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Serving Up Sustainability at Fast Food Restaurants

Animal Welfare and Health, Soil and Crop Management

Serving Up Sustainability at Fast Food Restaurants

The Dirt

One of the latest fast-food chains serving up eco-friendly food to go is Burger King. McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC, Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, and Chipotle have also stated their sustainability initiatives, but how are these efforts regulated? And are we willing to pay more for “greener” fast food? Experts in the space help us take a bite out of this topic.


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According to the CDC, 36% of Americans eat fast food daily. That’s almost 90 million people going to a fast-food restaurant every single day. And most have three items: chicken/hamburger/salad, a drink, and fries.

That’s well over 286 million individual wrappings, cups, straws, and clamshells thrown away day after day.

The 325,000 total fast-food locations across the U.S. present a massive opportunity to curb waste and boost sustainability efforts based on the sheer scale of fast-food chains. And the opportunity extends far deeper when you consider the effects these companies have on their supply chains to practice these efforts.

Whether it is Starbucks testing out an entirely plant-based menu, McDonald’s trialing a plastic-free concept store, Subway changing the companies they source their ingredients from, KFC pledging that all consumer-facing plastic packaging will be recoverable by 2025, or Taco Bell committing to make all of its packaging compostable and recyclable, each of these businesses is leading the way in their industry’s sustainability efforts.

These initiatives are honorable and necessary to combat our growing environmental crisis, but we are left with some questions:

  • Will the consumer be willing to pay more for sustainability?
  • What practices actually work to reduce their carbon footprint and decrease waste and pollution?
  • Furthermore, which third-party companies regulate these “green” claims?  Or are they internally regulated? If so, do we trust that internal oversight?

But first…will we pay more for less waste? 

It is a mixed bag. A Nielsen study from October 2015 showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to shell out more money for sustainable goods. Of those global consumers, millennials rank the highest in support of sustainability and willingness to pay with an overwhelming 73% on board.

A 2018 analysis from Statista supports this claim, detailing which age groups are willing to pay more, and even went so far as to break out how much more they are willing to pay.

A recent survey by GreenPrint found that nearly 64% of consumers are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products, but almost 75% of them struggle with how to identify these products.

How do they know what they are getting is more sustainable? A challenge many fast-food companies are looking to solve.

But do these polls convert to actual shopping behaviors? The brand giant, Unilever, found that while about 4 out of 5 people say they are inclined to buy from environmentally-friendly companies, consumers don’t actually follow through with their wallets.

Other studies show a consistent gap between purchase intentions and behaviors. Despite polling about environmental concerns and reported positive attitudes of consumers towards green products, it is estimated still that only about 25% of those attitudes translate into spending. Consumer cognitive dissonance will always be a challenge with data gathering and polling biases.

The question is who bears the cost of innovation in sustainable packaging until enough volume is achieved to be competitive with existing packaging? Is it the producer? The fast-food restaurants? The consumer? What is the inelastic price point where the consumer just won’t pay more for sustainable food? Would consumers pay 10 cents more per burger at McDonald’s to help share the cost of sustainability? For instance, McDonald’s sells 2.36 billion burgers every year. That would bring an additional $236 million in “sustainability” sales.

What methods of “green” packaging really make a difference in the fast-food world?

The Dogwood Alliance recently detailed a best-practices roadmap for “greening” fast-food packaging. It said that environmental stakeholders must make sustainability a corporate priority and this starts from the ground up. Foundational steps include embracing corporate leadership on sustainability, using a full life-cycle supply-chain approach, reducing overall packaging, and increasing efficiency.

As you drill down past the foundational level, the next tier requires that fast-food companies increase their usage of recycled and/or biodegradable fibers, work to eliminate paper originating from controversial forestry practices, increase in-store recycling and recovery, eliminate toxic inks and labels, and change the composition, weight, and size of its packaging.

Fast-food companies have taken note and have mirrored sustainability efforts after these key principles, rather than arbitrarily creating a set of their own green goals.

But here I am, an educated consumer left with one overwhelming question in my head…

How in the world am I going to figure out if the fast-food companies I choose to enjoy actually follow these standards?

Fear not: there’s a website that will do most of the heavy lifting for you.

Green Restaurant Association tracks businesses and measures food companies based on their environmental footprint, ethical workplace practices, animal welfare commitments, product safety, and marketing strategies to children.

Who is regulating these green initiatives?

Many small brands turn to organizations like Climate Neutral, Foundation Myclimate, and Global Ecolabelling Network for their stamp of approval.

However, not all companies operate or seek to be wholly verified by a third party, especially the big guys. McDonald’s and PepsiCo, for example (the latter owns KFC and Taco Bell), have crafted internal policies to address green initiatives and environmental efforts.

