The Inside View

How sustainability leaders deal with bullies


Part Two of a three-part series. Read Part One here.

I cut my teeth on sustainability pressure in the late 1980s, when McDonald’s for the first time was attacked and vilified — at the time, over packaging and waste.

Remember the polystyrene foam clamshell? It wasn’t a fun time. Can you imagine us at McDonald’s seething over a Ronald McToxic magazine cover? Kids globally were writing us letters and sending their foam containers to our headquarters. Society thought we were running out of landfill space, and we were the culprits.

Panic set in. McDonald’s was the lightning rod. We felt sorry for ourselves.

Sound familiar?

So, what’s the best way to deal with this kind of pressure, bullying and shaming campaigns? Sit back and take it? Hide? Play defense?

No. What I learned back has laid with me like concrete ever since:

Make NGOs your best friends.

Pick a credible partner, as McDonald’s did with the Environmental Defense Fund. Get company leadership behind a proactive strategy to address the problem in a practical way. We engaged our suppliers with this approach and, before you know it, we went from villain to environmental leader. We even got an award from the White House.

Lesson learned: The power of engaging a supplier or other partner hand-in-hand with an NGO partner is unbelievably impactful.

It sends a message to internal and external stakeholders that this is not PR. It is real and sincere.

You have to work with NGOs. NGOs are the sustainability thermometer for the consumer. Fortunately, there are lots of good choices for you to make.

I rated NGOs from 1-10, with 10 being extreme (PETA, for example) and 1 being very corporate friendly (Keep America Beautiful). I wanted to work with the 5–7s — the NGOs that had credibility, integrity and independence but were open to market-based solutions and to helping companies succeed.

Let me illustrate this with a fish story.

Back in 2001, we saw the need to develop a sustainable fish approach. We wanted to work with Jim Cannon and Conservation International to do so. Our fish suppliers refused to meet with CI, thinking they were too radical. Imagine that.

We insisted. They became best friends. We developed a Sustainable Fish Scorecard that shifted half our fish purchases to more sustainable sources within five years. All were onboard. The power of collaboration was at work.

A 'we' game

You can’t always brag about such achievements. People aren’t necessarily going to believe a global company. That’s why we engage with experts who not only can help us find solutions, but help us talk about them. People will believe you when Temple Grandin says McDonald’s is the very best company when it comes to animal welfare.

Working with Grandin, the world-renowned animal scientist, McDonald’s and its suppliers put animal welfare on the map for global meat companies, and made it standard operating procedure to care and measure animal welfare impacts.

Grandin is the most inspirational person and biggest change agent I ever worked with. She was fearless. She was relentless for what she believed in. She was proof that one person can make a difference. She never let up. (I think her autism gave her the ability to keep going. Even after failures and insults, she would carry on with extreme enthusiasm. She was unpredictable and unfiltered. It pays to have some of this in your own approach.)

Formula for success

The outcomes of our work with EDF and Temple Grandin were deeply gratifying. "We" — and leadership is very much a "we" game — made transformative changes to packaging and animal welfare way beyond our own business, with global reach.

What they had in common was a formula for success that’s been repeated a few dozen times at McDonald’s:

NGO + Supplier(s) + Time + McD + Science = SV (Shared Value)

A key part of this equation is to have enough time.

Why is it so may companies, as a rule, wait so long for the criticism and campaigns to take their toll before taking action? That’s crisis management. That’s very bad and usually ineffective.


If you wait too long on an emerging issues and let the media, politicians and lawyers get involved, you’ve lost. You are forced to do things that are costly and not scientifically based. On the other hand, if you identify the issues and proactively address strategies to solve them, you can come up with solutions that are win-wins.

It baffles me that many companies default to playing defense. They let emerging issues linger, percolate and boil without doing much to dispel the false rhetoric.

I hear a lot about how sustainability is about managing risk. Then in the same breath I hear about bold, transformative leadership. The talk about leadership, which I believe is genuine, ends up getting trumped by day-to-day actions and decisions that are conservative and risk-averse. When faced with fear (risk), too often the default management position is to protect and play defense.

My lesson: You can’t have leadership and be risk-free at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong. Managing risk is very necessary. We need to work on issues to guard business interests. And it’s encouraging that more leadership companies are defining what they stand for, setting goals and accepting smart risk. The fear of risk is balanced with the opportunity of leadership.

Many are concerned that good science is losing out to public perception and simple solutions. I am among those concerned. We see this in GMOs and climate change.

However, too many sustainability leaders rely too much on science and not enough on ethics.

The social side of science

Science is just half the equation for most industries. Consider animal agriculture, where you have living, breathing animals. Where do you draw the line to preserve their natural behaviors vs. developing efficiencies for meat production? How much space should a laying hen have? A sow? How intensive should food production be?

These complex ethical component cannot be denied, yet many in that industry diminish ethics as a marketing ploy.

Additionally, companies have valuable brands to protect and build. For example, McDonald’s "brand health" is measured extensively, with many long-term brand health attributes connected to sustainability (people/planet/animal/community/trust/transparency).

Certainly the physical science is important, but social science is, too. How do you make something a "movement" and get people to change?

Many leaders don’t seem to want to acknowledge the issue at hand. When faced with an NGO campaign, they are not apt to say there is an obesity problem, or that the climate is getting warmer, or that many people are struggling economically.

Simply debunking, ignoring or denying these things creates a credibility gap.

I was very upset with the content of Eric Schlosser’s book "Fast Food Nation." I read about the "dark side of fast food" and the evils of factory farming as a bunch of half-truths and distortions.

In my mind, Schlosser was off-base, but to deny the big picture of the important issues of animal welfare, human rights and environmental conservation was foolish.

So it’s wise to take the stance, "There are important issues to address. There are impacts to be improved. We are not perfect" — then bridge into positive messaging.

That leads to my final lesson for today: When you acknowledge and recognized the larger issue, you deflate the attack.