This article was first published in The Ecologist in 2011
In the first of a major new series following on from the ground breaking Behind the Label, Peter Salisbury takes a look at one of the biggest brands in the world – McDonald’s – and asks: has the burger giant done enough to clean-up its act?
Chances are that you have had a McDonald’s meal in the past or if not, you certainly know a lot of people who have. It’s the biggest fast food chain in the world, with 32,000 outlets in 117 countries. The clown-fronted burger outfit employs a staggering 1.7 million people, and in the first three months of 2011 alone it made $1.2bn in profits on the back of revenues of $6.1bn. The company has come in for huge amounts of criticism over the past 20 years, for the impact it has on the diets of people worldwide, its labour practices and the impact its business has had on the environment. From Fast Food Nation to Supersize Me by the way of the McLibel trials of the 1990s, plenty has been written and broadcast to tarnish the golden arches’ shine.
Declining sales in the early 2000s, which saw franchises being shut for the first time in the company’s history, caused a major rethink of the way McDonald’s operates, and its recent rhetoric has been that of a firm with a newly discovered zeal for ethical end eco-friendly practices, garnering praise from champions as unlikely as Greenpeace and the Carbon Trust. But is this just marketing hype or has McDonald’s had a genuine change of heart?
The answer is yes and no. First of all, because of the way the company is run, it’s hard to generalise. Around 80 per cent of McDonald’s outlets are run by franchisees who have to meet standards set by the company, but who can – and do – go above and beyond them. Further, McDonald’s branches are run by country and regional offices, each of which are subject to domestic standards. The production of much of the raw products which go into McDonald’s meals, from burger patties to sauces, is subcontracted to different suppliers,