These companies have made similar statements, claiming to work towards the conservation of natural resources, recycling, pollution control, and the pursuit of alternative oils that can be repurposed. While these green plans appear robust and thoughtful, is internal governance enough for consumers to trust that these initiatives really are being put in place?

Good governance is critical to managing our impact on the world. Our governance structures help us to prioritize ESG issues effectively and guide our actions and performance across issues. Engagement with our Board of Directors, cross-functional leadership teams and working groups, and Franchisees and suppliers ensures we have robust governance mechanisms in place to manage these issues and can deliver long-term value for stakeholders.

— excerpt from McDonald’s Purpose and Impact statement

While internal governance is critical, it is not the only means of approvals and certifications that big chains use to provide consumer trust and verification. They may not work with regulatory bodies that can put a stamp on an entire organization. But most of them do, in fact, work with a rigorous group of organizations at an ingredient level to ensure they are meeting and/or exceeding the requirements for their sustainability goals.

What about sustainable food ingredients? 

The influence fast-food restaurants have on overall sustainability is tremendous. Holding their suppliers accountable has far-reaching benefits as many of their producers also sell to grocery store chains. Fast food companies are now answering questions. Where does the meat come from? Is it grown humanely? Is chocolate or coffee grown with fair labor practices? How do we know?

We spoke with Christy Johnson, former Vice President at Papa John’s International Inc., who shared some insights as to how they make “better ingredients, better pizza.” Johnson explained that while there is no overarching regulatory body, they partner with organizations such as the Whole Wheat Council to ensure that their crust is 90% whole grain, and with the Clean Label Project for their toppings so they comply with their regulations. Papa John’s even went so far as to remove 14 ingredients back in 2016 that were not up to the standards of these partners.

While this might mean Papa John’s spends more than $100 million each year to ensure that they are implementing and maintaining these clean label changes, it also offers an avenue of trust for the consumer.

“Papa John’s attempts to always be fully transparent—sharing data and information with the consumer about how and where ingredients are sourced, as well as the mechanisms for ensuring the best quality is imperative for consumer trust.”

– Christy Johnson, Former Vice President at Papa John’s

How to present meaningful data that’s impactful for the consumer

Nicolas Brosens, Strategic Sourcing Officer at McDonald’s, turned the idea of internal regulation on its head, explaining that it is less about the consumer-facing regulatory stamps and data than it is about true transparency and traceability initiatives. McDonald’s is currently working to create a network on their website where consumers can eventually type in an ingredient or menu item and see where it came from, how it is treated, what the environmental impact is, and so on, as verified by their farming partners, processors, etc.

McDonald’s has long been a leader in the sustainability space, and it continues to be at the forefront of sourcing, packaging, and general renewables. As it turns out, McDonald’s, and most large fast-food companies, have a slew of data points on various sustainable measures, sourcing information, green analytics, and more. It is not a matter of having the data; it is a matter of figuring out how to present that data in a meaningful and impactful way to the consumer.

As in the case of Papa John’s, many certifications are held at an ingredient level. McDonald’s shares a similar model, with ethical sourcing as a critical part of their overall sustainability strategy. They have partnered with organizations like RSPCA, FARM, Forest Stewardship Council, PEFCTM, Conservation International, RSPO, ProTerra, RTRS, GRSB, AIM-Progress, and others to help them regulate and monitor the traceability of all ingredients, including ingredients in their livestock feed products.

Coffee is another industry where certification comes into play with regulation. Brosens stated that all coffee and coffee beans in the EU are certified by the Rainforest Alliance, while other regional McDonald’s work with the Fair Trade Organization — deforestation being a massive component of their green strategy.

While the efforts being made by many fast-food chains are progressive and impactful, this does not mean that all fast-food chains are as committed to going green. It is also important to note that many of these companies are in the inception stage and have set goals of five, ten, fifteen years from now till the next impact measure.

Here is a list of a few companies and their environmental strategies and/or sustainability reports so you can make an informed decision on where your next drive-thru order will come from!

                        McDonald’s  |  Papa Johns  |  Taco Bell  |  Panera                                                                           Chipotle  |  Starbucks  |  KFC  |  Chick-fil-A                                                 

The Bottom Line

Many fast-food companies are investing in and applying environmentally-protective strategies to make their menus as green as possible. They also understand the environmental impact that their industry can make and are working hard to do just that. While these companies gather an overwhelming amount of data exemplifying their sustainability initiatives, the challenge is how to make this data digestible for the consumer (pun intended). In the interim, utilize the resources in this article to research your favorite food joints to understand the existing efforts and those in the pipeline.

D2D-illustration Bottom Line