Skip to main content

KFC Lands in Hot Water for its Packaging

<p>In the latest sign of how forestry and paper issues are coming to the fore for companies in almost all industries, the fast food chain is currently under fire from environmental groups for using virgin forests to supply the paper for its packaging.</p>

There are many reasons to think twice before dining at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Its best-known menu choices are unhealthy. (A single KFC Extra Crispy Chicken Breast contains 510 calories and 33 grams of fat. In fairness, the company offers Kentucky Grilled Chicken options that are better for you.) According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Pamela Anderson and Sir Paul McCartney, KFC buys chickens from suppliers who mistreat; the gory details can be found at the Kentucky Fried Cruelty website. Even the Bush administration's business-friendly Federal Trade Commission chastised the fast-food chain for false advertising.


Now, according to an activist group called the Dogwood Alliance, there's another reason to steer clear of KFC: The world's largest chicken chain restaurant wraps its food in paper made from virgin forests in the southern U.S., supporting forestry practices that include large-scale clear-cutting and the conversion of diverse natural forests into monoculture plantations. It also engages in greenwashing by touting its support for an industry-backed forest certification system called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) that undermines a more rigorous standard established by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

"KFC's packaging is coming from the worst of the worst forest practices," says Danna Smith, executive director of the Dogwood Alliance. "This is the epitome of bad corporate behavior."


This week, at a press conference in Louisville, Dogwood Alliance launched a national campaign calling on KFC to...

adopt rigorous paper packing sourcing practices, and stop contributing to the annual destruction of the southern forest region in the US….The organization intends to keep putting pressure on KFC until the company takes meaningful action to protect southern forests through reducing waste, and increasing the use of recycled content and FSC certified paper.

If you've been paying attention to corporate campaigns and forests, this will sound familiar. Dogwood Alliance campaigned a decade ago against Staples; they are now partners in an effort to provide tree farmers with incentives to harvest more sustainably. Greenpeace targeted Kimberly Clark over its forestry practices, and reached an agreement to protect old-growth forests. Forest Ethics won concessions from Limited Brands after its campaign against the Victoria's Secret catalog.

Few brands have the will to stand up against a full-fledged assault from a savvy NGO -- particularly if the activists have a strong case to make. (That, by the way, is not KFC's logo.)

This is not KFC's logoThis campaign is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it targets the fast-food industry for the first time around its paper use. Second, it's one of a series of attacks on the industry-backed SFI standard.

When I spoke yesterday by phone with Danna Smith, I asked her why Dogwood Alliance targeted KFC. "KFC is the iconic Southern brand and the biggest company within Yum Brands," she replied. "And Yum Brands is one of the biggest fast-food companies on the planet." The world's largest restaurant company, Yum! Brands also owns Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Long John Silver's.

Southern forests are increasingly a battleground, just as activists and commercial interests are fighting over the future of the Amazon or tropical Indonesia. When it comes to the paper and pulp industries, Southern U.S. forests are the world leaders, producing about 20 percent of the world's pulp, paper and lumber while being home to only about 2% of the world's forests, according to the Dogwood Alliance. "In the South," the group says, "an area larger than the state of New Hampshire is clearcut every year mostly for paper and paper packaging production." Much of the group's ire is directed against International Paper, a supplier to KFC.

For its part, KFC says on its website that "KFC is as committed to the environment as we are to our food and to our customers," a dubious claim if you think about it for more than a second. Still, the company has taken some meaningful steps, saying:

  • All KFC's paper bags are 100% recycled content
  • All KFC's in-store napkins are 100% recycled content
  • 30% of every KFC Bucket Lid is made out of recycled content
  • By May, more than 90% of our paperboard packaging will be Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certified

Dogwood Alliance says KFC needs to do better. Boxes, buckets, cups, paper that wraps the food could all be made from either recycled fiber or FSC-certified paper, the group says. The SFI standard, she argues, doesn't stop poor forestry practices including "large-scale clear cutting, [see photo below], the conversion of natural forests including forested wetlands to plantations, and the routine spraying of plantations with toxic chemicals and fertizilers." The SFI disagrees, of course, saying that its label is "a sign you are buying wood and paper products from a responsible source, backed by a rigorous, third-party certification audit."

{related_content}The high-stakes FSC vs. SFI battle is playing out in other arenas as well, as The New York Times has reported. The Federal Trade Commission has been asked to investigate, and SFI advocates are trying to get the U.S. Green Building Council to accept SFI-certified wood as part of its LEED standards. Some corporate papers buyers have told me that there isn't much difference between the two standards, but Smith disagrees.

"FSC represents the gold standard in the marketplace," she said. "The reason for that is that SFI certifies the kind of [harmful] practices we are talking about."

Dogwood Alliance, she said, has been trying to talk to KFC for three years, but has been unable to get a meeting. That led to today's actions, and the upcoming campaign, which will include a website (, Facebook and Twitter message as well as traditional protests and letter writing. Said Smith: "The bucket stops here."

Is this sustainable forestry?

Is this sustainable forestry? Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user SqueakyMarmot.

More on this topic