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The Gunther Report

How McDonald's is Mainstreaming Sustainability

About 64 million people visit McDonald's every day. That's a stunning number. They'll see changes in the year ahead, some driven by a renewed sustainability push at the $24-billion fast-food giant.

LED lights in new and renovated stores. "Greener" packaging. Eco-labels on fish sold in Europe.

None of this is earth-shattering or, more importantly, earth-saving, but it's the start of something big, says Bob Langert, McDonald's v.p. for sustainability.

"We're on a path to mainstream sustainability," Bob told me by phone the other day. "This is transformational for us. We want to be bolder, and we want to make a bigger impact." Most important, he said, the company wants to embed sustainability into its operations and, eventually, into its brand.

Business-friendly environmentalists who work with McDonald's -- groups like the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and Environmental Defense Fund -- will applaud any sign that the company is ready to integrate sustainability into its core business and dig deeper into its supply chain to find ways to raise beef and chicken that are better for the planet. Skeptics, and there are many, will call this greenwashing, or perhaps "farmwashing," a term I hadn't heard until yesterday when I saw this anti-McDonald's posting in Grist.

In a way, McDonald's is like Walmart -- it's never going to be beloved in the Whole Foods-shopping, arugula-eating, tony precincts of Berkeley, Brooklyn or Bethesda. But the company is much too big to ignore or wish away.

Today, McDonald's released its 2011 Sustainability Scorecard. Under the umbrella of sustainability, the company includes environmental responsibility, its supply chain, nutrition and well-being, employees and community grants and programs, albeit in a way that highlights accomplishments and isn't easily transparent. (Please let me know if you can find an accounting of the company's carbon footprint or a greenhouse gas reduction goal, because I couldn't.) But McDonald's can feel good about a couple of big initiatives in the year just past.

friesFirst, as you've probably read, McDonald's will reformulate all of the Happy Meals sold in the U.S. and Latin America to automatically include fruit and reduce the overall amount of calories and fat, mostly by serving smaller portions of fries. This is a big deal if you choose to blame the obesity crisis on the companies that sell food. I don't. (See my blog post, Mmm…mmm..who's to blame for obesity?) It's dangerous to confuse corporate responsibility with personal responsibility.

Companies are, however, responsible for what they buy and here McDonald's is making meaningful progress, moving forward with its sustainable land management commitment, which is supposed to "ensure that, over time, the agricultural raw materials for our food and packaging originate from legal and sustainably managed land sources."

Just what this will mean in practice isn't clear, but the company has, as an example, joined with the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, as well as Cargill and Walmart, to form the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, which will try figure out how to make the beef production system more sustainable. For a host of reasons, not the least of which is the company's desire to sell as many burgers as it can, I'm skeptical about this effort (see my blog post, Meat: bad for you, bad for the climate) but the fact is that people will go on eating lots of beef. So we should wish McDonald's and its allies good luck as they try to "green" the hamburger.

Meanwhile, McDonald's has promised to source only certified sustainable palm oil by 2015, to buy more coffee certified by independent organizations like the Rainforest Alliance and to insure that its chicken products haven't been fed soy from the Amazon. These are unglamorous initiatives that probably won't drive sales, but they matter because of the company's scale.

"We see our impacts on the supply chain as being paramount," Bob told me. "We don't buy niche products. We buy from the mainstream." When McDonald's says that beef needs to be raised differently, an entire industry will have to listen.

Bob Langert

It's partly because I've known and trusted Bob for many years that I take these efforts seriously. He's been in charge of the company's corporate responsibility effort (now rebranded as sustainability) for nearly 20 years. (See my blog post, What a long, strange trip it's been for McDonald's Bob Langert.) Most of that work, he told me, has been reactive and defensive. Remember Fast Food Nation? Or Super Size Me? Even McDonald's involvement with the Marine Stewardship Council grew out of a crisis. "We had fisheries disappearing," Bob said. More than 99 percent of McDonald's fish now comes from MSC certified fisheries.

Now, Bob says, the company sees sustainability as an opportunity, and it's willing to put real dollars behind it. "We're investing a lot more into energy efficiency and green building," he says, hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild and refresh restaurants, making LED lights standard. The company is buying renewable energy certificates to support the development of clean energy.

"Sustainability is going to be higher on the agenda for our senior management team," he says.

To put its considerable muscle behind those words, McDonald's needs to set some ambitious goals and targets, and report in a transparent way on its progress. Unlike, say, my local farmer's market or yours, this is a company that can move the needle on environmental issues in a meaningful way.

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