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Organizational Change
McDonalds’ McPlant Burger and the Evolution of the ‘Purpose Wash’ Debate

To be effective, sustainability and purpose work should create positive business change, not positive media stories. They are management tools, not PR initiatives. So, should brands stop communicating until they’ve got something concrete to say?

Last month, McDonald’s launched a new purpose and set of commitments to “feed and foster communities.” At around the same time, the bigger, mainstream story was that the fast-food giant would be launching a meat-free burger next year, as part of a new meat-free range called McPlant.

Now, what was really interesting about these announcements is how little it felt like they had anything to do with one another. The big story was ‘McDonald’s goes meat free,’ but where was this addressed in their sustainability strategy? Alongside impressive carbon-action programmes, the focus is on ‘fixing beef,’ rather than finding more sustainable alternatives. In fact, there is not a single reference to plant-based proteins in its Purpose and Impact Summary Report. And it is this kind of discrepancy — between confident headlines and the actual details of the strategy — which starts a ‘purpose wash’ debate. 

Shouting ‘Purpose Wash’ on Twitter is a crude approach. The reality is, of course, more complex. Sustainability strategies for big, global businesses are hard enough for people who work in sustainability to understand, let alone consumers. The trade-offs that are sometimes required between social and environmental impact, the complexities of supply chains and the speed of changing realities in systems are all layers of information that are too much for most people to take in (or care about); so there will always be a headline that is easier to digest — an interesting story at the top of the pyramid of initiatives.

On the other hand, headline-grabbing announcements have shown big businesses doing a better job at corporate communications than in their operational delivery for too long. If you google ‘sustainability strategy + (insert big global brand here)’ you will find years, sometimes decades of headlines like ‘xxxxx sets out bold ambition to integrate sustainability’ or ‘xxxxx will kick start the green revolution.’ Track the reality of the change and it’s pretty disappointing, compared with the hype. To be effective, sustainability and purpose work should create positive business change, not positive media stories. They are management tools, not PR initiatives. So, should brands stop communicating until they’ve actually got something concrete to say?

The answer is, of course, no. However, brands do need to be careful to help people understand the size, scale and relationship of their newsworthy launches when compared with their long-term plans. It is also powerful to invite more interest and scrutiny into what they are doing beyond ‘the big launch.’ In a recent interview to discuss Nike's new Space Hippie shoe (their lowest-carbon-impact product to date) Nike CSO Noel Kinder said: “It’s not super hard to get excited about product, because it’s so unique … but it’s operational progress that moves the needle.” In the interview, he states that it is not the shoe — but the packaging strategy, the energy strategy, the promotion and simplification of the sustainability strategy — that are more important.

And therein lies the challenge for commentators and critics. Instead of shouting ‘greenwash’ from the sidelines, we have to encourage business to try and make the approach to sustainability more engaging, more relevant to people. This is critical, because to hit net zero, we are all going to have to go through our own transformation programmes — our diets, our homes and the way we travel will all need to change dramatically over the next 10 years. Inspiration, guidance and attractive choices must be provided by businesses and brands that have enormous amounts of influence in our lives. 

We know that, in terms of the climate emergency, what we need now are revolutionary commitments and actions delivered at pace —such as Apple’s 2030 carbon-neutral goal or Microsoft’s ten-year ‘carbon-positive’ ambition. These are visible timelines, definitive actions — and getting them done will probably hurt. And, yes — if, in a year’s time, Apple launches a new flagship product for this programme, that will get the headlines; but it should also trace back to the plan.

Where revolutionary initiatives don’t link up to the substance of a revolutionary sustainability plan — or when a plan is seen to be lacking in ambition compared to the noise created around a product — it is right to call it out. The McPlant would have more clout and credibility if it was backed up by a clear and ambitious strategy to drastically reduce the amount of meat McDonald’s sells — as chains such as Max Burgers have done — and to promote more sustainable diets. McDonald’s sells 75 burgers every second, and this move has had the eyes and ears of billions of consumers globally; it is a highly visible reminder of a global mandate for change. But this must work in tandem with a sustainability plan that faces into core challenges, rather than ignoring them.

McDonald’s has created an ambitious sustainability plan in many respects, but tackling the revolutionary business challenge — ‘how do we innovate and invest in more sustainable proteins, rather than simply try and mitigate the effect of cattle farming?’ — is critical. This is not purpose washing, because McDonald’s has an ambitious plan that it is delivering on in many areas of the business. But businesses can’t simply continue to ignore the elephant, or in this case the cow, in the room. Championing positive change and innovation externally — while setting out a path to create a truly sustainable business with a high-performing sustainable, business model — is the change that is really needed.