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McDonald’s gets called out for plastic pollution. Will it actually change?

Emily Dao

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While McDonald’s celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Happy Meal, two girls from Southampton England were busy drafting a petition. Caitlin and Ella, 7 and 9 years old respectively, urged the fast-food chain to stop giving out plastic toys. They vocalized their thoughts through a Change.org petition, saying: 

“We like to go eat at Burger King and McDonald’s, but children only play with the plastic toys they give us for a few minutes before they get thrown away and harm animals and pollute the sea. We want anything they give us to be sustainable so we can protect the planet for us and for future generations … It’s not enough to make recyclable plastic toys—big, rich companies shouldn’t be making toys out of plastic at all.” 

As of the time of this writing, the petition has garnered over 391,000 signatures, with a goal of reaching 500,000. The virality of the petition and a feature on “War on Plastics” practically forced a response from McDonald’s.

McDonald’s Pledges to Act

In response, McDonald’s has pledged to be more sustainable in the coming year. The company announced it would reduce the number of plastic toys given out by 60% in the next six months (in the UK).

Though McDonald’s has issued a public apology to Caitlin and Ella, it has made no promises about a plastic reduction in the United States or any other country for that matter—but it’s also not like McDonald’s hasn’t made promises before.

McDonald’s Sustainability Record

McDonald’s has set sustainability targets in the past. Just last November it announced it would strive to achieve 100% sustainable consumer packaging and recycling by 2025. As a part of this plan, McDonald’s phased out all harmful foam packaging by the end of 2018.

McDonald’s executive Francesca DeBiase said this environmental shift was largely due to consumers’ desire for businesses to take environmental responsibility.

“Our customers have told us that packaging waste is the top environmental issue they would like us to address,” DeBiase said. “Our ambition is to make change our customers want and to use less packaging, sourced responsibly and designed to be taken care of after use.” 

Clearly, businesses do care about what customers have to say, particularly if their financial bottom line depends on it.

However, the company’s track record is far from clean either. The sheer amount of food McDonald’s sells produce a staggering amount of waste. To be precise, McDonald’s produces 1.5 millions tons of waste annually. Given this, many believe the company still has a long way to go.

McDonald’s Tackles Climate, Energy Efficiency, and Health Concerns

Last year, McDonald’s committed to climate initiatives that will significantly reduce greenhouse gases in the next 11 years. Along with packaging, the company will also be aiming for more sustainable beef production. It would accomplish this by changing how cattle are fed and which soil farmers use.

The fast-food giant also has a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions drastically. McDonald’s plans to switch to more energy efficient kitchen appliances, such as LED light bulbs. In fact, just those three targeted areas collectively account for roughly 64% of McDonald’s emissions

By implementing these changes, the establishment expects to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by some 36%, equivalent to 150 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Coupled with these new proposals for change, McDonald’s also hopes to achieve more sustainability in health. It wants to do so by:

  • Eliminating artificial preservatives from their American burger menu.
  • Source more than 730 million cage-free eggs in 2019.
  • Increase the majority of sustainably sourced McCafe coffee in the United States.

Is this a case of greenwashing?

Despite this rollout of green initiatives, many critics are skeptical. Many accuse McDonald’s of greenwashing or manipulating customers by painting itself as more sustainable and ethical than it actually is.

Since 1997, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has dubbed the company “McCruelty” for their treatment of animals. Disturbing videos depicting cows and chickens being brutally slaughtered for the restaurant continue to surface on the internet. While McDonald’s committed to employing less cruel slaughtering methods for chickens, the method will not go into effect until 2024.

Chrissie Hynde of the rock band The Pretenders has actively sided with PETA in its fight for improved animal welfare. While she recognized McDonald’s new pledge as a step in the right direction, she didn’t praise its efforts.

Millions of birds are scalded alive for the production of McDonald's signature McNuggets.
Millions of birds are scalded alive for the production of McDonald’s signature McNuggets.

“McDonald’s pledge will help reduce some horrific suffering, but millions of birds will still be scalded alive for McNuggets until the policy takes effect in 2024, and the company still raises chickens with crippled legs and deformities,” Hynde said. “Other chains have enacted much stronger protections already and have broadened their base by offering vegan options.”

Also, because McDonald’s is one of the leading buyers of beef in the world, many believe the company’s new beef sustainability initiative won’t be enough to significantly reduce environmental damage.

Many experts say meat consumption heavily exacerbates effects of climate change due to livestock emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Conclusions

As one of the world’s largest fast food chains in the world with 37,000 restaurants in 120 markets, McDonald’s needs to be accountable for its environmental impact.

