Can McDonald’s turn its golden arches green?

9th May 2014

Tuck into a burger and the beef you’re eating took 2,400 litres of water to produce, says WaterWise. And the cow burped out a lot of methane before being slaughtered. Do you care? McDonald’s’ Bob Langert thinks so. The company’s ambitious new sustainability plan is, he says, largely driven by consumer demand. Yet given meat’s heavy environmental footprint, can a burger ever be sustainable?

It’s this kind of question that gets Langert up in the morning. He’s head of sustainability at McDonald’s and he’s passionate about his work. At the company, he’s overseen a range of ambitious initiatives designed to reduce the environmental impact of its operations.

It started in 1990. That was when McDonald’s shocked the world by entering a partnership with Environmental Defense Fund. It was the first big collaboration between a consumer brand and an environmental advocacy – at a time when activists confronted companies in courtrooms, not meeting rooms.

The results were positive. McDonald’s replaced its polystyrene foam clamshells with paper wraps and recycled boxes and started using unbleached paper carry-out bags. It reduced the amount of material used to make straws, napkins, sandwich packaging, cups, and French fry containers and, in the decade following the partnership, lowered restaurant waste was down by 30 percent (saving large sums of money).

At times, the company has worked with its biggest critics. In 2006, Greenpeace accused the European fast food industry of playing a part in Amazon deforestation as it made way for the soy that was feeding chicken and resulting in “nuggets of Amazon forest” being served at McDonald’s restaurants in Europe.

“We responded by agreeing with Greenpeace,” explains Langert. “We recruited other retailers and worked with suppliers and in a matter of months a moratorium on these practices was announced and that’s been in place ever since.”

However, in spite of these and other milestones, Langert says that it wasn’t until last week, with the launch of the new sustainability framework, that the company has had a roadmap with specific goals and timetables. “We’re really upping the anti here,” he says. “This is now a strategic issue for our senior management.”

An important part of the plan is a commitment to start buying some of its beef from sustainable sources in 2016. But what exactly is sustainable beef? McDonald’s doesn’t know, says Langert.

It might seem an odd remark, given the emphasis the company is putting on this part of its sustainability framework. But Langert explains that the idea is to find out – and he stresses that the process should be collaborative.

“It’s not good for McDonald’s to define it,” he says. “It needs to be a definition that ranchers, producers, farmers, companies and retailers agree on – and that’s a tough task.”

In an initiative similar to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, McDonald’s will bring together different supply chain participants. Through the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, explains Langert, farmers, retailers, companies, NGOs and others will formulate guidelines for sustainable beef production.

Langert sees the initiative as part of a broader business strategy intended to benefit the industry as a whole rather than to impose costs or add bureaucracy. “Our message to the beef industry is that we’re doing this because we want to sell more beef.”

If the strategy works, this raises a thorny question. Will the effects of the reduction in beef’s environmental impact be wiped out by the impact of the extra beef sales?

It’s a question at the heart of the concept of “sustainable business”. Does, for example, installing solar panels on all your supermarkets make up for the fact that your company is opening 100 new supermarkets a year?

Some might argue that sustainable beef might mean encouraging consumers to eat less meat. Langert would disagree. He does not believe McDonald’s should be dictating what people should eat.

“It’s not for us to choose the trends,” he says. “It’s up to us to be responsive in making whatever people buy as sustainable as possible.”

To illustrate the company’s approach, he quotes the McDonald’s founder: “Ray Krock used to say, ‘I’m not sure what we’re going to sell in the year 2000, but whatever it is, there’s a lot of it.’”

This, says Langert, is the McDonald’s business model. “We sell a few items in high volume, at a great price and value, in a clean environment that’s safe and fun,” he says. “And now we’re going to make it sustainable, too.”


Here, I invite my interviewees to name a favourite charity and – in the spirit of Mixing It Up – a favourite cocktail.

Charity: Ronald McDonald House Charities

Cocktail: Smoothies, especially with mango