My radical plan for McDonald’s

1272056932627So I like McDonald’s. Really, I do. The fries. The coffee. Even the (850 calorie for a large!) strawberry McCafe Shake. The clean bathrooms, too. It’s my default place to stop when driving more than a few hours.

I also like the people I know who work at McDonald’s. Bob Langert, the company’s sustainability chief, is a great guy. Their PR folk are unfailingly gracious. And I’m told by a friend of the CEO, Don Thompson, that he’s a terrific person, too.

But–and you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?–McDonald’s has a big problem. Actually, a couple.

The company wants to sell the world as many hamburgers as it possibly can. Beef, when produced at an industrial scale, is a terribly inefficient way to deliver protein to people. The production of beef requires more water and more land, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions, than the production of chicken or pork or, goodness knows, vegetable protein. Maybe the easiest way for any of us to do our part to deal with the climate crisis is to eat less beef. So long as McDonald’s is pushing burgers, it is, in effect, pushing climate change and deforestation, not to mention obesity and heart disease, at least for those consumers who do want the company wants them to do and eat more burgers. McDonald’s response to this is to join in the Global Coalition for Sustainable Beef–a laudable idea, and one that could reduce the environmental impacts of beef. But I’m skeptical about how far and how fast coalitions like this will take us. (See my 2012 story for YaleEnvironment360, Should Environmentalists Just Say No To Eating Beef?) The evidence, when you look at similar efforts to produce “sustainable” palm oil or fish, is decidedly mixed.

Then there’s the inequality problem, which is all over the news lately, and for good reason. CEO Thompson made $13 million or so in 2012. The front-line McDonald’s worker makes less than $20,000 a year. Many rely on government assistance to get by. I don’t begrudge Thompson his paycheck, but something’s amiss when the people who work for him need help from the government to feed their families.

What should McDonald’s do? I tried to address that question in a story today for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Promoting its Dollar Menu and More, McDonald’s says: “An empty stomach shouldn’t mean emptying your wallet, too.” A Bacon McDouble – beef patties topped with bacon, American cheese, pickles and onions – costs just $2. A bargain, no?

Alas, the price of a burger does not reflect its full cost. The environmental impact of beef is staggering: on average, 6.5 kilograms of grain, 36 kilograms of roughage and 15,500 cubic meters of water are required to produce one kilogram of beef, according to the new Meat Atlas from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, an environmental non-profit. What’s more, beef generates more greenhouse gas emissions than cheese, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs or vegetable protein.

Then there are the costs of supporting those who cook and serve burgers: More than half (52%) of the families of front-line fast-foodworkers are enrolled in at least one government-funded safety net program, according to a 2013 UC Berkeley Labor Center study titled“Fast Food, Poverty Wages”. The research estimates the industry-wide cost to these programs, very roughly, at about $7bn. Median pay for front-line fast-food workers is about $8.69 per hour, which comes to a bit more than $18,000 per year. And we won’t even consider the costs of treating the health problems that are caused by consuming too much processed food.

All of which raises a question: how can a company that depends on cheap meat and cheap labor become sustainable, responsible and even admirable?

You’ll have to read the rest of the story to see the full answer, but, in essence, I argue that McDonald’s should do three things.

(1) Nudge its customers to eat less beef.

(2) Raise the wages of its workers, publicly and proudly.

(3) Become an advocate for a price on carbon.

Will this happen? Probably not. Could it happen? I’m curious to know what you think.