Consumers have caught onto where McDonald’s currently stands, as the fast-food conglomerate contributes to the emissions problem and feeds plastic pollution. Now, the company has pledged to act and appears to get the cue.

Still, promises are easy, and the fast-food giant has made a lot of them already. The important assessment will be evaluating whether the company will actually be able to achieve its targets. Companies like Starbucks, while having a similar dedication to reducing their environmental impact, have missed sustainability targets repeatedly. Will McDonald’s be the same?

Only time will tell.

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4 practical ways brands can make their sustainability initiatives more authentic

Steven Li

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Brand Sustainability

As sustainability continues to become an important consideration for brands, particularly in areas like high fashion and hardware, sustainability reports have become increasingly popular. They show a brand’s dedication to transparency — that the brand understands it owes its customers and the general public honesty when it comes to its environmental footprint.

But sometimes good intentions don’t carry over to good PR, and that’s because either a company isn’t specific enough or is blatantly misleading. The scenario where brands try to sound more green than they actually are is often dubbed “greenwashing,” which often leads to boycotts these days. So how can brands better handle their sustainability PR? Here are four practical ways brands can approach making their sustainability initiatives more authentic.

1. Make specific and verifiable claims

Claims that are specific and verifiable are really easy to make if a brand actually cares about sustainability. Claims like “we’re dedicated to including recyclable materials in our products starting 2019” leave consumers with more questions than answers. They include:

  • Which product lines will feature recyclable materials?
  • What percentage of your products will be made from recyclable materials?
  • Which recycled materials are being used?

Claims like these are verifiable but are too vague. To consumers, journalists, and pundits, they look lazy and disingenuous. That is, if a brand actually cares to elaborate, it would include specific metrics that could be easily tracked.

2. Reduce the timescale of your initiatives

The other mistake that brands often make is dragging their initiatives on for long timescales. For instance, let’s say a brand were to claim: “We will achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.” The brand may have amazing intentions, but if so, it should release smaller, easily-trackable milestones. Setting a goal for 30 years out leaves consumers in the dark.

Brands should, of course, prioritize being better citizens of the environment in their sustainability initiatives, but undeniably, they also use them to draw environmentally-conscious consumers in. If that’s the case, your consumers should have a way of holding you accountable for your promises … in their lifetimes. And that brings us to the next point.

3. Work with independent auditors to verify claims

With all the greenwashing going around, you shouldn’t expect your customers to trust everything you say. If you’re truly doing something sustainable, you should have no problem working with independent auditors to verify your claims. This way, when you share your data with the world, a third-party that has no incentive to promote misinformation has vetted it.

But that’s also why you have to work with independent auditors. Leaving no doubt in your consumers’ minds about your dedication to sustainability is how you build trust. Without trust, your sustainability initiatives are in vain, regardless of whether your intentions are true or misleading.

4. Publish annualized sustainability reports, including both successes and failures

And with the results comes a possibility of publishing them. Brands, too often, only publish data that helps their brand. Of course, that’s the common-sense way of doing things, but part of being honest is telling the whole story, not just the part that helps you.

If you’re missing your sustainability targets, it’s more genuine to let your customers know that you’re working hard to get back on track than hiding those statistics under the rug. This way, when you’re making substantial progress, your customers are going to be rooting for you. Your reports are going to be more about transparency than they are about making a sales pitch. And that’s what annualized reports are about anyway — transparency. That’s why you have to include your failures in them in order to truly achieve what you claim to be going for.

Note: Brands that have questions about how they can improve the messaging around their sustainability initiatives can reach out at biz@mediusventures.com.

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Is Google greenwashing with its vows to make sustainability a centerpiece of its hardware business?

Steven Li

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Google Sustainability

In a recent blog post, Anna Meegan, Google’s Head of Sustainability, discussed some challenges related to the company’s hardware initiatives. She’s right: these days, people can’t live without their phones and other electronic devices. This phenomenon comes from the intense competition from giants, including Apple and Samsung (and more recently, Google), to make customer experiences better.

But the production of consumer electronics comes with environmental ramifications, including e-waste and carbon emissions. Google is unquestionably a part of those ramifications.

Just last week, Google continued its promise to make sustainability a centerpiece of its hardware business. But what exactly does the promise entail?

Committing to Recycling When It Comes to Hardware. Sort Of…

In an effort to create products for consumers that have the highest utility while being conscious of the environment, Google has announced: “100% of Made by Google products launching in 2022 and every year after will include recycled materials.”

Though this seems like a commitment to recycling, the way the claim is phrased is somewhat ambiguous. It begs the question, “Sure, your products may include recycled materials, but just how much of every product is going to come from recycled materials?”

