Sustainable: sus·tain·able | adjective

Arguably one the most diverse buzz words ripping through industries — ranging from textiles to animal agriculture — Mr. Webster defines it as: “Able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed. Involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources. Able to last or continue for a long time.”

The blanket term is blurry, but it is at the center of an environmental movement that has been rumbling with an unsatisfied hunger for the past 30 years. Carbon footprints are urged to be lighter in step, water is strikingly less abundant, the world population is booming. This, combined with other looming realities, have pushed consumers to start questioning where their food and products come from and how they are produced.

“Grow our business, while making a positive difference in society.”

The above is the mantra of McDonald’s Corp., one that has propelled the world’s second-largest fast-food chain into a sustainability movement almost as recognizable as the golden arches that grace thousands of its franchise entrances.

With an estimated 69 million customers served every day, fueling a purchasing share of 2 percent of the world’s beef supply, McDonald’s holds a hefty weight of corporate responsibility on its shoulders. Formulating a movement to meet high consumer standards while maintaining key market position doesn’t come without years of strategic planning and intense leadership.

Enter Bob Langert. Just weeks into retirement from serving as McDonald’s vice president of environmental and sustainability operations during the majority of his 32-year tenure, Langert has left behind a pair of Ronald McDonald-sized shoes to fill and taken with him an intense passion for environmental improvement. His life’s work has been the epitome of “riding for the brand” — rolling up his sleeves to pick tomatoes alongside supplier workers in his day and floating down the Amazon River on a raft with environmentalists.

When asked to define “sustainability,” Langert says, “It’s definitely the fuzziest term I’ve ever dealt with, with multiple meanings. It’s holistic, not just the environment, but the social aspect. It is outcome-based, with strategy to make improvements. It’s the treatment of people and animals. It has to be measurable, so you can prove it, and then it has to be reported.

“Over the years, the growth of the sustainability movement became my own growth since I was in it from the start,” Langert says.

A self-proclaimed city kid and product of the ‘60s, Langert had a front row seat to the social revolution, saying, “I was too young to join in but old enough to learn from it.”

Straight from college in the early ‘80s, Langert joined McDonald’s to head up shipping logistics of a division within the corporation. Shortly after, McDonald’s started to take heat at the beginning of an environmental movement in the late ‘80s, shifting Langert into a new area within the company.

“I was moved into a temp position, cutting my teeth in the environmental field,” he says. “At that time, McDonald’s had become a symbol of waste. It was the first time we were disliked by the public.”

Listen, engage and learn

A recurring theme in Langert’s strategic philosophy has been to look criticism in the eye and see what can be done to become better, which is exactly how he led the company during the confrontation of the environmental revolution. This period of time became a pivotal moment in history for McDonald’s, forcing the company to take a step back, digging deep into ways to reduce waste and develop a code of conduct for sustainability practices.

It started with collaboration in the environmental community, a somewhat controversial move when the corporate giant and the Environmental Defense Fund aligned initiatives to reduce waste. It proved to be successful, literally cutting out millions of pounds of packaging through simple changes.

The same attitude came in tow when addressing supply chain issues. After joining alliances with the World Widlife Fund (WWF), McDonald’s mapped out a long-term goal to purchase responsibly raised fish without fears of damaging the world fish supply. On top of maintaining product integrity, the collaboration with WWF has given the company a well-respected, world-wide organization to help guide efforts, as well as vouch for them. That was the case in 2006, when McDonald’s announced it would no longer purchase soy products that were grown on former Amazon rainforest clearings after Greenpeace began parading around London in chicken costumes, protesting the soy-based diet of European McDonald’s chicken suppliers that shipped feedstuff from the world’s largest rainforest. Langert was able to consult with WWF alliances to check into the urgency of the situation, ultimately leading McDonald’s to dig deeper into the issue.

“The weakest link in the supply chain can cause big problems,” Langert says. “Things like this can’t be allowed to happen, and we have to think of the big picture so it does not come to our plate. A lot more is accomplished when we’re proactive before things come to our door, instead of being defensive.”

Along with the push to become better came the desire to be more transparent and open, Langert says, noting that transparency is not built on weakness but strength.

“Consumers as a whole want to know where their food comes from, who you do business with and what kind of values are held. This has made McDonald’s much more transparent with facts, figures and progress,” he says. “People care about what you do and how you do it.”

Beefing it up

Much of Langert’s career focus has been leading McDonald’s efforts in securing its beef supply chain to fit a growing demand of not only environmental interests but welfare standards. In the late ‘90s, Temple Grandin was consulted to help the corporation build a set of welfare practices for its suppliers on a global level.

“Our formula of success was to work with experts and our suppliers,” he says. “They are rational and science-based standards to better the welfare of animals.”

Most recently, at the beginning of 2014, McDonald’s announced a plan to begin purchasing verified sustainable beef by 2016. While the lofty goal will take years to fully implement, the fast-food chain is off to a good start. In the midst of the two-year starter plan, McDonald’s and several key market leaders throughout different sectors of the beef industry (Cargill, Elanco, JBS, Merck Animal Health, WWF, Solidaridad, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club) put their heads together to form the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a collaborative group designed to enhance management strategies through proven science and shared ideas to produce a more efficient industry.

“Sustainability is often narrowly perceived as local and organic, but that’s not going to do the job,” Langert says. “We are all in this together, from the cattle rancher to the processor. And we all have a shared mission — to create quality beef.”

A lesson from the pro

Through the years of working with diverse interest groups to lead the environmental progress of such a large corporation, Langert has learned a thing or two. When asked what advice he has for the beef industry, he encourages people to get more involved beyond their day-to-day operations.

“You have to be engaged beyond the four walls of your business. Don’t wait around because someone will tell your story for you, and it won’t be one you like,” he says. “And at the end of the day, people will be skeptical, so step out and work to align with a third-party group who can vouch for you. Take charge, be proactive and find partners.”

While Langert may have hung up his official McDonald’s hat, he is far from being through with helping businesses steer in the right direction for environmental strategy. He’s currently a regular contributor for GreenBiz Executive Network, a meeting-of-the-minds forum for sustainability executives.

“Groups and companies that want to make a difference can make a difference because of the market influence they have,” he says. “I feel like we’re at a milestone time to accomplish a lot of things.

“We’re at a fork in the road, and we either have to take the opportunity or dig our heels in and not move forward. I know which direction I want to go.”