Does 'The Scarecrow' practice what Chipotle preaches?

I’m a big fan of Chipotle’s chicken burrito bowl. So when I saw "The Scarecrow," a viral video Chipotle posted on YouTube in September that so far has more than 7 million views, I paid attention.

The ad accompanies an app-based game the fast-food chain also released. The video (embedded below) features a forlorn and endearing scarecrow disheartened by factory farming evils, such as livestock housed in high density-confinement and pumped full of antibiotics. The scarecrow's solution? Pick fresh vegetables on his own small farm and return to the city to chop, cook and sell in burritos to smiling customers.

The video implies that Chipotle is a different kind of restaurant, one that cares about sustainability and is superior in that regard when compared with others in its space. Indeed, the Denver-based company’s "Food With Integrity" campaign has promised for years that whenever possible the company will use meat from animals that haven’t been given antibiotics or added hormones, as well as source organic and local produce. And Chipotle recently became the first U.S. restaurant chain to announce it was working on reducing the number of genetically modified foods on its menu.

But not everyone was singing praises.

Funny or Die crafted a parody called "Honest Scarecrow," in which it calls out that the video’s protagonist chops up vegetables and not meat. It notes that not all Chipotle tortillas are GMO-free and describes the high-budget animation as “manipulation.”

And Salon’s David Sirota gave the opinion that “Chipotle wants to gain credibility from its stand against factory farming and make that stand seem as principled as being against meat consumption -- without actually being against meat consumption.” He also points out that whether factory-farmed or not, meat production remains energy and water intensive.

These criticisms at first hit me as kind of picky. "The Scarecrow" is genius marketing in action and if nothing else, it serves as a great mechanism for getting people to talk about serious problems with industrial meat production. More than 12,000 people have left comments on YouTube about the video.

But is Chipotle’s supply chain really as sustainable as the company makes it out to be?

What one expert says

I checked in with Tessie Petion, vice president of responsible investment research and MIS for New York-based Domini Social Investments. She said even though the company isn’t perfect, she considers Chipotle as a market leader in serving natural foods.

“There was a point earlier this year when they thought that because they didn’t have enough supply in terms of chicken and beef that they were going to have to go back on their commitments there, but I do think they do a very good job of at least adhering to what they say they do,” she said. “Obviously you always have the valid criticism that natural is not organic, but I also think that they’re not claiming that they’re organic.”

As for criticisms about "The Scarecrow," Petion mostly sides with Chipotle.

“You can make a statement against industrial agriculture and not necessarily be vegetarian,” she said, adding that Chipotle could have done a better job fending off naysayers by highlighting best practices in use among suppliers such as Niman Ranch.

What Chipotle says

For more of Chipotle's view, I spoke with Mark Crumpacker, its chief marketing officer, about the video. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Christina DesMarais: What’s Chipotle’s response when people have these criticisms about "The Scarecrow?"

Mark Crumpacker: The film is really what I would describe as aspirational. It’s a view of a potential future that we would rather like to avoid as opposed to a literal representation of Chipotle’s exact practices. I mean, we’re at least several years away from real robotic crows, I suppose, so the whole thing is a metaphor for a system that we think to a large degree is in crisis. And Chipotle is a different alternative to the way food is produced at a very large scale than the majority of our competitors.

That is not to say that Chipotle is doing everything right and has solved any of these problems, but we’re definitely taking a different approach to the way animals and produce are raised. We think it’s a step in the right direction and we’d like people to be more curious about that, whether they eat at Chipotle or not.

Funny or Die’s criticism is very simplistic and marginally funny. They have no idea what the sum total of our marketing efforts are. Chipotle has billboards and radio ads that we use to drive traffic into our restaurants that are fairly traditional.

This particular type of marketing is designed to get people thinking. And while it’s tempting to say it’s all a fancy way of getting people to eat burritos, anybody in marketing [knows] it’s much easier to get people to go in and buy burritos if you show them some food porn on a billboard.

DesMarais: It looks like Chipotle’s first YouTube video went up in December 2010 and now there are 49 of them. Can you talk about YouTube and broader social media as a medium for promoting sustainability?

Crumpacker: In the five years that I’ve been at Chipotle, I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I’ve spent a lot of time on hog ranches, chicken farms, feed lots, large scale, small scale, and what I’ve learned is that this stuff is complicated and it doesn’t lend itself to traditional advertising to try to communicate to people that there might be a difference that’s important to them with regard to the food that they eat. It just doesn’t boil down to a headline or a 30-second radio spot.

When we launch something like "Scarecrow," we’ll put the film on YouTube and of course comments will start there immediately, but when people see it they’re more likely actually to comment on Twitter. So if you ranked social media channels in terms of the total number of comments, Facebook would be least, YouTube would be second and Twitter would be the greatest.

Twitter seems to be a much more accurate view of the total sentiment towards something. Industrial agriculture really doesn’t like our messages at all so they will camp out on YouTube and Facebook and make disproportionately large numbers of negative comments, where on Twitter you’re just one voice within many and while you could do a bunch of tweets they’d all be coming from you and you don’t insert yourself easily into other people’s conversations.

DesMarais: Sometimes companies can be cagey when it comes to sustainability. Can you talk about Chipotle’s approach when it comes to transparency?