Until Google can show the extent of its recycling efforts, the promise to do so is somewhat unfounded.

Carbon Neutrality for Device Orders

Previously, Quartz uncovered just how much carbon Google is emitting, particularly through its ubiquitous search engine. So, it makes sense that Google is doubling down on emissions reduction efforts.

More specifically, Google has made a somewhat big promise to have “100% of device orders shipping to and from Google customers will be carbon neutral by 2020.” There’s less than a year and a half for Google to reach that target. Hence, it will be pivotal for consumers to hold Google accountable for its claims.

More on emissions, every step of the supply chain typically contributes to emissions. Google’s blog briefly talks about the “highest ethical standards” that its supply chain embodies, but at the time of this article’s first publication (August 10th, 2019), it makes no mention to emissions, which is something that companies like Starbucks have heavily looked at.

“Putting People First”

In Meegan’s blog post, she references Google’s commitment to “make technology that puts people first.” To make this happen, the company has two main initiatives.

  1. The company will publish environmental reports for all of its flagship products released in and after 2020.
  2. Google will install “one million energy and money saving thermostats in homes that need them most” by 2023.

What will be included in the “environmental reports” is uncertain. But certainly, consumers will soon learn something new about the environmental ramifications associated with Google’s hardware.

The Decision is Yours

Google’s initiatives sound ambitious and they could be potentially very good for the environment. They could also lead the way for other hardware businesses, specifically consumer electronics companies, to follow suit. On the other hand, Google could be greenwashing to look like a more sustainable company. What do you think?

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Coca-Cola, PepsiCo finally cut ties with prominent plastic lobbying group

Emily Dao

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Last year, Greenpeace revealed major corporations like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo were among the worst producers of plastic trash in the world. After growing pressure from the public and environmental groups, the soft drink giants have finally broken ties with the Plastic Industry Association.

Victory for Sustainability

Both companies’ exit from the organization acts as a landmark decision in their commitments to more eco-friendly practices. The organization, which represents plastic manufacturers, has encouraged states to prohibit plastic bans throughout the nation. 

Greenpeace’s Ocean Campaign Director, John Hocevar, said the announcement serves as a “victory for every person that spoke up” against the corporations’ major contributions to plastic pollution. 

“Companies understand that they cannot publicly say they want to end plastic pollution, while financially supporting an association that lobbies for our continued reliance on throwaway plastics,” Hocevar said in a statement.  

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Leaving Plastic in the Past?

In withdrawing from the lobbying group, both companies cited disagreements without disclosing the exact policies prompting their departure. Coca-Cola told CNBC the association’s values “were not fully consistent with our commitments and goals.”

PepsiCo had similar rhetoric. The company stated its membership didn’t include participation “in the policy advocacy work of the association or its subsidiaries.”

Further, it claims it joined the plastic lobby to become better educated about material innovation. In lieu of plastic, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have been searching for alternatives that are easier to recycle, such as aluminum. Recently, PepsiCo revealed it would start replacing its Aquafina plastic bottles with aluminum cans at restaurants and fast-food chains across the nation. 

By 2025, PepsiCo aims to make all packaging for its products fully recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable. The company also has vowed to reinvent their packaging for their plastic water bottles by using 25% recycled material. Coca-Cola has also made major pledges for their environmental goals. Last year, the corporation established a World Without Waste campaign.

Specifically, the campaign would involve collecting and recycling the equivalent to every bottle or can sold worldwide by 2030. Additionally, Coca-Cola also plans to make its products’ packaging out of 50% recycled material over the next eleven years.

The companies have also announced commitments to significantly change recycling in the United States and decrease plastic waste. For instance, Coca-Cola has pledged to make its packaging fully recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. Pepsi vowed to make all of its products recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable by that same year.

“Tackling plastic waste is one of my top priorities and I take this challenge personally,” PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta said. “We are doing our part to address the issue head-on by reducing, recycling and reinventing our packaging.”

More Brands Ditch Plastic

The Plastic Industry Association said the reason several brands were ending membership with the group was due to Greenpeace. Other notable brands that left the lobbying group last year include Clorox and medical tech business Becton Dickinson. Patty Long, the interim president and CEO of the organization, described the environmental group’s efforts “unfortunate.” 

“Consumer brands are integral to making sustainability commitments into realities, by working with their suppliers to make lasting change,” Long wrote in an email to CNBC. “For example, our members work together to align their efforts to put recycling and sustainability at the forefront of their businesses.” 

Conclusions

As more companies (and local governments) start to stray away from plastic, it goes to show the public’s call for environmental action and accountability is not going unheard — not even by major corporations. 

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