July 11, 2008
Green Fast Food: Really Here or a Green Dream?
by Anne Moore Odell
The fast food industry is seeing a growing demand for environmental sustainability. How can
investors, consumers, and other stakeholders know which restaurants are truly embracing sustainable
development and which are only greenwashing their practices?
With a third of all children in the US eating a fast food meal on any given day, the fast food
industry is far reaching. The industry seemingly has a hold in every corner of American life and
industry, from health care to agriculture, from transportation to marketing. Consumers,
shareholders and other stakeholders are starting to look at the fast food industry and demand more
accountability for both the food it serves and how it produces that food.
exist that the fast food industry is moving to reflect people's desires for healthier choices and
greener products. The ban on trans fats in New York City is just one example of how quickly the
restaurant industry can move to answer public demand or governmental policy. However, many
shareholders may wonder if enough is being done by fast food chains to protect the environment, and
how to tell the responsible burger and pizza peddlers from the rest.
Ellen Kennedy is a
senior social research analyst at Calvert
Group, which specializes in mutual funds that invest in socially and environmentally
responsible companies. Kennedy identified four high-impact issues for socially responsible
investors regarding fast food: the company's environmental footprint, workplace issues, animal
welfare and product safety, and marketing to children.
"Like Wal-Mart, large fast food
companies can influence whole categories of suppliers by virtue of their purchasing decisions,
"said Kennedy. "So one way to think about fast food operations is to start with each ingredient
and follow it through the supply chain to disposal or recycling. For example, we know that global
seafood supplies are predicted to crash in the 2040s. Does the company sell fish species that are
threatened? Does the company have good seafood supplier standards that are independently
monitored? Does the company source shrimp that have been farmed with high levels of pesticides or
antibiotics? How is the fish processed, transported, and refrigerated? What does the company do
with trash and organic waste?" Kennedy continued.
Eighteen years ago, Michael Oshman
helped create the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), a third party non-profit that works to certify restaurants as green. So far 256
restaurants have received certification or are in the process of getting certified. GRA defines a
green restaurant as one that is Styrofoam free, has a full scale recycling program, has made four
new environmental changes, and is committed to make four new pro-environmental changes every year.
"In the last year we have tripled the amount of restaurants that are certified or on the
way to being certified, " Oshman told SocialFunds.com.
GRA has also recently signed a
partnership with PepsiCo (ticker: PEP) and Sysco Corporation (ticker: SYY), both of whom approached
GRA to consult with them to help make the businesses they own more sustainable.
certified green restaurants make up only a very small percent of the restaurants in the US. With
40% of restaurants surveyed by Fast Casual
magazine using Styrofoam take out containers, they won't be green any time soon. Most
restaurants haven't been part of a third party verification system and don't readily supply
information on their environmental impact for consumers and stakeholders to verify what is a real
commitment to the environment and what is just green hype.
Investors need to look first at
the sustainability fundamentals: good disclosure, a trend of positive performance on issues of
environment, labor relations, animal welfare, and product nutrition, and policies and programs that
extend to operations of franchised locations and suppliers.
"Fast food companies that
show CSR leadership are by no means perfect, but are more willing to engage stakeholders and report
on how they have learned from mistakes," said Kennedy. "Some of the most clear-eyed critics of the
industry are the long-time NGO advocates who have developed relationships with companies over
years, or even decades. They often have a sense of which companies "you can work with" and which
ones give the run around."
"It's really all about the results and measurable outcomes,"
said Annika Stensson, director of media relations for the National Restaurant Association. "The investors, of course,
have to understand the issues to fully comprehend what efforts have an impact. For example, while
not the sexiest of environmental issues, saving energy is one of the most impactful ways to go. By
simply changing light bulbs, training staff to conserve energy, using energy-saving, an
establishment can make a big difference."
"Going Green is Red Hot," a new report from Fast
Casual magazine, covers the benefits of going green for quick serve restaurants, both for their
bottom line and the environment. Valerie Killifer, senior editor, FastCasual.com and Fast Casual
magazine, told SocialFunds.com, "Many restaurants have worked individually on their initiatives,
such as Hardee's recent announcement to switch to energy-efficient lighting, Subway's opening of an
eco-store in Florida, and Taco Bell's switch to water and energy saving gas grills. And others,
such as EVOS, have built their entire concept around the idea of environmental sustainability."
The report states that the "most obvious trend area for green growth has been restaurants
providing their customers with eco-friendly food in eco-friendly containers and wrappers."
"It's all about due diligence, "said Killifer. "If you don't believe a brand is living up to
their word, chances are they're not. A lot of the big brands also may embellish the actual amount
of resource conservation going on because of their efforts. Don't get caught up in their numbers,
speak with someone who can provide a realistic picture of the actual amounts saved."
Kennedy pointed to McDonald's (ticker: MCD) as an industry leader on several sustainability
issues, including disclosure, environment (such as sustainable fisheries and recycling), promotion
of minority entrepreneurs, and animal welfare. She also singled out Darden Restaurants (ticker:
DRI), the parent company of Olive Garden, Red Lobster and others, as a leader on diversity
"If you consider Starbucks a fast-food company, it shines in a number of
areas," said Kennedy. "For example, it is a signatory to the Global Compact, which requires
businesses to adopt certain policies supporting sustainability, human rights, and transparency. By
2006, 20% of its US and Canadian stores relied on renewable energy sources. Starbucks has a program
to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions has innovative environmental programs throughout the life of
its key products."
Calvert Group has had dialogues with several fast food and casual food
chains. In 2007, Calvert met with McDonald's to thank them for their progress on certain issues and
ask them to address other issues, for example, to explicitly refer to all of the International
Labor Organization (ILO) core labor standards, including freedom of association, in the McDonald's
policy framework. Calvert also asked McDonald's to address human rights and reputational risks in
the company's supply chain. These risks are related to sourcing of key ingredients such as the
destruction of rainforest to grow soya and access to water.
"The entire restaurant
industry is making great strides toward more sustainable operations," said Stensson, of the
National Restaurant Association. "In fact, our research shows that one-third of all restaurant
operators say they will allocate a larger part of their budget to environmental efforts this year."
Stensson concluded, "The move toward sustainability is not a trend, it's a new way of
doing business. We as an industry will likely never be completely carbon-neutral or a zero-waste
producer, but we are making great progress toward a sustainable future by conserving resources."
"The smart companies are those that realize that overall, adoption of sustainable policies
will likely benefit the bottom line, "said Kennedy. "We've seen how companies that anticipated
high-energy costs are now benefiting, for example. Another emerging issue is the availability of
clean water, particularly in more arid or less developed countries. Food companies that pay
attention to these emerging sustainability issues will be much better positioned in times of
volatility. I think that some fast food companies really do embrace sustainability on some issues.
As an industry though, it still has a long way to go."