The Battle To Do Good
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The Battle To Do Good

Inside McDonald's Sustainability Journey

Bob Langert

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eBook - ePub

The Battle To Do Good

Inside McDonald's Sustainability Journey

Bob Langert

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About This Book

In The Battle to Do Good, former McDonald's executive Bob Langert takes readers on a behind-the-scenes eye witness account of the mega brand's battle to address numerous societal hot-button issues, such as packaging, waste, recycling, obesity, deforestation, and animal welfare. From the late 80s, McDonald's landed smack in the middle of one contentious issue after another, often locking horns with powerful NGOs such as Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Corporate Accountability.
This sudden shift from being the beloved Golden Arches since opening its doors in 1955, to the demon of many societal ills, caught McDonald's off guard. Langert chronicles the highs and lows that McDonald's experienced in turbulent times and how its sustainability journey evolved from playing defense to strategically solving issues with unlikely partners, including a whirling dervish, autistic animal scientist, and avid environmentalists from the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International.
Packed with first-hand anecdotes, interviews with key McDonald's executives and NGO leaders, and scores of lessons learned, The Battle to Do Good is a sustainability page turner that provides unique insights and guidance on how to successfully navigate and manage today's societal issues to make the business stronger, more relevant, and more profitable.

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Chapter 1

The Battle Against Waste

McDonald’s First Societal Clash

28 1 2019 XX XX Copyright © 2019 by Emerald Publishing Limited 2019 Licensed reuse rights only peer-reviewed no academic-content yes rightslink included
Fig. 1.1: Environmental Defense Fund Staff, Richard Denison and Jackie Prince, Working in a McDonald’s Restaurant, 1990.
Source: Photo courtesy of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Trash and a Clamshell

