From Heresy to Dogma: How Uncommon Bedfellows Changed the Environmental Movement

By Gwen Ruta, VP of Corporate Partnerships, Environmental Defense Fund and Bob Langert, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, McDonald's Corporation

Twenty years ago this month, Corporate America experienced a paradigm shift. McDonald's announced that it would phase out its iconic Styrofoam clamshell containers, switching to paper products to reduce its environmental impact. While this was groundbreaking in itself, the shift had more to do with how the company came to that decision – and with whom.

The story began a year earlier when Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) wrote to McDonald's requesting a meeting to discuss environmental issues. This led to a joint task force that examined all aspects of the company's operations. EDF brought its experts to the table – an economist, a scientist, a chemical engineer and more – while the McDonald's team included managers in environmental affairs, law and operations.

Early reactions to the partnership were skeptical. The New York Times called it, "a highly unusual deal." The Wall Street Journal reported that Ralph Nader, "wasn't impressed," saying that, "grassroots environmental groups aren't convinced that McDonald's is serious about creating a better environment." The Boston Globe quoted a toxic chemicals specialist: "It's like saying I'm going to join a task force with the Mafia to discuss how to cope with the drug situation."

In fact, the alliance was very risky. Both sides stood to lose big if results failed to materialize. It was a bold step in an era where businesses and environmentalists were more apt to meet in a courtroom than in a corporate boardroom.

But it was a risk worth taking. In 1990, McDonald's was the largest single user of Styrofoam in the country. If EDF could change the practices of company this size, it would produce a ripple effect throughout the industry. To ensure objectivity and high impact, EDF would take no money from McDonald's and would make all the results and innovations developed public.

In April 1991, EDF and McDonald's announced the results of their partnership – a Waste Reduction Action Plan with 42 initiatives to reduce waste in McDonald's' operations and supply chain. Over the next decade, the company eliminated 300 million pounds of packaging, recycled 1 million tons of corrugated boxes, and reduced restaurant waste by 30 percent. The willingness of McDonald's and EDF to set aside stereotypes and put their combined expertise to work finding solutions were critical to this success.

Media coverage of the announcement was heavy and positive. An editorial in The Boston Herald read "A win for consumers," and The New York Times commented that "McDonalds is at last showing some McSense on the environment."

Twenty years later, what was heresy has now become dogma as more companies see the business benefits of environmental innovation, and NGOs increasingly look to leverage the market clout of corporations. For EDF, working with business is now a core part of the organization. The basics of the EDF partnership model haven't changed- we still accept no financial contributions from our partners, and insist that the innovations we develop together are made public. This allows us to push for big, bold goals that have industry-wide impact.

For McDonald's, this effort was the blueprint for further successful partnerships and spawned nearly 40 collaborations with a multitude of organizations to make a difference. The most recent is with WWF, supporting the Sustainable Beef Symposium, and working with the beef industry to improve sustainability in beef production globally.

These days, the need for private sector leadership is greater than ever. And the good news is that even in the midst of a global recession, Corporate America hasn't shied away from investing in environmental initiatives. That's why both of us are optimistic about the future. The light bulb has gone off and smart companies are pursuing environmental benefits while flexing their market power to bring supplier companies along for the ride. We all want a thriving economy and a healthy planet and collaborations like the EDF/McDonald's partnership can help us all to be working on all cylinders and through all channels to make this vision a reality.

This content is cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

One comment

  • John Attas Jr. | 4 years ago

    I have been interested in the EDF for many years. I did not appreciate the Gore connection. I do recognize and appreciate the other enterprises which the EDF has pursued. I look forward to supporting the organization

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