How Making a Positive Difference in Society Can Grow a Business and a Big Brand Like McDonald’s

One of the world’s most recognizable brands, McDonald’s is not just a multinational corporation: it’s an eleven-figure global entity with over 34,500 restaurants worldwide in 120 countries. Bob Langert, retired Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability at McDonald’s, spent 32 years within this brand and has learned just what sustainability means in the face of such a global colossus like McDonald’s. On April 9, 2015 Mr. Langert presented on the challenges, opportunities, and risks inherent in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability, including providing insight into how large corporations can form partnerships with non-governmental organization (NGO) activists to make progress in its sustainability.


This journey began with McDonald’s trying to figure out to to have a “sustainable” hamburger, a feat not easily achieved as McDonald’s had no prior experience in such a venture and is highly decentralized with over 80% of its restaurants being franchised. “We were willing to take a chance at figuring out how we can make a difference with beef and how we can be influential towards changing the industry to be more sustainable,” said Langert. However, this was a necessary step for McDonald’s as the sheer size of its operations — with 1.8 million employees serving over 70 million people around the world every day — affects so much of the world’s population on a daily basis that it warrants real corporate social responsibility.

Langert’s experience at McDonald’s with sustainability started in 1990 with a much-criticized collaboration between the premier environmental entity of the time, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and McDonald’s (which was going through its own PR setbacks) to phase out the company’s use of polystyrene Styrofoam hamburger containers; McDonald’s saw a cost-free packaging waste reduction of 70-90% and 30% reductions in its restaurants. Moreover, the initiative led to the recycling of over 100 million tons of corrugated boxes. Langert reflected, “More than anything, I learned a lesson that applied to everything I’ve done since then. You can come up with practical solutions, that are economical for the business, on tough societal issues if you: get smart people together, work with a partner [like the EDF], work with a company that wants to do something, work with your suppliers, you base your work on science (which is not easy to do), and you allow yourself time.” Since 1990, McDonald’s has embarked on 30 more sustainability partnerships.

Besides reducing packing waste, McDonald’s has, in conjunction with animal welfare specialist Dr. Temple Grandin, pioneered the globalized transformation of animal welfare into animal agriculture. “Most businesses don’t have a supply chain structure like McDonald’s… We’re very long-term with our suppliers. A lot of our competitors are day-to-day and they price shop, but we pick suppliers out for the long-term… Our culture is one of relationships, trust, and openness,” said Langert. He approached McDonald’s’ suppliers in 1997 about mutually agreeing on an animal welfare program, and because of the relationship McDonald’s has with its suppliers, they agreed and the animal welfare program was established. Through it, McDonald’s helped implement solutions to such issues as electrical cattle prodding, which McDonald’s did away with, and now cattle are guided by strategically-directed gates and flags.

In addition to animal welfare, criticisms by the NGO Greenpeace of McDonald’s’ European branches (specifically British) using soya in their suppliers’ chicken feed that is cultivated in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Langert did research into this environmental issue and turned to such organizations as the World Wildlife Fund for information.  He came to the conclusion that although their placing the blame solely on McDonald’s was disproportionate, their accusations were true. Langert worked with Greenpeace on getting to the root of the problem: getting those who are involved in the soy production and sales to agree with them and collectively work together on finding a solution. Within three months, they were able to successfully announce in 2006 that Brazil’s soy traders, Greenpeace, and retailers that there would be a moratorium on any further soy farming that would harm the Amazon; this agreement has been renewed every year since with increased tracking to make sure it is being enforced.


A few years ago, the new McDonald’s CEO saw the work Langert and his department were doing and was equally as enthusiastic, but saw that it was unorganized and unclear to those both inside and outside the company. He therefore saw the need for McDonald’s to place CSR and sustainability more prominently and strategically within McDonald’s management. They then created the CSR and Sustainability framework which has the goal of “Growing our Business by Making a Positive Difference in Society.” The five pillars of this framework are: Food, Sourcing, People, Community, and Planet. This framework effectively finds the “middle ground” between business values and social values to created a shared value model that is used by McDonald’s.

Looking towards the future, McDonald’s, like other successful MNCs, has created a set of sustainability goals. For 2020 McDonald’s’ goals are: set global criteria for sustainable beef production and begin purchasing verified sustainable beef; verify 100% of its coffee, palm oil and fish as being sustainably produced; and creating fiber-based packaging made from 100% certified or recycled sources.

If you missed this exciting International Speaker Series presentation or would like to to watch it again click here.  All International Speaker Series videos are available in our video gallery.

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