairtrade or organic
  • Reduce the amount of salt and fat in the food
  • Provide customers with nutritional information (e.g. salt and fat content) on menus
  • Use recyclable materials for takeaway packaging
  • Always pay a living wage and provide good working conditions

What are your recommendations for making the fast food industry more sustainable?

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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