Commentary: Ronald McSustainable

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The world’s largest and most iconic restaurateur wants its billions of customers to know that the company is going to save the planet. How? By changing the way that burgers are produced and processed.

And you, the consumer, won’t have to lift a finger while this transformation takes place — other than using a couple of those digits to hand over your debit card to the friendly face at the drive-thru, that is.

McD’s even launched a website to explain that the campaign will “positively influence” how beef is produced through better environmental practices and improved animal health and welfare. According to its statement, life cycle analysis of the chain’s carbon footprint conducted last year motivated the organization to address sustainability within its global supply chain and restaurants.

“We found that about 70 percent of our greenhouse gas emission impacts are in our supply chain, and of those, around 40 percent are related to beef,” the company’s declaration stated. “We want to do our part to improve environmental practices in the way beef is produced, support positive workplaces in the beef industry, and drive continuous improvement in animal health and welfare. Plus, we envision doing all of this while providing affordability and quality, along with economic viability for those who raise cattle and produce beef.”

Make fun of his silly costume if you will, but nobody can accuse Ronald of being unable to spout perfect corporate-speak.

I mean, if it’s a straight line from Point Then to Point Now, with a wealth of eco-smart/positive workplaces/animal welfare changes able to be put in place, then the question must be asked: Why didn’t all these wonderful improvements happen years ago?

Were the executives of the foodservice and beef industries clueless as to what needed to be done? Were the economics of making those changes so negative as to preclude serious consideration? Were the technical and operational hurdles just too monumental to be overcome?

None of the above.

The reason that McDonald’s, and plenty of other mega-corporations, have “discovered” the joys of sustainability is because it’s become trendy, topical, top-of-mind.

Sustainability sells, and that’s what drives the decision-making of Ronald and every other corporate titan.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

A deeper analysis

Now, that’s not to say that virtually any sprawling, global organizational couldn’t (and shouldn’t) make systematic changes to improve efficiency, and thus enhance its long-term sustainability. In fact, there’s a term for the people generally tasked with this initiative. They’re called management.

Beyond its pie-in-the-sky proclamations, though, there are two problems with McDonald’s noble ambitions.

First is the self-serving finger-pointing at suppliers. Of course the company’s greenhouse gas emissions are coming primarily from its supply chain. That’s true for every retail operation. How about as all those big box stores carrying tens of thousands of SKUs? Think their massive, multi-layered supply chains involving global manufacturing and distribution don’t generate GHG emissions exponentially larger than the carbon footprint of their retail locations?

I don’t need to answer that, do I?

Second, as the company itself acknowledged, there’s no strict definition of “sustainable beef.” What does that mean? Grassfed instead of grain-fed? Recent research suggests that’s not the answer. Local instead of centralized production? We’re way past that. Smaller burgers? Meatless menus? Hasn’t the fastfood industry already traveled down that road?

The bottom line is that there isn’t a blueprint detailing exactly how and where beef production can be changed to achieve the “improved environmental practices, positive workplaces and continuous improvement in animal health and welfare” McDonald’s is touting.

After all the happy talk about “verified, sustainable beef,” after wading through a website that yammers on about “optimizing cattle’s impact within ecosystems” and “positively impacting the lives of employees and the communities in which they operate,” it all starts sounds about as credible as the company’s relentless advertising.

As in, sounds good, just don’t take it at face value.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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JF Garner    
Alaska  |  January, 10, 2014 at 05:24 AM

What is next Ronald Mcagenda 21.

montana  |  January, 10, 2014 at 09:41 AM

maybe they should by U.S. beef instead of New Zealand beef, that would cut their carbon foot print by 2/3 s.


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