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Leon Kaye headshot

Olive Garden Targeted Over Treatment of Workers, Animals and Environment

By Leon Kaye

Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, has long promoted itself as a sustainability leader within the food industry. And with 1,500 restaurants that generate about $6.7 billion in sales, the company is in a position to lead on efforts related to animal welfare, labor rights and environmental sustainability. Working on efforts related to hungersustainable seafood and, of course, recycling, the company says it is approaching a bevy of issues to show that it is a responsible corporate citizen.

A coalition of environmental groups, labor organizations and animal rights activists, however, are not having it.

Led by Friends of the Earth (FOE), this crew of 51 organizations sent a letter to Darden’s corporate headquarters late last year that urged the company to ramp up its social and environmental responsibility. The company responded with a rather pallid letter, insisting that it has improved its environmental performance. But when it came to concerns over labor matters, the company was silent. As for animal welfare, the company gave the response that it follows a principle of “five freedoms,” which is completely tone deaf when you consider that an animal raised to be slaughtered hardly experiences anything remotely free.

Hence, FOE and its allies, including the Animal Welfare Institute, have launched a site, GoodFoodNow.com, that aims to pressure Darden to adopt five basic principles: environmental stewardship, improved working conditions, more local economic support, improved health and nutrition, and, finally, more attention paid to animal welfare. They are urging anyone interested to join their social media campaign, using the hashtag #GoodFoodNow.

Darden is facing the conundrum many corporations in the U.S. confront when it comes to corporate responsibility. While efforts to improve on waste diversion, supply chain efficiency, and donating food to fight hunger are noble, one huge question emerges: What about making the company’s employees a priority?

Organizations such as the Food Chain Workers Alliance have pointed out what they describe as Darden’s shortcomings: keeping most of its workforce part-time so it doesn't have to pay for benefits such as health care, fighting to keep the minimum wage for service workers at $2.13 per hour, and dealing with suppliers accused of tolerating terrible working conditions. Many of these labor groups have also been part of another social media campaign, #DignityAtDarden, to improve wages and overall working conditions at the company’s U.S. restaurants. Darden definitely has work to do on this front it and has been accused of wage violations, although a motion to file a class-action lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. judge in Florida.

As for this coalition’s social media campaign, while it had a decent start last Thursday, it has sputtered since. If this social blitz is going to catch fire, the employees and allies of these 50-plus groups could be more aggressive and succeed in having #GoodFoodNow trend on Twitter.

The current narrative in the media is on the overall strong performance of Darden, with some analysts describing its stock as a strong buy. These groups, however, have an opportunity to prove to Darden that improved sustainability performance is important to the company’s long-term bottom line — a strategy worth trying as this current sabre-rattling is not going very far.

Image credit: Flickr/Bev Sykes

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye