The Inside View

Greenpeace, McDonald’s and the power of collaboration

Greenpeace and McDonald's
Bob Langert on a nine-day Amazon trip with Greenpeace, in 2006.

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.

Here’s a story about my favorite sustainability success, and what it means for today.

As a kid from the asphalt alleys, concrete sidewalks and blocks upon blocks of bungalow homes lacing the gritty south side of Chicago, I never dreamed I would have a hand in saving a piece of the Amazon. Even when I woke up the morning of April 16, 10 years ago, startled to learn that Greenpeace activists were campaigning in chicken garb at McDonald’s restaurants in England, little did I realize I was about to embark on my most fulfilling and fastest impact endeavor.

To delve into what worked and why, I recently had a Skype conversation with Paulo Adario, who headed up the Amazon campaign then for Greenpeace of Brazil.

Both of us believe the Amazon Soy Moratorium, announced less than four months after the start of the campaign, was a monumental success. Paulo said it was "revolutionary, or at least a long step" toward sustainably feeding the growing population while eliminating deforestation and controlling climate change.

He added, surprisingly to me, "And companies making a profit."

To me, the practical steps in achieving the moratorium are transferable to today, not only with food, but also with many products that have a complex upstream supply chain.

One thing I learned is that it sure pays to have NGO friends. Instead of getting mad at Greenpeace for picking on McDonald’s, I took a deep breath. I quickly called my longtime friends at WWF and Conservation International and learned the Eating Up the Amazon (PDF) report published by Greenpeace was by and large accurate.

Darn. I was hoping it was bogus. So what do you do when an activist NGO is right? I’ve seen too many times that companies deny the issue because of the source.

Many at McDonald’s were discombobulated by Greenpeace’s disruption of our restaurant operations. We quickly assessed that McDonald’s supply chain represented less than .5 percent of the soy purchasing. (Soy grown in Brazil is largely exported to Europe and Asia, with much of it going to animal/chicken feed, hence the connection to McDonald’s and our Chicken McNuggets).

Many companies I believe in the same situation would declare, "We are just a small part of the problem, so please go away." Head in the sand.

I kept telling our management team that Greenpeace does not have McDonald’s marketing budget, so this is their practical way to get the word out. In other words, Greenpeace is smart and strategic. Don’t take it as an insult. Accept it as a compliment.

Internally, I countered the "small" concern head on. Small does not mean you sit back. Everyone’s impact is small. I was raised in a McDonald’s culture that believed we could use our convening and collaborative power to bring diverse stakeholders together. McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc's belief that "none of us is as good as all of us" permeated our team’s thinking.

We were fortunate that we had a position on the Amazon already. A fundamental policy was established in the late 1980s that McDonald’s would not buy beef from recently deforested rainforest areas, such as the Amazon. This really helped with the top-management discussion the day the Greenpeace chickens relaxed in our U.K. restaurants.

Indeed, Paulo confirmed this with me, although thanks to him he diverted its original target of Cargill to McDonald’s, because "Cargill was invisible, does not have shareholders and there is no simple choice for the consumer." He looked at a report of Cargill’s clients, found McDonald’s and decided to go after its most visible client.

A perfect target

McDonald’s had attributes that make a perfect target: global scale; a well-known brand and a close connection to consumers. McDonald’s was much more campaignable than Cargill, Paulo told me. "We believed McDonald’s would change, because you had a previous history of good steps. We felt you had already established that your doors were open for change. Cargill would be naturally influenced by a McDonald’s move."

This reminded me that this was the price of leadership. After all, who goes after No. 2?

Greenpeace sent us a fax with a set of demands that made it seem that McDonald’s alone could solve the soy expansion into the Amazon biome. Our team thought the proposals were ridiculous rhetoric. Greenpeace is known as a loud voice, not a solutions-based NGO. Although our internal discussions led us to want to do something to solve the soy issue in the Amazon, we didn’t want to do it the Greenpeace way.

My European colleagues felt that this was a first volley, not a concrete proposal, and advocated a counterproposal where we could recruit other retailers to band together to create a more meaningful market "demand." We also thought we could leverage our supplier relationships.

Asking for the world

In my early days trying to lead on sustainability, I admit my trepidation and cautiousness in dealing with strong attacks from the outside. By 2006, though, I had some experience, and was ready to take on and confront the impractical, naive proposal from Greenpeace. NGOs tend to ask for the world. It’s a negotiation. They expect a more realistic comeback.

I got on the phone with Greenpeace the second day of its campaign and said, "We agree with you, but don’t agree with your proposed solution." I waited, tensely and silently for a long time for its response. I expected that would continue its rhetoric and campaign. Instead, Greenpeace surprised me by saying it was open to working together.

Paulo did not see it coming: "We understood that McDonald’s did not want to expose themselves. Our strategy was to move McDonald’s, and others would follow their example. That McDonald’s would directly help us recruit others was not in our mind."

In a matter of days, a team from McDonald’s and Greenpeace sat in a conference room in the Frankfurt airport to begin working arm-in-arm. Suddenly, we were buddies.

We see so many examples of polarization today, in politics for sure, but in the sustainability world, too. No one wants to budge, or compromise. I give Greenpeace great credit for its openness to change its tactics with us.

I remember talking to Cargill, one of the handful of traders of soy in Brazil, and how it did not want to talk to Greenpeace. A Greenpeace ship recently had blocked its soy processing facility in Santarém, Brazil. While I had empathy, I let Cargill know we expected it to meet with Greenpeace. We asked that it help us with a solution, and it did.

In the end, a moratorium on the soy Amazon expansion was announced in July 2006, with the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oils (ABIOVE) taking the lead. Today, the moratorium is still in place and very effective.

When I asked Paulo what made this change happen so efficiently and timely, he responded that it was the simplicity of the "demand."

"Simplicity was the key ingredient. Everyone could understand it," said Paulo. "We drew a line in the sand and said, ‘No deforestation here,' backed by respecting indigenous people’s rights, 'and no slavery.’"

Perfection vs. progress

Too many solutions have too many moving parts, and they shift with the winds. NGOs are famous for seeking perfection, not progress.

Greenpeace’s flexibility and simple approach created progress, and a roadmap of accountability that was easy and cheap. No expensive, complicated verification schemes. Instead, it used an effective existing satellite tracking system. "Soy doesn’t move like cattle, so it’s very trackable," said Paulo.

Paulo and his team did not focus on the past. “It was not about the past problems, with corruption and previous deforestation. It was only about the future.”

"Even after 10 years, the simplicity remains," concluded Paulo. "We never brought a new element into the approach."

Oh, that I wish every NGO reading this would absorb this sentiment. Keep it simple. Don’t keep adding and changing. Don’t seek perfection.

Though there are many corporate-NGO partnerships these days, I continue to observe large patches of companies who still view NGOs largely as the enemy. It’s like racism, where the overt ugliness of the Jim Crow laws is behind us, but so much racial tension still stirs beneath the surface.

Companies need to give up their desire for a perfectly controlled world. For instance, I felt it was not fair that Greenpeace selected McDonald’s as its campaign target. But it was the reality, and you can see its logic and brilliant business case for doing so. We in the corporate world need to shed our pride and have the gumption to go all out for solutions we believe in, without caving in to the impractical whims of NGO solutions campaigns. NGO are good at getting attention, and people believe them. Companies are good at solutions and mapping out practical plans.

I’ve always wanted to see, taste, work in, observe the real places and people that our decisions affected. Check out my video diary from February 2007 with a small group of us from McDonald’s and Greenpeace through the Amazon. You’ll see the beauty and the destruction. My role was small. The real change agents were the McDonald’s leaders in Europe, supply chain and Brazil.

I concluded my discussion about the current status of the Amazon. Is it in good shape? Paulo said, "After 10 years, overall Amazon deforestation has dropped 80 percent. And everyone continued to make money in soy (and in beef), because they improved their profile image."

Results like this make one bust out in joy and fulfillment.

Next week, a tale of a different and more frustrating process, the search for sustainable palm oil. It’s my least favorite and disappointing experience.