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Learning from Hamburger U.

I've never been a big fan of McDonald's. but . . .

January 15, 2014

Over the past couple of weeks, there's been a bit of buzz in the sustainability community about McDonalds' commitment to sustainable beef.  The attention was triggered, in part, by a series of three articles at GreenBiz,com, the first of which is here.  

In a nutshell, McDonalds has committed to begin purchasing sustainable beef in 2016, and eventually to buy nothing but.  To put that promise in context, let's note that "sustainable beef" is nowhere defined, and the date by which they'll reach their final goal is anything but certain.  Given the inherent unsustainability of McDonalds' core business (more obesity, higher blood pressure, lower cost), it's easy to dismiss the whole sustainable beef pronouncement as an exercise in optics.  And yet.  And yet . . .

McDonalds appears (and claims) to have achieved a level of internal alignment and focused energy around its sustainability goals which all but a few (small, coastal, environmentally focused) campuses can only aspire to.  Part of the reason is that the restaurant chain has recognized an existential threat:

  • Their business is their brand
  • Their brand is based on, and closely associated with, beef
  • Worldwide beef production processes aren't sustainable at current demand levels
  • Worldwide beef demand is only going to increase as westernized globalization continues.

Add that all up, and it becomes pretty obvious that a business like McDonalds which has pretty much saturated its established markets and thus depends on expansion to increase shareholder ROI is in trouble.  They either have to change their business model or they have to change their supply chain.  And changing their business model ("McTofu, anyone?") doesn't seem like a winning proposition.

So they've taken a serious look at the problems current beef production creates, and how those need to be addressed.  They've characterized sustainability in terms of treatment of animals (health, welfare, safety as a human food source), treatment of people individually (human rights, safety, healthy work environment not only in restaurants but all along the supply chain), treatment of people collectively (culture, land rights, communal health, economic well-being), and treatment of the planet (greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution, deforestation, land degradation, chemical runoff).  They've recognized that what's sustainable in one location isn't necessarily sustainable in another (after all, McDonalds has a global presence, and global supply lines).  In recognizing both the multiple dimensions of sustainability requirements (it's not just greenhouse gases, indeed, it's not just environmental) and the locality/regionality of practice sustainability, McDonalds is far ahead of most US colleges and universities (both in what we practice and in what we preach).

Finally, McDonalds has committed not only to purchasing sustainably beef, but to purchasing verifiably sustainable beef.  Third-party verification of sustainability isn't something many campuses are willing to step up to.  At least, not yet.

It's fair to say that I'm more than a little skeptical whenever I hear claims that companies like McDonalds (or Walmart, or Coca-Cola) whose very business models I consider the height of unsustainability are on the side of the angels.  At the same time, I have to admit that the thinking they've obviously put into the subject is more advanced than the sustainability thinking I've encountered on Greenback's campus, or most other campuses.

We have a lot to learn, and some of it we can apparently learn at Hamburger University.

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G. Rendell

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