I’ve posted on greenwashing before. I like Wikipedia’s use of the synonym “green sheen” in their description of the term. In June I posted a link to an article in the Guardian about advertising and misinformation in relation to actual sustainability and environmental benefit. Greenwashing is common, it’s unregulated, and it’s big money. But I read an article the other day about McDonald’s from the Environmental News Network (ENN.com) and CleanTechnica.com that was very interesting. It’s worth reading.
The main question the article poses is this: Is McDonald’s a green company?
Well, what constitutes a “green” company? And how would one go about evaluating its “greenness”? That’s an awkward term, I know. But is the company doing things like cutting its emissions, purchasing renewable energy, reducing its overall carbon footprint, building sustainably, supporting local farms? McDonald’s can answer “yes” to some of those things, but not to all of them. How about if it was partnering with organizations to convert used cooking oil to biodiesel (Brazil, Chile, Argentina), reducing water usage (Australia), and providing electric vehicle recharging stations (North Carolina)? Sure, points for those things, and it’s great that they’re doing anything along those lines. But then you need to weigh those positive efforts against the company’s existing footprint and/or track record. And this is where you lose points. In the case of McDonald’s, many points. Now we’re into the issues of fast food and obesity in America, liberal use of high fructose corn syrup, conventional beef and the major problems associated with CAFOs, support of monoculture crops (by sheer tonnage of what they purchase), genetically modified crops and transgenic produce, contributions to overall human health; the list goes on. Is “green fast food” an oxymoron? Maybe. I’m not saying that it has to be. But it’s not as cost effective if you don’t cut all those corners, you know. (See Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” for more on externalizing costs). If another company was taking some of the steps listed above that McDonald’s is taking (according to its own Corporate Responsibility page — “Look, we’re green!!”) would we laud those achievements? Is it a step in the right direction, or just a drop in the bucket?
I’m not shilling for Mickey D’s here. I’ll answer my own question and say that I think it’s a small drop in a big bucket, hence the title of this post. I’ll admit, I like their fries, and I’ll stop for a chocolate shake on a long road trip, but I don’t generally eat there. If it comes down to a gas-and-a-burger stop on the road, whether it’s the golden arches, BK, or Wendy’s, I don’t care that much. It’s either that or gas station Fritos. Others have bemoaned the beast that is Fast Food in America, and I’m not going to rehash that now. There’s plenty of research out there. For additional reading and watching (for a cheery summer afternoon), see Supersize Me, Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc…
Let’s put aside the oxymoron for a second. What if McDonald’s is becoming a force for good? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; they’re not there yet, I know. Long way to go. Maybe here’s the real question: What would they have to do for you to say that McDonald’s has become a force for good? There’s plenty of room for improvement. According to Yahoo! Finance, at the end of 2008 McDonald’s was operating 31,967 restaurants in 118 countries. Think about all the potatoes and beef that they buy! Small changes in policies and purchasing from the front office could have huge ramifications. Well, they do have huge ramifications now, just not good ones. Think of what they could be doing.
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