Tag Archives: Net Impact

Sustainable Big Macs: The plan for a leaner, greener McDonald’s

McDs_Langert1Imagine going into a McDonald’s and learning that all of the beef used in their hamburgers was sustainably sourced. Not only that, but the restaurants were using less energy, recycling more and adding more fruits and vegetables to their menu. Seem far-fetched? Not when you learn that the company, famous for its fast, low-cost food items, has been developing sustainability initiatives for the past three years. Enter Bob Langert, McDonald’s Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and keynote speaker at Foster’s Fourth Annual Idea Lab. Speaking to an audience full of MBA students and Puget-sound area business leaders, Langert talked about supply chain, consumer buy-in, and championing sustainable beef at the home of the Big Mac.

Having labeled McDonald’s as a company in transition, Langert hopes that their involvement in the sustainability movement– which he thinks is “too small [and] too niche”– will jumpstart supplier and consumer buy-in. McDonald’s has developed a plan, dubbed “Our Journey Together. For Good”, to make their menu both healthier and sustainable. The plan’s goals include:

  • To begin serving sustainably sourced beef by 2016
  • Add more fruits and vegetables by 2020
  • Reduce fat, sugar and overall calories in their food
  • Provide 100 percent sustainably sourced coffee
  • Reduce restaurant energy consumption by 20 percent
  • Increase in-restaurant recycling by 50 percent.

To achieve these goals, McDonald’s first priority is to address the supply chain—which Langer believes accounts for 80 percent of the corporation’s environmental impact. While aggressive, this certainly isn’t the first time the Golden Arches has addressed food sourcing.McDs_audienceClose

Dressed in chicken suits, Greenpeace activists staged protests in European McDonald’s restaurants with the hopes of raising awareness of deforestation in Brazil due to soya production in the Amazon. As it turned out, Amazonian soya was a major source of soy for McDonald’s food products. Surprising cynics (and probably a few Greenpeace protestors), Langert met with the activists, even traveling to the Amazon with them to get a first-hand picture of the devastation. Within three months, Langert says, McDonald’s was able to negotiate a moratorium on Amazon soya. Reflecting on the experience, Langert said, “[I’m] proud of the work, not proud that it came through a crisis.” The soya-based deforestation problem was a watershed moment for McDonald’s, driving the company’s other environmental initiatives like responsibly sourcing their coffee and their fish—100 percent of which comes from sustainable fisheries. With a focus now placed squarely on their beef suppliers, McDonald’s hopes to do the same for the millions of hamburgers they sell each day.

From enlisting the consulting expertise of famed animal science doctor and autistic activist Dr. Temple Grandin to honing in on their message, McDonald’s approach to the beef industry has been multi-pronged. Recalling his keynote speech at the first annual Ranch Sustainability Forum earlier this year, Langert reiterated the importance of coming together as a community to be more environmentally responsible and forward-thinking. “I kept saying we’re on the same page. We want sustainable beef to sell more beef.” However, Langert knows that sustainability isn’t limited to suppliers. Pointing to the trouble their European restaurants are having convincing their customers to recycle (crew members are manually separating garbage from recycling), Langert acknowledges there’s still a long way to go. When asked if it’s possible that customers are fatigued by sustainability messaging, Langert half agreed, stating that while McDonald’s Chief Brand Officer is coming up with “disruptive ways to reach consumers” he knows that what they’re doing right now is not enough. He added, “The plan right now is not consumer-centric. Our time now is being spent within the supply chain.” That’s not for nothing. Langert said that he continues to be astounded by the progress made on the supply side, stating that “suppliers discussing sustainability is a big deal.”

McDs_qaThere’s no doubt for Langert that McDonald’s has a challenging road ahead to achieve total supplier and consumer buy-in, stating, “When you try to develop something bold, there’s a lot of resistance.” However, Langert maintains that the folks at the Golden Arches are committed to taking sustainability beyond the “small and niche.” Within a few short years, McDonald’s may evolve in to paragon of environmental stewardship in the business world and possibly beyond. We’ll all just have to wait and see.

This event was co-sponsored by Foster’s Net Impact MBA club. Net Impact is a new generation of leaders who use their careers to tackle the world’s toughest problems. They put their business skills to work for good throughout every sector. By doing so, they show the world that it’s possible to make a net impact that benefits not just the bottom line, but people and planet too. Learn more about the club here.

