McDonald’s Move Puts Spotlight on Sustainable Sourcing

Back in November, Technomic identified “telling the sourcing story” as one of its five U.K. restaurant trends for 2014.  This week, McDonald’s made a new bold move to do just that, committing to begin buying “verified sustainable beef” in 2016.

What defines or constitutes “sustainable beef” hasn’t been fully determined yet; McDonald’s plans to spend this year and next ironing that out with suppliers and other stakeholders. A Web page devoted to the chain’s newly announced initiative notes that the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef—which McDonald’s developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, Cargill, JBS and others in 2011—has, however, drafted “guiding principles” for sustainable beef sourcing.

McDonald’s says it aspires for all beef in its supply chain worldwide to come from verified sustainable sources, though the chain offers no date by which it intends to reach that goal—2016 is just the target for starting to purchase sustainable beef.

So why sustainable beef, and why now? McDonald’s website states that the company recognises the “negative aspects of certain (beef-production) practices, like overgrazing,” and attendant effects on climate change. With burgers being one of the chain’s “most iconic” menu items, McDonald’s suggests, it was only appropriate to target beef production as part of the company’s push toward better environmental practices, improved animal welfare and “positive workplaces.”

Not that sustainability is a brand-new issue for the company. Two years ago, McDonald’s U.K. launched Farm Forward, a program designed to address sustainable land management, work and training opportunities for British and Irish farmers, environmental standards and other related matters. In its first year, according to McDonald’s, the program provided a free digital tool to help farmers benchmark their carbon emissions and established Sustainable Beef Clubs to serve as a forum for beef farmers and processors.

As we noted in August, McDonald’s is well aware that U.K. consumers today are more concerned with the provenance of their food. And interest in food sourcing—as well as consumers’ inclination to “vote with their feet,” as one McDonald’s executive put it—is likely only to grow, as younger consumers who have grown up while issues such as sustainable food production have come to the fore become a stronger force in the marketplace. Indeed, 25% of full-time university students polled last year for Technomic’s U.K. College & University Consumer Trend Report said they are more likely to buy and would be willing to pay at least slightly more for items labelled “sustainable.” (Thirty-one percent said the same for items labelled “free trade.”)

“Sustainable” is in fact showing up more often on more U.K. menus, Technomic’s MenuMonitor database indicates. Both the menu incidences of “sustainable” and the number of U.K. pub and restaurant operators offering items described as such rose from Q4 2012 to Q4 2013. Chains from Leon to Little Chef to Las Iguanas all menu sustainably sourced fish, for example. And Costa Coffee touts its use of only sustainably grown coffee beans that come from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms.

Some observers may dismiss McDonald’s move as a marketing ploy, and one unlikely to have a meaningful positive impact on sales or the chain’s bottom line. But the largest (by sales) restaurant chain in the world’s decision to commit itself to sustainability-related goals indicates how salient an issue sustainable sourcing has become—and not just for food-policy wonks, scientists and economists, but also for everyday consumers. McDonald’s efforts to tackle are both laudable and worth following.


Darren Tristano

Darren Tristano is President of Technomic Inc. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations.

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