It’s Halloween 1990 and the fate of the McDonald’s first foray into a major societal conflict is at hand. McDonald’s crafty top executive, Shelby Yastrow, is restless as he ponders the closing argument he will make to stop using the polystyrene foam (PSF) clamshell to the president of McDonald’s USA, Ed Rensi.
Yastrow’s newfound and unlikely partner, Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) discussed their steady push to encourage McDonald’s to dump PSF with his waste team in New York City. It was unusual because this type of corporate–NGO partnership was virtually unprecedented. Plus, their personalities are opposite, with Yastrow as the charmer and Krupp as the studious one. Both were focused and determined to do something big.
Little did I know then that Yastrow would soon become my future boss. At the time, he served as McDonald’s general counsel. Although he knew that PSF was the perfect functional package, thanks to its properties for heat retention, protection, and portability, he also knew that it had become a public relations (PR) nightmare. Activists were relentlessly attacking the company and the package. Their claims that PSF was filling up landfills and was toxic in its production were resonating with the public.
Within McDonald’s Oak Brook, Illinois, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish-looking home office oasis, Mike Roberts, vice president of environmental affairs, was finalizing a big public announcement that the in-restaurant polystyrene recycling test program in place at the time would expand to all McDonald’s eight thousand five hundred U.S. restaurants. I had managed the launch and the ongoing evolution of this recycling pilot program since 1989. It was a wreck.
Roberts’s bold plan had forced McDonald’s to an eleventh-hour decision: Should McDonald’s continue to try to save PSF by recycling it or should the company replace PSF with paper-based replacements advocated by EDF?
The center of attention was the infamous Big Mac PSF sandwich box. Though featherlight (at 98 percent air, it weighed just 1/100th of a pound), the package weighed heavily on McDonald’s reputation because PSF had come to symbolize a societal war on waste.
It was ironic that as Yastrow observed the big PSF recycling expansion plan of Roberts, who reported to him, Yastrow was souring on the plan. Yastrow believed the three-year PR battle McDonald’s had been waging was lost—and was getting even worse still. Because of the relentless public characterization of McDonald’s as a symbol of waste, McDonald’s reputation was getting more sullied every day. Yastrow had come to the conclusion that there were eco-friendly and functionally suitable paper-based alternatives that McDonald’s could use instead.
But Rensi and Roberts were gung ho on PSF. They believed the PSF clamshell to be one of the best food service containers ever invented. Indeed, it has superior insulating qualities, it’s rigid enough to protect the Big Mac and other large sandwiches, and it’s cheap to boot. At the time, the clamshell cost just short of two pennies per unit.
From my perspective, I was confused. Yastrow versus Roberts: two leaders, same department, taking the company in different directions. I couldn’t help but wonder how this was possible in a business known for consistency and conformity.
The PSF dilemma had started to develop about four years earlier. McDonald’s had become a lightning rod for the growing garbage crisis because various environmental issues during the late 1980s converged to create fear across the United States—and around the globe—that the amount of solid waste generated by citizens and businesses was escalating at an alarming rate. Soon, according to experts, we would run out of space to bury our trash.
The triggering event was a garbage barge. Motherboard magazine4 captured the beginning of the landfill crisis craze:
It was the spring of 1987, and a barge called the Mobro 4000 was carrying over 3,000 tons of it—a load that, for various reasons, North Carolina didn’t want to take. Thus began one of the biggest garbage sagas in modern history, a picaresque journey of a small boat overflowing with stuff no one wanted, a flotilla of waste, a trashier version of the Flying Dutchman, that ghost ship doomed to never make port.
As the Mobro meandered, environmentalist Lois Gibbs rose to prominence again. Gibbs had gained some fame a decade earlier by fighting the toxic landfill leaking pollutants into her community near Niagara Falls, New York. Now she was launching a national grassroots “McToxics Campaign”5 to end McDonald’s use of PSF. Her organization, called Citizen's Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste (CCHW), was gathering support, especially from teachers, school children, and the media.
As with any campaign, whether based on truth or rumor, people rallied against a target. Fast food packaging, and especially McDonald’s PSF disposable packaging, became the lightning rod for this antiwaste campaign.
It was the active involvement of children in this campaign that most disturbed McDonald’s executives. An organization called Kids Against Pollution dovetailed with the emergence of CCHW, and together they coordinated a letter-writing campaign among school children that inundated McDonald’s home office with thousands of letters and actual PSF containers. Kids were demanding that McDonald’s get rid of Styrofoam.
The government wasn’t on McDonald’s side either. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had declared “A Solid Waste Dilemma,” with a report by the same name in early 1989. The report said “[e]ach of us is contributing 1300 pounds (annually) to the growing mountain of garbage.” It reported that one-third of all landfills in the United States would reach capacity by 1991.6
By 1990, dozens of communities in the Northeast and West Coast—from Suffolk County, New York, to Portland, Oregon—had enacted or were considering PSF bans.
In my eyes, the defaming of the company I worked for and admired hit rock bottom when I saw the cover of a New York–based magazine twisting Ronald McDonald into Ronald McToxic. Indeed, the notion that McDonald’s was a bad corporate citizen was new to all of us at McDonald’s. Since the company’s birth in 1955, McDonald’s had always been viewed as a beloved local business. Neighborhoods welcomed and celebrated a new McDonald’s. Through the first thirty years of McDonald’s growth, McDonald’s was golden, and the Golden Arches were an esteemed and unblemished icon. For millions of people, McDonald’s had long been a simple oasis, a place that allowed families to have fun and eat good, quality food at an affordable price in clean restaurants. As the waste scandal captured headlines, no one at McDonald’s was working on this emerging issue. It was hardly a blip on the radar.
I suddenly found myself at the forefront, a task that forced me to shift from dispatching truck drivers to journeying through the environmental field. But I was no environmentalist—not yet, anyway. I had had idealistic visions of changing the world in my youth. Most of my idealism had come from absorbing the values and causes of the socially conscious 1960s in my formative boyhood years: Kennedy, King, Kent State, the Vietnam War, peace and justice, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Simon and Garfunkel—all of that grabbed me through stinging social commentary and stirring protest songs.
But that kind of idealism didn’t do much to help anyone find a job, especially considering that there weren’t any jobs in corporate social responsibility (CSR) back then. So, when I graduated in 1983 from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management with an MBA, I joined a privately owned supplier, HAVI, whose business at the time was dedicated solely to McDonald’s packaging procurement and logistical support. Nobody has really heard of HAVI, but it is the largest supplier to McDonald’s—even more so than its sizable business with Coca-Cola and Cargill.
I managed the truck drivers who made deliveries to McDonald’s Midwest restaurants. In 1988, my job was eliminated. Out of nowhere, George Macko, the head of a division of HAVI called Perseco, called me and asked me to consider a “temporary environmental assignment.” Perseco served as McDonald’s de facto packaging department, working with suppliers to test, implement, and purchase cups, napkins, bags, and polystyrene for all McDonald’s restaurants.
Macko didn’t mince many words. Macko told me that my new, temporary job was to save the polystyrene clamshell. He said I could handle the unknown ahead. After meeting with him, I had to look up P-O-L-Y-S-T-Y-R-E-N-E, which was far outside my area of expertise. Although I was blind to what this all meant, I accepted the position, and so began my adventurous, fulfilling, and uncharted journey in CSR.

