Sustainability for All: Three Cheers for McDonalds

Often, when we think of sustainable companies and corporate social responsibility we think of Patagonia, Stonyfield, Seventh Generation and the like: companies that have sustainability as part of their DNA and stakeholder engagement as the foundation for company culture. But what about the sustainability efforts of not so green companies? What about the CSR initiatives at corporations that have bad reputations, make questionable products and are late to the CSR game? Is there room for them?

For a case in point, let’s consider McDonalds, the undisputed king of big fast food. The company, which provides an impressive 71 page 2009 sustainability report on its website, lists improvement strategies and tactics that remind me of a sustainability index provided by a certain big box retailer. McDonalds suppliers are required to maintain codes of conduct and standards with regards to fair labor and equitable working conditions and be open to inspection by McDonalds representatives. Failure to comply, of course, could result in loss of approved vendor status by McDonalds. The company also hopes to work with its suppliers on environmental impacts of the supply chain, including efforts towards more sustainable packaging.

On McDonalds’ best practices microsite, the curious can filter different areas of interest (such as logistics, energy, sustainable feed, etc.) and find relevant case studies about the good green stuff the company has been involved in. Did you know that McDonalds in Wal-Mart locations participated in the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour in March? I just learned that myself. Of course, that is not nearly as interesting as their story about the Low Oil Volume Fryer.

This is only a small sample of what the fast food giant has been up to. The question is, why should we care? The argument could be made that they, and other companies like them, make unhealthy products so their CSR efforts are hypocritical and done only for the sake of public relations. So, why should we cut them a break and applaud their efforts?

McDonalds is large and therefore has a significant environmental footprint. Their motivations for environmental improvements are irrelevant. If they use less energy and produce less carbon; if they encourage more sustainable supply chains and partner with like minded groups to bring about positive change (McDonalds and Greenpeace working together) then let them enjoy all the good PR that comes with it. If  (and I say if only to play Devil’s Advocate) their intentions are selfish, so be it. As long as the air is cleaner, a little less carbon is emitted and we are one step closer to cars that run off of French fry grease then they have my full and total support.

We must also remember the customer base for McDonalds. Their patrons might not be the LOHAS customers that favor Patagonia or Stonyfield Yogurt. McDonalds has the opportunity to reach a demographic that is not commonly a target of green lifestyle products and services. If their customer base is reached and provided with more sustainable products in a more eco-friendly restaurant then all the better.

I cannot tell you the last time I was in a McDonalds (although I have eaten my fair share of Quarter Pounders). But, I cannot overlook or undervalue their sustainability efforts. They are significant because of their size and ability to reach a large international customer base. Therefore, if their money and time is spent towards greater sustainability then they have my vote and my thanks.

Leslie is a Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include sustainability, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media, fundraising and public policy. She holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management and is certified in the Global Reporting initiative for Sustainability Reporting. Additionally, she holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.

19 responses

  1. Thanks for this, Leslie… I've made similar arguments for other companies. If they're making legitimate steps forward, praise those steps… doesn't mean you like everything about them, but it's much more effective then responding to efforts with “Yeah, but what about ______?”

    1. Agreed Jeff and great article Leslie.

      We should support and encourage the efforts that these big companies are making. Yes, we need to call out the greenwash, but you can't just dismiss any positive change a business makes as greenwash simply b/c they sell meat.

      Not too long ago, McDonalds was serving all its burgers in Styrofoam containers and had zero salads and healthy food options on the menu. They're definitely taking strides forward. Perhaps it's not as quick as many folks would like, but these steps are definitely laudable.

        1. Leslie if you are academically working on something about corporations and susteinability, please tell me about it. I'm adding you as a friend to facebook.

  2. I will never look at McDonalds as a sustainable company until they change the strategy of one of their main products. It's well known the UN Climate Change Report (FAO) states that animal agriculture causes 18% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions… . As long as their main product is meat, then they cannot be sustainable.
    I mentioned this to a McDonalds Exec during a Panel Q&A during the 2009 Fortune Brainstorm Green Conference, along with the fact that other food providers like BAMCO are reducing their meat procurement due to this UN report ; BAMCO has reduced its meat purchases by 33%). I asked McDonalds if they were going to start addressing the issue, and at that time they weren't.
    McDonalds must reduce its meat purchases to seriously reduce its carbon emissions.

    1. Isn't it up to the consumer?
      You can get non-meat items at McDonald's so does that not put the responsibility back on the customer?
      I do not really eat at McDonald's very much-I would not call myself a customer. But, I am proud of their CSR efforts.

  3. Lesllie I feel praising is a way to encourage corporations efforts but it is also a way to make them feel they're doing a good job. I believe criticizing would make them feel less comfortable about (as you said) their selfish reasons for sustainability. Interesting article by the way.

    1. Thank you Adrian, for reading and chiming in. Much appreciated.
      It is a personal thing really. I try to be a glass half full person so I steer away from only the most constructive of criticism. And, if I have to criticize then I better have a better solution ready to go -otherwise I might just be complaining.

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