Soenke Zehle on Mon, 29 Apr 2002 09:08:01 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] McDonald's and Corporate Social Responsibility?

McDonald's and Corporate Social Responsibility ?

By Paul Hawken*

The April 14th McDonald's 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
homilies, 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 towards
transparency and disclosure are to be applauded, there is little
of either in the report. That their report is based on the Global
Reporting Initiative (GRIs) calls to question whether the GRIs
have anything to do with the concept of sustainability or true
corporate responsibility.

This is not a report about stakeholder rights as they would have
one believe. It is a report about how a corporation that has been
severely stung by bad publicity and declining earnings now
wants to plead its case to its critics. It states that those NGOs
that continue to criticize just don't want to make things better
while ignoring what their critics are most concerned about.

The McDonald's Social Responsibility Report is like Ronald
McDonald-a fantasy. It presupposes that we can continue to
have a global chain of restaurants that serves fried, sugary junk
food that is produced by an agricultural system of monocultures,
monopolies, standardization and destruction, and at the same
time find a path to sustainability. As the founder of The Natural
Step (TNS) in the United States, I can say that nothing could be
further from the idea of sustainability than the McDonald's

The Report states that "being a socially responsible leader
[their self-appointed term] begins a process that involves more
awareness on the issues that will make a difference"
McDonald's has known for decades that the food it serves harms
people, promotes obesity, heart disease, and has detrimental
effects on land and water. Addressing that one issue would
make a difference. They have known about the detrimental
effects of their food just as the tobacco companies understood
the impact of their products. Yet they have done little to modify
their menu. In the arena of social equity, McDonald's has
resisted from its inception all attempts to organize its workers,
and through industry trade organizations has consistently and
intensely lobbied against raises in the minimum wage. To say
McDonald's has actively worked to crush trade unions is an

It is good to see ideas about materials and reduced waste being
promoted by corporate actors. But it is equally important to note
that corporations who do that only have not changed in any major
respect and may be using these superficial changes to avoid
deeper structural issues that do address sustainability.
Essentially, if corporations can make more money by using less
stuff, less waste, less pollution, so much the better. But the
nature of their corporate activity has not changed and that is
certainly the case for McDonald's. For years it has promoted and
demanded the least expensive standardized food for its chains.
In so doing it has created powerful incentives for the
centralization of food processing, agribusiness, and long supply
lines, all of which reduce American food security. 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
agri-corporations that introduced the very industrial chicken
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 overstressed farmlands than fast

At this juncture in our history, as companies and governments
turn their attention to sustainability, it is critical that the
meaning of sustainability not get lost in the trappings of
corporate speak. There is a growing worldwide movement
towards corporate responsibility and sustainability, led in many
cases by companies whose history and products have brought
damage and suffering to the world. I am concerned that good
housekeeping practices such as recycled hamburger shells will
be confused with creating a just and sustainable world.
Transnational corporations such as McDonalds and their
associated lobbyists and trade associations have led efforts to
Americanize trade through representatives at the WTO. They
have prevented the strengthening of environmental and labor
laws and they have led the effort to eliminate the ability of
smaller, more vulnerable nations to determine their economic
destiny. In other words, they embrace "sustainability" as long as
they can make money and it doesn't change their overall
purpose, which is to grow faster than the overall world economy
and population and increase their share of the world's economic
output to the benefit of small number of shareholders.

The question we have to ask is what is enough? Is it enough
that one in five meals in the US is a fast food meal? Does that
satisfy McDonald's? Or do they want that figure to be one in
three, or how about one in two? How about the developing
world? Does McDonald's want to see the rest of the world drink
the equivalent of 550 cans of soda pop 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. They
have 29,000 restaurants with nearly 3,000 new ones added each

A valid report on sustainability and social responsibility must
ask the question: What if everybody did it? What would be the
ecological footprint 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-laden waters caused by large-scale pork producers in
the southeast. It talked about energy use in the restaurants, but
not in the unsustainable food system McDonald's relies upon
that uses 10 calories of energy for every calorie of good
produced.  "Sustaining" McDonald's requires a simple
unsustainable formula: cheap food plus cheap non-unionized
labor plus deceptive advertising = high profits. An honest report
would tell stakeholders how much it truly costs society to
support a corporation like McDonald's. It would detail the
externalities borne by other people, places, and generations:
The draining of aquifers, the contaminated waterways, the
strip-mined soils, the dangerous abattoirs where migrant
workers are employed, the inhumane, injury-prone dead-end
jobs preparing chicken carcasses for Chicken McNuggets, the
global greenhouse methane gas emitted by the millions of
hamburger cows in feedlots, the impact of their $2 billion
advertising and promotional campaigns to convince young
people to demand their food, the ethics of using toys to induce
small children into their restaurants. The list is longer than
this. What the report is short on is candor, transparency and
corporate honesty.

* 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.

For a list of issues that McDonald's did not deal with
in its Report on Corporate Social Responsibility:

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