Climate action from McDonald’s

From ToxicLeaks

McDonald’s and its global footprint[edit | edit source]

McDonald’s restaurants are one of the most visible brands on the planet, and millions of people know the story told in the 2016 movie “The Founder.” It’s the biographical film of Ray Kroc, who launched the small California restaurant owned by the 1940s-era McDonald brothers into a brand valued at USD$40.3 billion in 2017. There are now more than 37,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries – among the newest stores is one in Kazakhstan – based on a mix of corporate-owned and franchise locations. In South America, the Buenos Aires-based Arcos Dorados is the company’s largest franchisee with 2,160 restaurants in operation. Yet it’s in South America where some of McDonald’s greatest environmental and sustainability impacts emerged, as issues such as beef sustainability and forest conservation arise.

Those challenges – from energy to water to waste – are closely scrutinized by Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs. In a world confronting climate change, they’re choosing to work with McDonald’s.


History of climate impacts and action[edit | edit source]

As early as 2003, the McDonald’s corporation received grudging praise for a commitment to phase out harmful hydrofluorocarbon refrigeration, a significant contributor to greenhouse gases and a warming climate. By 2016, the company signed on with others to protect fragile Arctic ecosystems from fishing.

In between, McDonald’s has played a role in limiting Amazon deforestation, and in 2017 agreed with Arcos Dorados and other partners to limit the impacts of paper, cattle, palm oil and soy production while developing deforestation-free supply chains through initiatives such as CDP and its environmental reporting network. The company also funds research including new cattle-ranching technologies that are designed to sequester carbon in the soil, and replacement packaging to end Styrofoam use in 2018.

Yet the January 2018 announcement that McDonald’s would use all renewable, certified or recycled packaging by 2025 met with mixed reviews. “It makes no sense to dump resources into recycling without making a significant effort to eliminate single-use plastics once and for all,” said Greenpeace in its response. “Responsible companies know that we can’t recycle our way out of this problem, but instead of showing real leadership by taking steps to eliminate single-use plastics, (McDonald’s) has once again turned to our broken recycling system to avoid taking responsibility for its plastic waste.”

A 2017 report by Zero Waste France found the company generates 2.8 tons of packaging every minute, with low recycling rates, and contributes to growing food waste. A 2016 report from Environment America found that Cargill (4), Tyson (2) and Pilgrim’s Pride (11) – all top McDonald’s suppliers – were among the 15 worst water polluting agribusinesses in the United States, dumping tons of chemicals into waterways. Controversies over potato giant J.R. Simplot led McDonald’s to avoid buying its GMO potato, but critics note that doesn’t fix monoculture and other agribusiness practices impacting sustainability. So the success of the company’s comprehensive 2018 climate-change plans is anything but guaranteed.


New Science Based Target Approach[edit | edit source]

On March 20, 2018, McDonald’s announced it was the first restaurant chain to establish greenhouse gas reduction targets approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative, a collaboration between the World Resources Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, CDP and the United Nations Global Compact designed to help companies address climate change. McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook promises a 36 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 (from a 2015 baseline) and a 31 percent reduction in emissions intensity across its supply chain. This will prevent 150 million metric tons of GHG, the equivalent of taking 32 million cars off the road for an entire year or planting 3.8 billion trees and growing them for 10 years.

McDonald’s plans to achieve these goals by placing priority on beef production, restaurant energy usage and sourcing, packaging and waste, the segments that account for 64 percent of its global emissions.


Support and skepticism for the future[edit | edit source]

On the positive side, McDonald’s has for years developed relationships with CDP and other partners of the new initiative. The United Nations praised McDonald’s in 2015 for its leadership on deforestation and alignment with the New York Declaration on Forests, while the World Wildlife Fund has supported the company for its previous efforts on accessing more sustainable beef, which accounts for about 30 percent of McDonald’s carbon footprint. A partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund led to a reduction in waste behind the counter – not just the clamshell sandwich packaging trash – where about 80 percent of the company’s waste generation occurred before ever reaching the customer’s hands.

Even a collaboration with Greenpeace on the Amazon soy moratorium led to better outcomes achieved by historic NGO-corporate foes. McDonald’s has made smart decisions alongside environmental activists and climate change champions, and has started to list UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in its own communications and target statements. Yet many challenges – including the climate risks caused by unsustainably high emissions from beef production, the need to protect workers’ rights, and the overall health impacts of fast food – still remain, no matter how well-intended are McDonald’s ambitious goals.