A press release heralding the UK’s first net-zero restaurant masks an ongoing reluctance to address supply chain emissions. David Burrows reports.
The McDonald’s in Market Drayton is the fast food chain’s new green flagship store. It is kitted out with solar panels and wind turbines, while the kerbstones and drive-thru are made from recycled plastic bottles and tyres respectively. Even the art is made from recycled polystyrene cups, fixed in place with potato starch. The walls it hangs on are insulated with wool from British sheep.
Some of this is genuinely sustainable. But the claim made when the restaurant opened last month that this was the UK’s “first net-zero carbon restaurant” has attracted scrutiny. Indeed, a footnote on the company’s statement reads: “McDonald’s Market Drayton restaurant is the first restaurant in the UK due to be verified as net-zero emissions for construction using the UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC’s) net-zero carbon buildings framework.”
UKGBC verifies only the building – and even that hasn’t happened yet. “[…] by calling it a net-zero restaurant, the impression is created that the claim applies to all the greenhouse gas emissions sources you'd reasonably expect to be covered by a net-zero restaurant – most importantly the production emissions of the food served,” explains Net Zero Now executive director Simon Heppner. “In the case of the UKGBC code these are not included, neither are emissions from food waste, packaging, customer travel, employee commuting, etc.”
In other words, it’s greenwashing. We’ve reported this type of thing before – a press release that makes claims that, had they been made in an advert, would have seen people complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority or caused the Competition and Markets Authority to pore over them with its new green claims code in hand.
But press releases fall through the regulatory gaps. It’s up to journalists to unpick some of these claims, or at least refer to experts who can. The BBC, among others, didn’t do that with this McDonald’s story.
Sky meanwhile went to Greenpeace for an opinion. “McGreenwashing” came the reply. The NGO argued that a ‘green’ restaurant powered by renewable energy and made with recycled materials does little to address the company’s considerable greenhouse gas emissions – even if you do roll this out to all the other 1,400 outlets and offices in the UK and Ireland. The focus should be on the beef served up rather than the building it is served in.
This is where details of McDonald’s approach to reducing its emissions begins to thin out. A net-zero commitment by 2040 in the UK (2050 for the global operation) and a new ‘plan for change’, published in October, offered scant information on the company’s plans to change its menus in order to reduce emissions.
By 2025 it has promised to have a “market leading vegan plant-based food and drinks offering”. Last week’s news that the McPlant burger, co-developed with Beyond Meat, will be rolled out to all its UK and Ireland restaurants is encouraging. But will the meat-free options be pushed and promoted beyond this month’s Veganuary campaign?
Indeed, campaigners want to see the amount of livestock products reduced dramatically – as well as publicly reported targets on the proteins sold. McDonald’s (and other fast food chains reliant on meat) should also prepare for investors to ask similarly uncomfortable questions and press harder for answers.
The chain, globally, has also committed to deforestation-free soya by 2026 and talks a lot about “sustainable beef”, some of it certified as such (for example in Canada). Critics have argued the bar is pretty low and the money being spent on the supply chain projects represents pennies in the context of the company’s revenue. “Companies like McDonald’s get a lot of positive press for making these commitments,” Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, told Bloomberg Green recently. “But then there’s very little follow up and follow through.”
The UK and Ireland McDonald’s website notes: “Imagine the impact if around 1,400 restaurants, 130,000 crew, over 23,000 British and Irish farmers and four million daily customers change a little.” And yet the fast food behemoth is reportedly anxious to ask too much of its consumers – in terms of buying into meat alternatives – or its suppliers, in terms of emissions reductions.
“If McDonald’s won’t steer customers to climate-friendlier alternatives and professes to have limited power to shrink the footprint of beef, how can the company sell ever-more hamburgers while claiming to be on a path to dramatically decarbonise its business?” wondered Bloomberg Green in a recent analysis.
This lack of urgency and transparency is concerning given its buying power, influence and hefty environmental footprint. Indeed, McDonald’s new net-zero commitment, announced in October and receiving a lot of positive column inches, failed to include a breakdown of its emissions, either in the UK and Ireland, or globally. A spokesperson told Footprint at the time that the company was working on a new science-based net-zero target and “we are resetting our emissions baselines in the UK and Ireland for scopes 1, 2 and 3”. Two months on and still no data have emerged.
McDonald’s said it is starting “where we can make changes fastest: with our restaurants and offices, aiming for UK industry net-zero emissions standards by 2030”. “[…] we believe that our food needs to be served in restaurants that are sustainable for the future,” said Beth Hart, McDonald’s vice president supply chain and brand trust, in December.
However, using data tucked away on the company’s website, scope 1 and 2 emissions, including those from energy use in its buildings, are shown to represent under 1% of McDonald’s global emissions.
Emissions totalled 49,344, 096 tonnes in 2015, rising to 53,707,901 tonnes CO2e in 2020. Of those, 97,398 tonnes were scope 1 and 431,395 tonnes were scope 2. The remaining 53,704,901 (over 99%) fell into those scope 3 emissions – and you can bet your bottom dollar most will be beef and other livestock products.
Again, a breakdown of the company’s emissions would be handy – other foodservice businesses have done it. They are realising that transparency around net-zero is key; so too is honesty (no company has all the answers).
Indeed, 2021 was the year that sustainability was given a booster shot thanks to COP26, covid and new corporate commitments. This year, it will be about credibility of the claims being made. Only around half of consumers (54%) trust food and beverage companies on climate change action, according to a substantial survey by Edelman last year. Stories like the one McDonald’s pushed out just before Christmas will do little to shift that perception.