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Coffee and the consumer: can McDonald’s mainstream sustainability?


McDonald’s is marketing Rainforest Alliance-certified espresso and Marine Stewardship Council-labeled fish for the first time. Photograph: AP


Powered by article titled “Coffee and the consumer: can McDonald’s mainstream sustainability?” was written by Marc Gunther, for on Tuesday 24th September 2013 04.00 UTC

Across the US, McDonald’s last week introduced pumpkin spice lattes made with Rainforest Alliance-certified espresso. No such assurance comes with McDonald’s drip coffee. Why? Because consumers haven’t yet shown Mickey D’s that they care.

That’s gradually changing, says Bob Langert, the vice president of sustainability for McDonald’s, and not a moment too soon. As the world’s biggest fast-food chain, which has 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries, seeks to make its supply chain more environmentally friendly, McDonald’s is trying to enlist its customers as allies.

That’s why the pumpkin lattes marketing features the little green frog seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance. That’s also why McDonald’s fish sandwiches, for the first time, feature a blue eco-label from the Marine Stewardship Council certifying that the pollock inside comes from better-managed fisheries.

By talking to consumers about its sustainability efforts, McDonald’s hopes to build brand trust and loyalty. Until recently, people had to dig into the company’s website to learn about its environmental performance.

“We’ve had sustainable fish for many years, but we didn’t tell people about it,” Langert told me during lunch in Washington DC. (He ordered fish.) “We feel there’s a tipping point coming. We see the consumer starting to care. Consumer expectations are rising.”

The consumers’ role

This is important, in part, because products certified as sustainable by independent third parties often cost a bit more than conventional supplies. That’s true not just about coffee and seafood, but also about organic food or cotton, paper and wood products, tea, chocolate and bananas.

To advance sustainability, either consumers need to pay more – which isn’t the case with McDonald’s lattes, for now – or show their loyalty to a brand by spending more with brands that do business better.

“We’re not going to have a sustainability movement without the consumer,” Langert says. “At the end of the day, consumers have to buy into this.”

Langert is no newcomer to corporate sustainability. For two decades, he has worked with colleagues, suppliers, franchise owners and environmentalists from such groups as the Environmental Defense Fund and Conservation International to reduce packaging, improve coffee- and fish-buying practices and encourage potato farmers to curb their use of pesticides. McDonald’s has even tiptoed, gingerly, into the debate about the environmental impacts of beef.

But to go much further, he told me, Mickey D’s needs help from the 69 million people – yes, that’s 69 million – who visit McDonald’s on a typical day.

A comparison of the chain’s coffee-buying practices in the US and in Europe turns up tangible evidence of consumers’ influence. In Europe, McDonald’s sources 100% of its non-decaf coffee from farms that carry Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or Fairtrade International certification. In the US, the certification extends only to expresso beans.

The difference, Langert explains, is that “consumers in Europe are very active in this space.” Globally in 2012, approximately 25% of the company’s total coffee bean purchases came from certified farms. In the US, the figure is roughly 15%, the company says.

Bringing sustainability to Main Street More than 25 million people in the global south depend on coffee for their livelihoods, says the Rainforest Alliance, which works to protect the tropical habitats where coffee is grown and seeks to insure that growers are fairly treated. Because EU consumers ask for certified coffee, McDonald’s provides it.

Of course, companies like Starbucks, Whole Foods Market and Chipotle have led the way when it comes to talking about the sustainability of their food and beverages. McDonald’s could potentially bring that conversation to mainstream consumers.

As Jessica Droste-Yagan, the director of sustainable supply for McDonald’s US, told me: “Customers want to know more about where their food is coming from and how it is produced. And they want to feel good about it.”

The result is that McDonald’s, with more than 1,300 McCafes, now sounds a lot like Starbucks when it talks about its coffee supply. We’re “committed to responsible coffee sourcing,” its website claims.


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