McDonald's Latest Green(ish) Initiative

McDonald's recently announced a new sustainability initiative with the stated goal of ensuring that the food they source is from certified sustainable companies.

A sustainability plan coming from a company that once literally greenwashed its own logo must be met with an appropriate level of wariness.

The "Sustainable Land Management Commitment" will focus on five core areas: beef, poultry, coffee, palm oil, and packaging.

The five areas were determined following an analysis conducted jointly with the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) that determined the five raw materials with the most potential sustainability impact.

McDonald's will be working with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a multi-stakeholder group with the goal of improving the sustainability of beef production. The company has committed to not sourcing beef from the Amazon Biome, and is developing a pilot program to trace and certify sustainable beef in the Amazon region. As ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, this is an important, but delayed, step. Over 80% of the Brazilian Amazon has already been cleared due to ranching since the 1980s.

There are many challenges to tracing and certifying beef, but if done correctly, the move could lead to significant improvements throughout the entire industry. For now, it appears that McDonald's will only focus its pilot program on the Amazon, which means that production of beef could just be shifted to other areas that are just as threatened and environmentally important, such as the Atlantic Forest in Brazil. Only requiring a specific region to prove sustainability credentials will do little to nothing to change the industry.

They are also sponsoring a study to investigate the carbon emissions of cattle farms in the UK and Ireland.

On the poultry front, McDonald's has renewed their commitment to not purchase chickens from suppliers that use Amazon soy as chicken feed. McDonald's stopped using soy when Greenpeace released a study in 2006 illustrating the terrible damage the soya crop was inflicting on the Amazon. While this step is commendable, McDonald's could have gone much farther in reforming the infamously irresponsible poultry industry. Demanding that producers go cage-free and cut down on antibiotic use would have been a good start.

The company has committed to sourcing only sustainable palm oil by 2015. The clear-cutting and burning of forest necessary to produce palm oil has been an environmental disaster for many regions. Palm oil is used in the frying process-- and therefore in many of McDonald's menu items.

McDonald's in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia already buy all their coffee from "certified" sources, and is moving towards the same model for the US.

Finally, wood fiber makes up most of McDonald's packaging, and they are attempting to move towards using only suppliers that boast third party certification.

As such a monstrous company, McDonald's obviously has huge market power and the ability to push for large changes from their suppliers. While they should be applauded for working with environmental groups and looking for ways to move toward sustainability, it is clear that they will only go as far as their customers push them.

Unfortunately, no one is pushing very hard.

Photo Credit: Rochelle Hartman