Paul Hawken Exposes
McDonald's Greenwashing

Published on Sunday, June 2, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
On Corporate Responsibility: A Ronald McDonald Fantasy
by Paul Hawken

McDonald's April 14 "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 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 toward corporate transparency and disclosure are to be
applauded, there is little of either in the report.

This is not a report about stakeholder rights, as McDonald's would have
one believe. It is a report about how a corporation that's been severely
stung by bad publicity, poor service and declining earnings now wants to
plead its case to its critics. It states that critics don't want to make
things better, but it ignores what their critics care about.

The McDonald's Social Responsibility Report presupposes that we can
continue to have a global chain of restaurants that serves fried, sugary
junk food produced by an agricultural system of monocultures,
monopolies, standardization and destruction, and at the same time find a
path to sustainability. Having worked in the field of sustainability and
business for three decades, I can reasonably say that nothing could be
further from the idea of sustainability than the McDonald's Corp.

The report states, "being a socially responsible leader begins a process
that involves more awareness on the issues that will make a difference."
Yet the company has known for decades that the food it serves harms
people, promotes obesity, heart disease and has detrimental effects on
land and water. On May 1, the Centers for Disease Control issued a
report stating that childhood obesity and related diseases had doubled
in the past 10 years, specifically citing high-fat fast-food as a cause.
Addressing that one issue would make a difference.

McDonald's has known about the harmful effects of its food just as the
tobacco companies understood the impact of their products. Yet
McDonald's has done little to modify its menu.

It is good to see ideas about materials and reduced waste being promoted
by major corporations. But it is equally important to distinguish among
corporations that offer progressive rhetoric but don't change their
internal practices or impact on society and the environment and those
that actually do. If corporations can make more money by using less
stuff, less waste, less pollution, so much the better. To be sure,
McDonald's has made progress on recycling, but the underlying nature of
its corporate activity has not changed and the larger impact of these
underlying activities is dramatic and troubling.

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
agricorporations that introduced the very industrial chicken-raising
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 over-stressed farmlands than fast-food.

It is important that good housekeeping practices such as recycled
hamburger shells not be confused with creating a just and sustainable
world. McDonald's publicly embraces "sustainability" as long as it can
make money and it doesn't change its purpose, which is to grow faster
than the overall world economy and population, and to increase their
share of the world's economic output to the benefit of a small number of

The question we have to ask is: "What is enough for McDonald's? Is it
enough that 1 in 5 meals in the United States is a fast-food meal? Does
McDonald's want to see the rest of the world drink the equivalent of 597
cans of soda pop a year, 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.

A valid report on sustainability and social responsibility must ask the
question: What if everybody did it? What would be the ecological
footprint -- the impact on the natural world -- 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-infected waters caused by
large-scale pork producers in the Southeast United States. It talked
about energy use in the restaurants, but not in the unsustainable food
system McDonald's relies on that uses 10 calories of energy for every
calorie of food produced.

An honest report would tell stakeholders how much it truly costs society
to support a corporation like McDonald's. It would detail the
externalities -- the societal and environmental costs not counted in
corporate annual reports and accounting documents -- borne by other
people, places and generations.

Unless the core values of the company are to nourish and protect
children, you cannot make the supply chain sustainable because the final
outcome is destructive to life. McDonald's corporate initiative is best
described by the poet Henry Thoreau: "Improved means to an unimproved

McDonald's view McDonald's Corp. was invited to comment on its report
but declined the offer. To read the report yourself, click on

McDonald's factoids
1. McDonald's spends more on advertising than any other brand in the

2. It runs more playgrounds than any other private entity in the world.

3. It gives away more toys than any other private entity in the world.

4. The Golden Arches are more widely known in the world today than the
Christian cross.

5. Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's said this: "We have found that we
cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make
conformists out of them in a hurry. The organization cannot trust the
individual; the individual must trust the organization."

6. The vast majority of workers at McDonald's lack full-time employment,
do not have any benefits, have no or little control over their
workplace, and quit after a few months.

7. The average American now consumes three hamburgers and four orders of
french fries per week.

8. Due in part to the industrialization of agriculture driven by the
fast- food industry, the United States is losing farmers so fast that it
now has more prisoners than farmers.

9. Every month, 90 percent of the children between 3 and 9 in America
visit a McDonald's.

10. In a survey of 9 and 10-year-olds, half of them said they thought
that Ronald McDonald knew best what kids should eat. In China, kids said
that Ronald McDonald was kind, funny, gentle and understood children's

11. McDonald's uses a computer program called Quintillion that uses
satellite imagery, GPS maps and demographic tables to automatically site
new restaurants. As one observer noted, McDonald's uses the same
equipment developed during the Cold War to spy on their customers.

12. McDonald's jobs have been purposely de-skilled so as to be able to
hire minimum-wage workers on an interchangeable basis. One-third of
fast-food workers speak no English.

13. McDonald's and other chains are aiming for automated equipment that
will require zero training and are nearly there. Nevertheless, they
fight hard to retain hundreds of millions of dollars of government
subsidies for "training" their workers. A worker has only to work for
400 hours for the chain to receive its $2,400 subsidy. In essence, the
American taxpayer subsidizes low wages, automation and turnover at
fast-food chains.

14. Fast-food pays a higher proportion of minimum wage to its workers
than any other industry in America.

15. McDonald's is the largest purchaser of beef in the world.

16. McDonald's buys from five large meatpackers. These companies have
gained a stranglehold over the industry (just as in potatoes) that has
driven down prices. Over the past 20 years, 500,000 cattle ranchers have
gone out of business. Over that time, the rancher's share of every beef
dollar has fallen from 63 cents to 46 cents.

17. To satisfy and take advantage of the worldwide growth of fast-food,
the large chicken and beef packers in the United States are buying out
local companies all around the world. Cargill, IBP and Tyson's control
the world meat industry because of fast-food chains.

18. Chicken McNuggets were also cooked in beef tallow until public
outrage caused McDonald's to stop. Even in vegetable oil, Chicken
McNuggets contain twice the fat per ounce as a hamburger.

19. Every time you eat a hamburger, you are eating anabolic steroids,
antibiotics and fecal matter. You can read it again. And it will still
be true.

20. Feedlot cattle are also given shredded packaging, cardboard boxes,
cement and sawdust to put on weight.

21. In 1991, only four states had obesity rates of 15 percent or higher.
Today, 37 states do. Fifty million Americans are obese or super obese.
Obesity is second only to smoking as a cause of mortality in America

22. The annual health costs to America stemming from obesity are $240
billion. The costs are exactly double fast-food chain revenues.

23. Between 1984 and 1993, the number of fast-food restaurants doubled
in Great Britain. Obesity doubled there over the same period.

24. The EU found that 95 percent of the ads there encouraged kids to eat
foods high in sugar, salt and fat. The company running the most ads
aimed at children was McDonald's.

Source: Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation," (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
The book is extensively footnoted with citations for the above.

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 in Oakland.

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