Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community
We Can't Do It Without You!  
     
Home | About Us | Donate | Signup | Archives
   
 
   Featured Views  
 

Printer Friendly Version E-Mail This Article
 
 
On Corporate Responsibility: A Ronald McDonald Fantasy
Published on Sunday, June 2, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
On Corporate Responsibility: A Ronald McDonald Fantasy
by Paul Hawken
 

McDonald's April 14 "Report on Corporate Social Responsibility" is a low- water mark for the concept of sustainability and the promise of corporate social responsibility. It is a melange of generalities and soft assurances that do not provide hard metrics of the company, its activities or its impacts on society and the environment.

While movements toward corporate transparency and disclosure are to be applauded, there is little of either in the report.

This is not a report about stakeholder rights, as McDonald's would have one believe. It is a report about how a corporation that's been severely stung by bad publicity, poor service and declining earnings now wants to plead its case to its critics. It states that critics don't want to make things better, but it ignores what their critics care about.

The McDonald's Social Responsibility Report presupposes that we can continue to have a global chain of restaurants that serves fried, sugary junk food produced by an agricultural system of monocultures, monopolies, standardization and destruction, and at the same time find a path to sustainability. Having worked in the field of sustainability and business for three decades, I can reasonably say that nothing could be further from the idea of sustainability than the McDonald's Corp.

The report states, "being a socially responsible leader begins a process that involves more awareness on the issues that will make a difference." Yet the company has known for decades that the food it serves harms people, promotes obesity, heart disease and has detrimental effects on land and water. On May 1, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report stating that childhood obesity and related diseases had doubled in the past 10 years, specifically citing high-fat fast-food as a cause. Addressing that one issue would make a difference.

McDonald's has known about the harmful effects of its food just as the tobacco companies understood the impact of their products. Yet McDonald's has done little to modify its menu.

It is good to see ideas about materials and reduced waste being promoted by major corporations. But it is equally important to distinguish among corporations that offer progressive rhetoric but don't change their internal practices or impact on society and the environment and those that actually do. If corporations can make more money by using less stuff, less waste, less pollution, so much the better. To be sure, McDonald's has made progress on recycling, but the underlying nature of its corporate activity has not changed and the larger impact of these underlying activities is dramatic and troubling.

For McDonald's to announce that it now wants to have antibiotic free chickens is a slap in the face to the thousands of small poultry farmers who could not compete and were forced out of business by the agricorporations that introduced the very industrial chicken-raising practices that required antibiotics to avoid massive die-off of their flocks. Simply stated, standardized food destroys agricultural and biological diversity. Nothing could be more antithetical to the recovery of over-stressed farmlands than fast-food.

It is important that good housekeeping practices such as recycled hamburger shells not be confused with creating a just and sustainable world. McDonald's publicly embraces "sustainability" as long as it can make money and it doesn't change its purpose, which is to grow faster than the overall world economy and population, and to increase their share of the world's economic output to the benefit of a small number of shareholders.

The question we have to ask is: "What is enough for McDonald's? Is it enough that 1 in 5 meals in the United States is a fast-food meal? Does McDonald's want to see the rest of the world drink the equivalent of 597 cans of soda pop a year, as do Americans? Do they think every third global meal should be comprised of greasy meat, fries, and caramelized sugar? They won't answer those questions because that is exactly their corporate mission.

A valid report on sustainability and social responsibility must ask the question: What if everybody did it? What would be the ecological footprint -- the impact on the natural world -- of such a company? What is McDonald's footprint now?

The report carefully avoids the corporation's real environmental impacts. It talked about water use at the outlets, but failed to note that every quarter-pounder requires 600 gallons of water. It talked about recycled paper, but not the pfisteria-infected waters caused by large-scale pork producers in the Southeast United States. It talked about energy use in the restaurants, but not in the unsustainable food system McDonald's relies on that uses 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food produced.

An honest report would tell stakeholders how much it truly costs society to support a corporation like McDonald's. It would detail the externalities -- the societal and environmental costs not counted in corporate annual reports and accounting documents -- borne by other people, places and generations.

