McDonald's Courts Sustainability: But Does It Make a Difference?

Sustainability has become the go-to word for every corporation in the U.S., and McDonald's is no exception. The burger giant recently announced what it's calling its Sustainable Land Management Commitment (SLMC). In a press release that sounds a bit like a "Spider-Man" script, the company states that "McDonald's ... accept[s] the responsibility that comes with our global presence," by requiring that over a period of time, all agricultural raw materials will be supplied only from sustainably managed land. (McDonald's also admits that since it "does not actually produce any of the food we ultimately serve our customers, it's essential that we work with suppliers who share our values.")

What does that mean, exactly? If "sustainability" gives you images of a family farm sending their free-range chickens to a McDonald's supplier, think again. What it does mean is that McDonald's sat down with the World Wildlife Fund, and "other stakeholders" (including fellow corporate megaliths such as Walmart, as well as suppliers) and came up with five products to concentrate on making better: beef, poultry, coffee, palm oil, and food packaging. It is also joining various Global Roundtables (on beef, and responsible palm oil production).

Beef: Develop a pilot program to trace and certify sustainable beef in the Amazon, and to investigate carbon emissions from farms in the UK.
Note: Previously the Amazon was off-limits because of major sustainability issues.

Poultry: No, it's not about creating new ways of raising chickens that make up those Chicken McNuggets. Or about instituting cage-free systems. It's about soy used for feed. McDonald's will continue a moratorium on soy produced in the Amazon, and that is destroying the rain forest.

Coffee: Seems McDonald's Europe is ahead of the U.S game on this front, buying coffee certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Now, the company turns to the U.S. and its supply chain to "assess a comprehensive approach."

Palm Oil: If you love McDonald's fried foods, you have an intimate knowledge of palm oil. And the burning and clear-cutting required to produce palm oil has created a host of environmental problems in places such as Indonesia. McDonald's says it will use only certified-sustainable palm oil by 2015.

Packaging: Wood fiber makes those nifty paper fry holders (and so much more at McDonald's). The goal is to use more certified sources of wood fiber. In Canada, 15% is now from certified sources. No stats are given for the U.S. Sound familiar?

Sounds like a decent plan, and who can help but applaud McDonald's' attempts to make their operations more environmentally friendly. But here's what consumers also need to know. Among the giant suppliers of McDonald's palm oil and soy for the poultry feed is Cargill, which has been slammed by organizations such as the Rainforest Action Network for its violations of environmental practices, such as clear-cutting and destruction of watersheds.

Let's be honest: You want a burger and fries produced "sustainably"? Then go to the farmers market, buy beef and potatoes produced by farmers you know support best practices. Burgers produced from meat supplied by industrial farms, or chicken sandwiches produced from mega poultry operations are never going to be the most sustainable choice. In fact, the most sustainable choice is probably not to eat beef or chicken at all. But in the meantime, the language of corporate sustainability and responsibility is a step in the right direction, and makes consumers feel a little better as they take a bite of their Big Mac.

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