McDonald’s has made strides towards sustainability this month: it’s the first restaurant company to set an approved Science-Based Target to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; it’s launching a Chicken Sustainability Advisory Council; and it will begin trials to test paper straws – rather than plastic – in several of its U.K. locations.
By 2030, the fast food giant aims to reduce GHG emissions related to its restaurants and offices by 36% and reduce emissions intensity (per metric ton of food and packaging) across its supply chain by 31%, both from a 2015 baseline. The combined target has been approved by the Science-Based Targets initiative, and if achieved, could prevent 150 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from being released into the atmosphere by 2030. This amount is the equivalent of taking 32 million passenger cars off the road for an entire year or planting 3.8 billion trees and growing them for 10 years.
To reach its target, McDonald’s says it will prioritize action on the largest segments of its carbon footprint: beef production, restaurant energy usage and sourcing, packaging and waste. Combined, these account for approximately 64% of McDonald’s global emissions. Sustainable agriculture practices, energy efficiency improvements, and restaurant recycling are among the areas where McDonald’s and its partners “will continue to identify practical solutions […] and bring them to scale.” The company also expects a need to expand its measurement systems to better monitor and communicate its progress.
“McDonald's footprint touches all parts of the world. Their announcement matters because it commits one of the world's biggest companies to deliver, with the full breadth of their food chain system, significant emissions reductions based on science. It also coincides with their decision to join the We Are Still In coalition with thousands of other companies across the U.S.,” said Carter Roberts, President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the United States. “While private-sector actions can’t entirely solve the climate crisis facing our planet, significant announcements like these, and coalitions like these working on climate together, create momentum and movement toward the scale of solutions that we ultimately need.”
The launch of this science-based target is the latest step in McDonald’s journey to drive meaningful change under its Scale for Good approach to sustainability.
“As the world seeks to reconcile food production with the environmental limits of a finite planet, it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that production systems meet the welfare needs of food animal species, whilst protecting the ecological systems that sustain us all,” said Nicola Robinson, a veterinary surgeon and senior manager for global sustainability at McDonald’s. “I’m very proud of our work and am grateful for the opportunity to continue to advance the issues that I, my colleagues and our supplier partners, care so deeply about. It’s all part of building a better McDonald’s.”
Robinson, who is leading the team responsible for defining chicken sustainability for McDonald’s restaurants, announced the launch of the Chicken Sustainability Advisory Council as the next step in the company’s animal welfare efforts. The Council will be made up of a multi-stakeholder group including key suppliers, academics and researchers such as Dr. Temple Grandin and Dr. Harry Blokhuis, and NGOs including the WWF.
The Council is expected to identify a “comprehensive set of chicken welfare outcomes” that can be applied across McDonald’s global supply chain based on scientific evidence such as the European Commission’s Welfare Quality® work. McDonald’s will then set progressive targets and improved standards that will be third party verified.
“Welfare Quality was the largest piece of integrated research work ever carried out on animal welfare in Europe,” said Blokhuis, who worked on the project. “It focuses on assessing welfare from an animal’s point of view, rather than just the nature and quality of its living conditions. Leveraging integrated research that focuses on the state of the animal is critically important for companies who can make a large impact, like McDonald’s.”
The company has further promised to partner with technology companies, producers and suppliers to support the development of innovative on-farm camera monitoring systems to better measure welfare outcomes, such as gait scores and behavioral measures, that cannot currently be assessed commercially.
The groups are asking McDonald’s to: implement higher, science-based animal welfare standards for its chicken supply chain by switching to healthier breeds of birds; use suppliers who provide more room for chickens to move; use suppliers who monitor air and litter quality; and provide environmental enrichment. These suggestions are in-line with the eight commitments McDonald’s announced back in October and expects to fully implement by 2024. While some of the commitments are essentially a promise to set targets, perhaps the Council will help establish more concrete actions the company can implement.
Similarly, the company is building on its commitments to reduce packaging waste through upcoming trials to reduce or eliminate its use of plastic straws. The plastic straws presently used in McDonald’s restaurants are recyclable but are hardly ever actually recycled.
In part due to the impacts of plastic pollution in the ocean and to wildlife, public discontent about the use of single-use plastics has been growing. Companies have been responding with the development of alternative to-go packaging and ditching single-use plastics all together. While McDonald’s has been working on the recyclability of its take-out packaging for several years, it has not yet tested alternatives to plastic straws.
“Customers have told us that they don't want to be given a straw and that they want to have to ask for one, so we're acting on that,” McDonald's U.K. chief executive Paul Pomroy told Sky News. “Straws are one of those things that people feel passionately about, and rightly so, and we're moving those straws behind the front counter. If you come into McDonald's going forward, you'll be asked if you want a straw.
“The other thing we’re looking to do is to move to recycled paper on the straws and biodegradable paper straws and that test, I'm really proud to say, will start next month.”
The company has around 1,300 restaurants around the U.K. that collectively serve about 3.7 million customers every day. The country uses an estimated 8.5 billion single-use plastic straws every year. By comparison, the U.S. has over 14,100 McDonald’s restaurants and it is estimated that over half-a-billion straws are used every day in the country.