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Beefing up sustainability

9 February, 2024

Ten years ago, McDonald’s unveiled its ambition to switch to 100% ‘verified sustainable beef’. Progress towards this goal has been slow, (perhaps in part because there were few metrics or hard definitions attached to the ambition) as the fast-food giant has engaged with its suppliers, competitors, and experts to make good on its promise. After a decade, the business is still some way away from achieving its objective and it has now changed its plans, saying it will focus on “beef sustainability” rather than “sustainable beef”. The reasoning? While “sustainable beef” is an outcome, “beef sustainability” indicates a journey. And in a complex area like this, ongoing improvement rather than a tangible and definitive outcome is perhaps a better way of shaping business transformation.

Beef production has many environmental impacts, including deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and land degradation. McDonald’s first step was to create regional roundtables to nail down clearer definitions across the sector and uncover supply chains aligned with their sustainability principles, before moving into investment in building the industry infrastructure and a network of on-farm research programmes to better understand what beef sustainability may look like.

McDonald’s journey to mitigate the impacts of its beef sourcing illuminates just how challenging transformational change can be. Progress has been deliberate and intricate as the company persists in propelling innovation not only for its own benefit but also for the broader industry. Despite its global might, McDonald’s only accounts for between 1.5 and 2% of beef production in the markets in which it operates, so industry-wide innovation is needed.

Despite the commendable efforts, the absence of clear metrics and interim goals weakens McDonald’s ability to drive progress effectively. Another obstacle is the relentless acceleration in consumption and production rates, complicating their sustainability strategy as they seek to disentangle growth from emissions. Beef sustainability is just one piece of the larger puzzle as McDonald’s increases its focus on regenerative agriculture. This strategic shift aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by collaborating with their value chain to overcome barriers to regenerative farming.

In a business landscape grappling with the challenge of establishing meaningful targets, balancing ambition with realism, McDonald’s journey serves as a compelling example. Many industries face difficulties in setting and achieving goals, particularly in areas like plastic reduction, and are uncertain about the way forward. Even when aspirations seem daunting and progress slow, engaging with stakeholders, creating essential tools and metrics, and establishing interim goals can pave the way for incremental changes that can grow into transformational change.

By Meg Seckel

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