Unless the core values of the company are to nourish and protect children, you cannot make the supply chain sustainable because the final outcome is destructive to life. McDonald's corporate initiative is best described by the poet Henry Thoreau: "Improved means to an unimproved end."

 


McDonald's view McDonald's Corp. was invited to comment on its report but declined the offer. To read the report yourself, click on http://www.mcdonalds.com/corporate/social/report/index.html

McDonald's factoids

1. McDonald's spends more on advertising than any other brand in the world.

2. It runs more playgrounds than any other private entity in the world.

3. It gives away more toys than any other private entity in the world.

4. The Golden Arches are more widely known in the world today than the Christian cross.

5. Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's said this: "We have found that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry. The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization."

6. The vast majority of workers at McDonald's lack full-time employment, do not have any benefits, have no or little control over their workplace, and quit after a few months.

7. The average American now consumes three hamburgers and four orders of french fries per week.

8. Due in part to the industrialization of agriculture driven by the fast- food industry, the United States is losing farmers so fast that it now has more prisoners than farmers.

9. Every month, 90 percent of the children between 3 and 9 in America visit a McDonald's.

10. In a survey of 9 and 10-year-olds, half of them said they thought that Ronald McDonald knew best what kids should eat. In China, kids said that Ronald McDonald was kind, funny, gentle and understood children's hearts.

11. McDonald's uses a computer program called Quintillion that uses satellite imagery, GPS maps and demographic tables to automatically site new restaurants. As one observer noted, McDonald's uses the same equipment developed during the Cold War to spy on their customers.

12. McDonald's jobs have been purposely de-skilled so as to be able to hire minimum-wage workers on an interchangeable basis. One-third of fast-food workers speak no English.

13. McDonald's and other chains are aiming for automated equipment that will require zero training and are nearly there. Nevertheless, they fight hard to retain hundreds of millions of dollars of government subsidies for "training" their workers. A worker has only to work for 400 hours for the chain to receive its $2,400 subsidy. In essence, the American taxpayer subsidizes low wages, automation and turnover at fast-food chains.

14. Fast-food pays a higher proportion of minimum wage to its workers than any other industry in America.

15. McDonald's is the largest purchaser of beef in the world.

16. McDonald's buys from five large meatpackers. These companies have gained a stranglehold over the industry (just as in potatoes) that has driven down prices. Over the past 20 years, 500,000 cattle ranchers have gone out of business. Over that time, the rancher's share of every beef dollar has fallen from 63 cents to 46 cents.

17. To satisfy and take advantage of the worldwide growth of fast-food, the large chicken and beef packers in the United States are buying out local companies all around the world. Cargill, IBP and Tyson's control the world meat industry because of fast-food chains.

18. Chicken McNuggets were also cooked in beef tallow until public outrage caused McDonald's to stop. Even in vegetable oil, Chicken McNuggets contain twice the fat per ounce as a hamburger.

19. Every time you eat a hamburger, you are eating anabolic steroids, antibiotics and fecal matter. You can read it again. And it will still be true.

20. Feedlot cattle are also given shredded packaging, cardboard boxes, cement and sawdust to put on weight.

21. In 1991, only four states had obesity rates of 15 percent or higher. Today, 37 states do. Fifty million Americans are obese or super obese. Obesity is second only to smoking as a cause of mortality in America today.

22. The annual health costs to America stemming from obesity are $240 billion. The costs are exactly double fast-food chain revenues.

23. Between 1984 and 1993, the number of fast-food restaurants doubled in Great Britain. Obesity doubled there over the same period.

24. The EU found that 95 percent of the ads there encouraged kids to eat foods high in sugar, salt and fat. The company running the most ads aimed at children was McDonald's.

Source: Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). The book is extensively footnoted with citations for the above.

Paul Hawken is the author of "The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism." He is the founder of the Sausalito-based Natural Capital Institute and is on the advisory board of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy in Oakland.

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle

###

Printer Friendly Version E-Mail This Article
 
     
 
 

CommonDreams.org
Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community.
Independent, non-profit newscenter since 1997.

Home | About Us | Donate | Signup | Archives

To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.