The Inside View

Francesca DeBiase: McDonald's sustainability in a business turnaround

Francesca DeBiase, Senior Vice President, Worldwide Sourcing and Sustainability for McDonald's Corporation
GreenBiz Group
Francesca DeBiase, senior vice president, worldwide sourcing and sustainability for McDonald's Corporation.

This is part 2 of a 2-part interview. Find part 1 here.

My discussion with Francesca DeBiase continues. As I retired one year ago from McDonald's, she assumed the additional responsibility to lead the company’s broad 2020 Sustainability Framework.

No one was happier than I, as I supported her for 10 years on sustainable supply efforts, from the soy moratorium in the Amazon and palm oil commitments, to work with the WWF on a strong deforestation policy and climate-change commitments. She also leads McDonald’s supply chain across 119 countries, with Big Macs, salads and beverages for 69 million customers a day. 

Langert: What are the top few priorities in your mindset as the top leader on sustainability that you're concentrating on for the role of sustainability? 

DeBiase: I think for me, one of the big things I need to focus on now is, we have goals for 2020, but what's next? I think it's not common for people, let's say, in traditional business roles to think out 20 years. Right? Most companies think about a three- to five-year plan.

But as you know, in the area of sustainability, if you want to make true impact and true change, that takes a commitment and a vision that goes past a few years. So I think it's my responsibility now to say, OK, what's next, what's beyond 2020? Where do we want to be a leader, and how will we continue to drive that forward?

Then the other thing I think I need to do in my leadership role, and this goes back to being part of the leadership team of the company, is how do I ensure that everyone feels like it's their responsibility.

Because again, how do you embed that into everything we do? How do we embed it into our people practices within HR? How do we embed it in community and what we stand for? And how do we make the entire leadership team feel that we're all accountable for this together, just as we're all accountable for the brand? Those are two big areas where I personally can help support the team and the company. 

Langert: Sizable changes are happening at McDonald's. Since I retired, a major turnaround effort by McDonald's is underway, with a new CEO, Steve Easterbrook. So a lot of people in the sustainability field think, how is sustainability going to survive when the times are tough, like they've been, for the McDonald's business? How has it been to lead sustainability during a major turnaround effort? 

DeBiase: I think first of all I feel really lucky to work with two leaders who are both passionate about sustainability. You know that our previous CEO, Don Thompson, really supported the creation of the framework and ensured that we got it done. And now Steve Easterbrook, who came from the U.K., where he was a clear leader in sustainability, he's carried on that interest. I think it starts at the top. Steve talks about being a modern and progressive burger company — he's very committed to that. 

When he talks about it in relation to sustainability, he says being modern and progressive extends to supporting and leading meaningful change our customers notice across our industry, our value chain and the communities we serve. I think that modern and progressive fits very well into our sustainability framework. It’s a perfect fit.  

Another part I'd say finally in kind of this major turnaround has been that we've been focusing on is how we focus on our customers. So being much more customer  what we call customer-obsessed. We're focusing on supporting and leading meaningful change that our customers would expect of a brand like McDonald's. So what matters most to our customers and society? Well, we know that these things matter to our customers. 

Our customers care about where their food comes from, what's in it, how it's cooked, what we're doing for society and what our commitments are to animal welfare. They really care about those things.  

LangertDid I leave you any skeletons in the closet as I left? Any surprises? But seriously, any big “aha” moments in the past year?

DeBiase: I think you were really honest about where we had done well as a company, and what challenges we still needed to face. It's an evolution, right?

The biggest "aha" for me is still when I meet someone new, and they ask me what I do, and they ask me where I work, and I start to give them some of the stories about what they're doing, they're always so surprised. In a positive way.

And they always say, like, "Why haven't I heard this before? You guys are doing so many great things," and "I had no idea." And so I think it just shows us, still, that we have  we need to do a better job engaging consumers in a way that's meaningful for them to learn more about what we do. We still have a lot of work to do in this area. So it's on us, too, to find ways that connect with consumers the way they want to learn about us.

LangertLet’s finish with beef. McDonald’s announced its vision of sustainable beef a bit over two years ago right here at Green Biz. The goal was to start purchasing some sustainable beef this year. How's it going?

DeBiase: Oh, it's a journey, and I love it. You know that we were one of the founding members of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. We're still aligned with the intentions of that roundtable. When we think about a beef value chain being environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable, which are, as you know, the three points of the global roundtable  we're still very aligned with that. 

Our first pilot market is in Canada, and I would regret it if I didn't first thank all of the ranch owners in Canada I personally had the honor of meeting over the last couple of years. They've been amazing. They're really leading the beef industry in many ways. 

Our verified sustainable beef pilot is underway in Canada. And there we're just really using this pilot as an opportunity to understand how we can measure, verify and communicate to consumers the sustainability of beef production. We're helping inform the Canadian roundtable for sustainable beef. Then they’ll eventually put in place to verify Canadian sustainable beef production, and then link back to the global roundtable.

By the time we conclude the pilot in the second quarter this year, we'll have well over 100 of those producer verifications done. We are absolutely on track to have our first purchases of sustainable beef in Canada this year. We also have a few other things going on, not just in Canada. [The United States] has a beef roundtable. Brazil very interestingly does. We are working very hard to have sustainable beef for the Olympics restaurants. So watch this space.

In Europe, where we work with the Sustainable Agricultural Initiative, they've been focusing also on sustainable beef, and we've got some pilots and tests going there. We've had several markets where we're moving forward.