I'm lovin' it: McDonald's exemplifies a sustainability leader

McDonald’s – the world’s largest restaurant company – recently announced new climate goals,  which were quickly followed by many comments like this one, from Axios:

"These are concrete targets, but they’re not as of yet backed up with specific plans of how to get there."

Axios is right. These are concrete targets (and they’ve been approved by the Science-Based Targets Initiative).  Here are the details: by 2030, McDonald’s is pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their restaurants and offices by 36 percent, and reduce their emissions intensity (per metric ton of food and packaging) across their supply chain by 31 percent. The company estimates these reductions will prevent 150 million metric tons of C02 equivalents (CO2e) from being released into the atmosphere. That’s huge – it’s the equivalent of removing 32 million cars from the road for one year.

But I want to challenge Axios in saying that the company has “no specific plans" to get there.

Elizabeth Sturcken, Managing Director, EDF+Business

Yes, the roadmap to reach this goal is still in development, and climate commitments don’t mean much without climate action. Yet if McDonald’s history of sustainability leadership tells us anything, it’s that this company can prove what’s possible when you set ambitious goals, collaborate with unexpected partners, and leverage one of the world’s most powerful brands to drive environmental innovation and results.

McDonald’s and other leading companies around the globe know what specific actions are needed to reduce emissions. They know how to get started, even if they don’t yet know how to get to the finish line.

McDonald’s can’t meet this ambitious climate target by acting alone. It will take collaborating far beyond its own walls, and addressing the entire impact of its supply chain. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that I can wholeheartedly applaud.

Why? Because by issuing these goals first – without knowing all the answers – the company is already proving to be a corporate sustainability leader in three big ways:

1. McDonald’s is being transparent. By issuing this bold challenge to itself – in full view of its customers, its shareholders and the media – McDonald’s now has to deliver. The reputational risk of not achieving these goals may be high, but so is the reward potential, so the company will be focused upon success as they drive to meet (or exceed) these goals.

2. McDonald’s is being ambitious. This target sets the stage for solutions that companies can’t even imagine yet – a.k.a. innovation. McDonald’s will emerge from this a company transformed: more efficient, more resilient, more profitable and a better global citizen.

At their announcement event, Francesca DeBiase, McDonald’s chief supply chain and sustainability officer conveyed that they were “looking at every option” to find ways to reduce emissions – from working with local utilities on renewable energy for franchise locations to options for sourcing sustainable beef. By examining every aspect of their business, new and innovative approaches will surely turn up.

3. McDonald’s is being holistic. Talking to McDonald’s about their new goal revealed that sustainability is now truly embedded in every part of the business. “We’ve moved from asking what would be nice to do?” said Robert Gibbs, McDonald’s chief communications officer and executive vice president, corporate relations, “to what should we actually be doing?”

This is striking considering where McDonald’s began their sustainability journey. When Environmental Defense Fund engaged the fast food giant on packaging waste nearly 30 years ago, it wasn’t just an outlier initiative – it was a secretive, “back alley” affair, where neither side wanted their stakeholders to know they were collaborating. When the results of this partnership became public – $6 million in savings, more than 300 million pounds of packaging eliminated, 1 million tons of corrugated boxes recycled and restaurant waste reduced by 30 percent – a new era of corporate/NGO partnerships was born. Now, this new climate goal sets them up for a repeat performance.

What we’ve learned since then is that if companies truly incorporate sustainability into their DNA, it creates tremendous business value – cost savings, supply chain risk reduction, employee engagement, public relations benefits – that inevitably inspires the company to do even more.

So congratulations, McDonald’s­ – for exhibiting precisely the kind of bold climate leadership that our planet needs. With global carbon emissions continuing to rise, we need action at a global scale. You are taking responsibility for your share of impact on the world, setting science-based targets that are in line with the rate of de-carbonization needed to stabilize the climate, and committing to engage your customers and suppliers to achieve the goal.

And to all you companies that may be sitting on the sidelines because you don’t know all the answers, jump in! You’ll reap the rewards of innovation, and join McDonald’s as they strive to prove that doing good for the planet is also good for business.

This content was originally published on Forbes.com


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