Crumpacker: I think that’s what makes Chipotle unique in this space. It would be very difficult to lodge a credible accusation that Chipotle was greenwashing because we’ve been pursuing this idea of Food With Integrity for 14 years. It started way back when [Chipotle founder] Steve [Ells] wanted to find a better tasting pork and [went] to a pork farmer who explained to him the difference between conventionally raised pork, where pigs are raised in very dense confinement indoors on slatted floors over liquefied manure, and hogs that are raised more humanely outdoors on pastures. Steve tasted the difference and was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to use this pork and then I’m going to learn more about all my ingredients.’ So it started a long, long time ago and this is very hard to do at scale in this industry and it’s actually the challenge that Chipotle faces.

Regardless of what we would like to do with our ingredients, there isn’t always a supply and so the fact that we started so very, very long ago has enabled us to become the largest seller and buyer of meats raised responsibly -- that is, without added hormones or antibiotics and that’s chicken, pork and beef -- than any other restaurant chain.

If you want to talk about transparency and you said companies can be cagey, I was looking at one of our competitor’s websites and they talk about their ingredients and they list grilled chicken. It says it’s cage-free, skinless with no hormones added. Sounds great. Well, boiler chickens are not raised in cages ever, so that’s pointless, that’s just greenwashing. And it says chicken with no hormones added. Well, there are no FDA-approved hormones for use in chickens. They’ve written a statement that says, ‘Aren’t we great?’ when in fact they’ve skipped the thing that’s important, which is antibiotics.

That’s the type of thing that makes our job much more difficult because our competitors see our success and say, "How close can we get to that without really doing it?"

We just try to be as transparent as possible. We want to eliminate [genetically modified organisms] from our menu, and not because there’s any conclusive decision that’s been made that they’re bad or good; there’s just not enough data to know. So we made the decision to label them on our menu. What company would do that? Why would you label something that people arguably don’t want?

DesMarais: Speaking of GMOs, it’s difficult here in the States because they’re so prevalent. Is there a difference depending on where you operate? 

Crumpacker: Yes, in Europe there are much more strict GMO regulations in terms of either what can be imported or what can be grown. You’re right, they’re incredibly pervasive in this country and our process of eliminating them has actually become quite tricky.

We’re eliminating soy oil from our menu, which is [a big] culprit. Our menu includes about 74 total ingredients, excluding soft drinks which are GMO-based with high fructose corn syrup. But getting rid of a few minor ingredients like certain parts of the corn in the chips or tortillas is going to be really, really hard because that manufacturing system is very fine-tuned. When you make a change, it actually changes the nature of the product and you have to make sure that it works right and there’s a lot of testing to be done and so it’s a huge endeavor.

DesMarais: Sustainability seems like a hot-button issue that's more charged than others. Your thoughts?

Crumpacker: Well, I don’t like the term much [because] I don’t know what it means. We’ve worked for some time at Chipotle to try to define it and is it that the utensils that you use are compostable? Or is it that the land on which something is [grown] can sustain ongoing generations of raising that crop? Or that an animal is raised without artificial chemical inputs? Those are wildly different things.

I prefer to look at what our goal is for each individual ingredient. Of course there’s this other part of our business, which does look at the impact that our restaurants have and our packaging and the amount of energy in our kitchens ... but for the most part I focus on the food. It doesn’t mean those other things aren’t important, but the scale at which we buy ingredients can have a massive impact on the system if we do the right thing.

DesMarais: There are solar panels on some of Chipotle’s restaurants. Is the environmental aspect important to Steve?

Crumpacker: His focus is on the food. Not only is he a chef but he feels as if so much is tied to the type of food that people choose to eat that it’s the area that receives the majority of his focus.

When it comes to energy use at the restaurants ... we cook a lot, which creates a lot of smoke and so you have to suck that out of the restaurant, and at the same time you have to pull in air-conditioned air so it can be quite inefficient. So he spends a lot of time thinking about how he can make those hoods smaller or how we can change the [equipment] on which we cook the meat.

We even have a restaurant that has a windmill that provides some of the energy, but that’s just to learn about how you do these things -- at least now -- not to make it something systemic across all the restaurants.

My takeaway

Given Crumpacker’s remarks on what can be sensitive subjects, transparency does seem to be a strength of the Denver-based company. If you check out Chipotle’s website, you'll find tons of content under its “Food With Integrity” section. The company promises that if a shortage occurs in the supply of naturally raised animals, it will notify patrons when it has to use conventionally grown meat. In several instances, Chipotle also discusses its desire to source organic ingredients from small local farms, while laying it out that it’s not practical or possible to do this all the time.

And Caitlin Leibert, Chipotle's sustainability consultant, via email described recent efforts to adopt energy management software and more.

"We have decreased the amount of virgin plastic in our restaurants significantly through increased recycled content, right sizing and trimming," she said. "This year, through innovative back and front of house programs, we will divert more than 6 million tons of compostable waste from the landfill back to local composters."

To me, it looks like a company trying to do well when it can while being honest when it can’t. As a consumer and Chipotle customer, I give it props for doing so.

Top image of the Scarecrow character via Chipotle