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
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
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 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
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
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
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