Saving the Polystyrene Foam Clamshell

McDonald’s invested in new actions, policies, and communications to defend and preserve the PSF clamshell. The best message the company had come up with to date was that McDonald’s and all fast food waste made up just a small part of the nation’s solid waste stream: less than 0.3 percent. In my mind, this minimizing of the issue served as a denial and hurt us more, even though it was the truth. Denial makes people think you don’t care and aren’t doing your part. To make matters more confusing, McDonald’s also argued that paper-based alternatives were no better for the environment than PSF containers.
The common belief was that paper is better than plastic. To bolster support of PSF, McDonald’s had commissioned Franklin Associates, a leading life cycle assessment consulting company, to study the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of PSF versus paper-based replacements. Because PSF is so lightweight, these studies favored PSF, arguing that PSF containers created less pollution in manufacturing and fewer impacts in transportation. Paper packaging is heavier, takes more materials to make and transport, and is derived from a dirty manufacturing process.
While all of this also was true, the message simply didn’t resonate with activists or consumers. Nor did it seem intuitively true to the average consumer, who saw the visibly bulky PSF packages left on tables or in cars as excessive packaging.
McDonald’s helped support the work of Dr William Rathje, a trash archeologist who had dug up waste from landfills and found newspapers that were still readable from decades ago. The resulting message was that no matter whatever material goes into a landfill—PSF or paper or plastic—it doesn’t go away. I saw the truth of this firsthand when I went with Rathje and his crew to explore Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, where we found all sorts of packaging, newspapers, and even food waste still intact. Amazing.
Ed Rensi recounted how McDonald’s partially funded Rathje’s work: “I wanted to get his research out in the public domain. Rathje was literally pulling out newspapers from the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island from 1910 and earlier. Hot dogs that were buried amidst newspapers were still intact from the 1950s.”7
The garbologist’s revelations helped shift the discussion to the reality of landfills, which essentially are tombs designed to prevent the degradation of solid waste. As a result, all waste, including food, paper, and plastic, takes up permanent space.
Even so, Rensi did not want to give up the fight to keep using PSF. Seeing that nothing degrades in a landfill, not plastic, paper, or even food products, he said, “My attitude was that ultimately science is going to prevail in this thing. McDonald’s needs to hang tough and pretty soon the PR stuff would dissipate.”
He acknowledged that “we were absolutely vilified in the news media and by activists groups.” Rensi wondered if Roberts’s vision of a national recycling program would fix the problem. “We had all kinds of recycling things going on,” he recollected, “but the fact of the matter is that recycling didn’t deal with the fundamental issue: These social and environmental activists hated McDonald’s, and [they] were using PSF as the lever to get McDonald’s to do things that they wanted done.”
Although some argued that fast food companies were major contributors to landfills, McDonald’s did take concrete actions to make a difference on environmental issues. At the end of 1989, for example, McDonald’s announced its Rain Forest Policy, noting that it “never has, and never will buy beef from recently deforested rainforests.” The policy was still in place as of 2018.
In addition, in 1987, McDonald’s became the first restaurant company to phase out of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which were used as a blowing agent for PSF to provide its useful airy insulation properties. Even so, this move did little to take the pressure off McDonald’s regarding PSF. (Indeed, we would learn years later that the replacement blowing agents had unintended consequences that heavily affected global warming.) CFCs had been identified as a primary contributor to creating a hole in the ozone layer, as reported by scientists in the mid-1980s. As National Geographic described it, “[t]he ozone layer is a belt of the naturally occurring gas ‘ozone.’ It sits 9.3 to 18.6 miles (15 to 30 kilometers) above Earth, and serves as a shield from the harmful ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation emitted by the sun.”8
Our earth-friendly initiatives continued despite these setbacks. Early in 1990, McDonald’s announced McRecycle USA, a promise to purchase $100 million of recycled materials for the construction and equipment of its restaurants, one quarter of its annual construction budget. McRecycle USA was a huge commitment, and it became an effective program, actually stimulating recycling markets across various industries.
Unfortunately, actions and communication efforts like these were but feathers facing a fierce storm of criticism not only from activists but also from mothers, children, and politicians. All of this created a perfect storm of PSF bashing that seemed impossible to reverse, except for one remaining strategy.
With all these efforts failing to help McDonald’s turn the corner on using PSF, the priority became the recycling of PSF. As the primary leader testing and expanding the recycling of PSF from our restaurants, this task fell into my hands.
It wasn’t as easy as it might sound today. Recycling was not the norm back then. Residential recycling was only just emerging, and few companies within any industry had yet to dive feet first into recycling initiatives. McDonald’s was no different, but we were certain we could make a difference in this area. The thinking was that if we could recycle the PSF used in our restaurants, consumers would accept this as a positive compromise, and we could continue using the perfect package.
We started to collaborate with leaders in the plastics industry who were investing in start-up ventures to recycle plastic packaging and bottles. In November 1988, Mobil Chemical (later to merge into ExxonMobil) and Genpak Corporation, a food service packaging company, set up a recycling operation in Leominster, Massachusetts, called Plastics Again, which was later absorbed by National Polystyrene Council, the trade association for the polystyrene manufacturers. Earlier that same year, the Amoco Foam Products Company established Polystyrene Recycling Inc. in Brooklyn, New York, in association with McDonald’s.
I was knee deep with both the Amoco and Mobil–Genpak projects, and both were failing for different reasons. The Brooklyn recycling center brought in all of the trash from all of the McDonald’s restaurants in all six of New York City’s boroughs. It was a true Rube Goldberg setup. Only 5 percent of McDonald’s waste is polystyrene. But far from transporting only polystyrene t...

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