Foster Idea Lab participants brainstorm sustainable solutions

Looking for a challenge? How about trying to cut total emissions from the global commercial aviation fleet in half—even as it doubles from 20,000 to a projected 40,000 planes—by 2050.

That tall order is the very real pledge of the world’s aviation industry.

And leading the quixotic charge is the Boeing Company, whose Bill Glover provided the keynote for the 2013 Foster Idea Lab, a kind of high-level sustainability brainstorming session hosted by Net Impact at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Glover, the vice president of global business development and policy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, offered a portal into his firm’s efforts to produce more efficient, lower-emitting aircraft through innovative on-board technologies, smarter materials and an all-out push to develop a jet-worthy renewable fuel.

He recounted Boeing’s catalytic effort to drive the first successful biofuel-powered commercial airplane flight, and its legacy in thousands of subsequent test, demonstration and commercial biofueled flights in the past few years.

“Now we need to industrialize it,” Glover said. “Make this work on an industry-wide scale to drive down the carbon footprint of aviation. That’s one of the great opportunities that we have. We’re at the beginning, and we have a long way to go.”

High-level brainstorm

Facing the big challenges of sustainability was the theme of the Idea Lab. Some 40 senior sustainability officers from a wide range of companies huddled with each other and with Foster MBA students to cross-pollinate solutions to the challenges of their organizations to operate more sustainably. Among the organizations participating were Microsoft (the Idea Lab sponsor), Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon, T-Mobile, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many others.

The event was organized by the Foster School’s chapter of Net Impact, the international MBA organization devoted to inspiring a new generation to use their careers to tackle the world’s toughest social and environmental problems.

National Champs

Foster MBAs won the national Net Impact Case Competition in 2011 and 2013, and reached the finals in 2012. At the Idea Lab, Gabe Jones, Ryan Scott and Chris Walker of the winning team reported on the school’s most recent victory this past February at the University of Colorado.

The case challenged student teams to navigate Newmont Mining’s efforts to begin mining gold in a fictional African nation. The Foster team’s winning solution was centered on the creation of a Trusted Partners Program—a kind of independent escrow account managed by Newmont executives, stakeholders from local and national government, and NGO partners—that would manage profit sharing to benefit both company shareholders and local residents in the areas of environmental, social and educational.

The plan was simple, feasible and implementable. Said Scott: “The question we kept asking ourselves was, what will the board do next week? After we finish our presentation, can the board actually act on this? I think that’s what earned us the win.”

Water, plastics, and dirty data

Foster Net Impact’s faculty advisor Elizabeth Stearns closed the event with a bracing reminder of our rampant overuse of water, plastics and “dirty” data.

The senior lecturer pointed out the tens of gallons of water it takes to produce a cup of coffee or glass of wine, the hundreds of gallons to produce a t-shirt or can of beer, and the thousands to produce a pair of blue jeans or a bar of chocolate.

And she challenged anyone who produces packaging to consider the effect of plastics—300 million tons produced annually, 90 percent of which can be recycled but only 10 percent that is recycled.

Stearns called for a new paradigm. “It’s not enough to recycle,” she said. “We should be focusing on upcycling—the cradle-to-cradle creation of something for the expressed purpose of later being reused, perhaps as something else.”

As for dirty data, Stearns reported that the computing industry and the “cloud” are consuming 623 billion kilowatts of energy and 5.5 billion gallons of water annually, producing 50 million tons of toxic e-waste, and emitting 680 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions—2-3 percent of the world’s total emissions.

“We have to start rethinking our business processes in every industry,” she said. “If we don’t, we won’t have a business.”

But Stearns also pointed out that there are “lots of wonderful solutions out there.” As exemplars, she cited Singapore’s successful gray-water-to-drinking-water company NEWater, the collapsible, upcyclable container used by Japan’s I LOHAS, and the comprehensively sustainable Belgium-based cleaning products company Ecover.

“When you work in sustainability, it’s easy to feel that there isn’t a way out, that the situation is hopeless,” Stearns said. “But the people in the room are already convinced that we have to do things more sustainably. We just have to know that we can do things more sustainably.