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McDonald’s Corporate Responsibility: A paradox or a sign of things to come?

McDonald’s caught my attention again recently with the release of their 2010 Corporate Responsibility (CR) report. I have to admit to feeling incredibly torn, as I read through the report and 2011-2013 goals that McDonald’s has established. On the one hand, the awareness and effort to move towards a more corporately responsible state is a great sign of industry momentum in favour of social responsibility. On the other hand, McDonald’s product traditionally collides with the principles of corporate responsibility, which would make a global claim to corporate responsibility and sustainability misaligned. But is it misaligned if this is a glimpse of what’s to come in the future?

The concept of corporate responsibility is one that permeates through not just what a company says, but also in what they do, how they do it, and the essence behind the product or service they offer. Integrity, responsibility, and ethical consideration of all areas of business and product or service development are the holy grail of corporate responsibility that CR practitioners work hard to help companies achieve. Some companies get it, others don’t – and increasingly, I believe that the public can tell the difference and are holding companies accountable.

In McDonald’s case, the very core of what their product is, how it is produced, and what it actually stands for has traditionally been held to be in direct conflict with the meaning of corporate responsibility: mass produced fast food lacking in many of the essential nutrients we need. Food that has been engineered to taste delicious, but adding little to no benefit to the body. In addition, customers are almost always prompted to consume more of it: “Did you want to super size that?” A rather disturbing practice considering obesity and Type II diabetes are universally on the rise. Good for the bottom-line, not so good for society.

The phenomenon of McDonald’s food itself has been so interesting that in 2004, Morgan Spurlock made the documentary, Super Size Me, to capture the effects of McDonald’s on him when eaten daily. Since then, McDonald’s food itself has also become an internet meme. Customers all over the world took to their make-shift labs to test how long McDonald’s food would take to rot. We have all heard of the 12-year old burger and fries, and Joann Burso’s perfect year-old Happy Meal. Although, by far, the best test I have seen is by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in his variable-controlled test in A Hamburger Today.

All this to say – the current perception is that although McDonald’s is a fun brand with delicious food, when it comes to food quality and long-term nutrition, McDonald’s severely falls short.

But what about their CR report? The report itself outlines all the major CR areas of concern that I would be interested in:

  • Corporate Governance & Ethics
  • Nutrition & Well-being (including marketing guidelines)
  • Sustainable Supply Chain
  • Environmental Responsibility
  • Employee Experience
  • Community

This in itself is very promising. It suggests McDonald’s is looking at CR and sustainability from the holistic perspective I was talking about above. Apart from this, it would also seem that McDonald’s has been working on the above areas since 2004 (interesting, the same year Super Size Me was released). A Global Advisory Council (GAC) of independent experts that assist with governance and betterment of nutrition in McDonald’s products has been established. The experts consist of PhDs from around the world, and specialize in medicine or nutrition. Fantastic. So what have these experts advised, what has McDonald’s done, and what are the results since 2004? I’m not sure. The report references the guidance that the GAC has provided, but guidance is pointless if not followed and measured. I could not locate any information around this.

The report goes on to discuss the expansion of food options apart from McDonald’s classic Big Mac; however, what it doesn’t address are what those options are and how the nutritional and caloric content of those new options compare to the recommended intake. For example, a McDonald’s Southwest Salad with Crispy Chicken consists of 430 calories, a very high sodium level (more than that of a standard Big Mac), and high fat levels. Most of the dressings offered are over 100 calories independent of anything else. Not a very healthy option, if you think of it. Maybe healthier than a Big Mac, but is that the benchmark we’re using? (If you’re interested in the nutritional information behind McDonald’s products, it is posted here.)

And what about sustainability behind their supply chain? The report breaks out McDonald’s sustainability practice into the land management of beef, poultry, coffee, palm oil, and packaging, as well as issues around as animal welfare, employee wellness, resource conservation, and product safety. In general, what I found was that although some of the initiatives in the works are steps in the right direction, the report lacks the substantiating detail to provide it the level of credibility required to shift the current perception around their food and production processes. For example, the McDonald’s Agricultural Assurance Programme (MAAP) has been created in Europe to establish standards around sustainable land management and to raise agricultural standards. This is a positive move. But how were the standards are drawn up? What are the benchmark standards the MAAP standards align with? Is there a third party unbiased auditor that reviewed and approved these standards? Similarly, the report states:

“(The) Australian Food Corporation (AFC), a subsidiary of Keystone Foods that supplies beef patties for McDonald’s Australia, Japan and Indonesia, has been using McDonald’s Environmental Scorecard for nearly four years to measure and reduce environmental impacts.”

Fantastic. Only the standards, again, are McDonald’s standards. So where is the real accountability and credibility in these standards?

On the other hand, in environmental responsibility, it seemed that there was a higher level of credibility and inclusion of third party audits.

McDonald’s Europe has completed a carbon footprint assessment of the business along the entire value chain – starting from primary agricultural production (including manufacturing and transport) to restaurants and offices, as well as customer travel and end-of-life product disposal. (…)

The carbon footprint assessment has been externally verified by SGS, an independent auditing firm, and McDonald’s Europe is using the measurement to build on existing initiatives and to develop new plans as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce GHG emissions while working in collaboration with markets, restaurants and suppliers throughout Europe. This work will be used to inform future global efforts in carbon footprinting.

It will be interesting to see what happens from here in other regions.

In regards to energy management innovation, it’s notable that McDonald’s provides various national case studies; however, the metrics reported are different for each. China met its targets to reduce utility consumption by 5%, Germany saved 11,000 kWh per restaurant annually, and restaurants in the United States saved $3,000-6,000 annually. Although all positive initiatives (especially compared to doing nothing), it’s difficult to understand what the real environmental impact of the energy savings are. What levels were they at previously? Where are they at now? At first glance, although any energy savings are good, for the most part, the achieved totals don’t seem overly impressive and there is no context provided that help decipher the meaning behind them.

What about the last two sections: employee experience and community? Similar to other parts of the report, these two sections are sound at first glance, but again, there isn’t enough information to gather a full context around what McDonald’s is doing and what has been done, and the real impact of their actions. In this section, what would be more helpful are case studies of the personal impact initiatives like the Ronald McDonald House Charity has created for hospitals and families that access their assistance.

As a whole, I’m pleased to see the initiatives McDonald’s has underway around CR and sustainability and that they are approaching CR from an end-to-end, holistic perspective. However, I’m somewhat cautious in taking all of their claims to heart. There are still too many questions that remain and it is hard to be able to say one way or another whether this report and McDonald’s initiatives are grounded in a solid commitment to CR and sustainability and best practices in the field, or if it is a sophisticated greenwash of the popular fast food chain. I sincerely hope it is the former, and I suppose only more time will tell.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. No matter what happens, their product will remain a vice like alcohol or tobacco. To be eaten in moderation, not as meal substitutes. In some ways their PR has taken this position, particularly in response to the Super Size Me documentary. Everything they’re doing since then is mitigation of negative impact. There’s a limit to how far that can go though, as objective nutritional analyses show.

    March 22, 2011
    • vivve #

      Thanks for your comment, Mario. I’m inclined to agree.

      I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt should the changes McDonald’s make be greater than expected, but by the nature of the industry they’re in, there absolutely is a limit. That said, any awareness and change is better than none, and as a major player, they could help shape the rest of the industry, which would be a very positive movement.

      March 28, 2011
  2. They should be forced to put nutritional information, PLUS negative health benefits, on their products like cigarette packages.

    March 30, 2011
  3. tb0713 #

    This really helped, thanks!!

    October 26, 2011

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