The Fastest Food Chains Are Turning Green

Fast food companies are trying to be more green, but they need to try harder to offset the mass environmental damage they have caused.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cover Image
By Vanessa Man

In recent years, fast food companies have been trying to change the stigma surrounding their industry. Long known for their unhealthy foods, large trash contributions, huge methane production, and continuous use of resources to raise animals, brands like McDonald’s and Chipotle are making a PR push to give their brands a greener reputation.

To be more eco-friendly, Starbucks, a chain brand that has set the modern standard for coffee, is using its new $1.00 reusable cups to help reduce paper waste. The incentive is that consumers get 10 cents off of refills if they use the cups, which last about a month. Chipotle sources many of its ingredients locally and buys nearly half of its beans from local farms, which is not only healthier, but also cheaper. Overseas, Sweden’s popular Max Burgers chain includes on its packaging CO2 labels that tell customers how much carbon dioxide was produced to make a certain meal. This urges customers to order more environmentally-friendly foods, including non-beef burgers.

With these programs, Starbucks has been able to significantly reduce trash hauling costs, Chipotle’s revenues have tripled, allowing the brand to expand exponentially, and Max Burgers’ CO2 labels and largely non-beef menu have added a 16 percent sales increase. For extra profitability, environmentally-friendly products like edible packaging or recyclable paper products increase customer loyalty and provide a good corporate image. Restaurants are also earning money by selling materials to recycling facilities.

However, despite their attempts to implement or encourage greener practices, the fast food industry's actions have done little to counteract the environmental harm that they continue to cause. These chains are still some of the biggest contributors to climate change and also seem to have an inability to keep up with the growing number of food-conscious consumers. The fast food industry buys billions of pounds of meat from the meat industry, which, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, is responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. These companies’ extensive use of eco-friendly products only helps to sanitize the fact that any increased revenue goes to increasing food production, therefore causing even more pollution.

The fast food industry can use all the eco-friendly packaging it wants, but its refusal to find healthier and greener alternatives when sourcing its meat far outweighs any attempt to reduce its ecological footprint. In 2014, McDonald’s confirmed that meat from over 100 cows can go into a single burger. Along with the many other fast food chains that share this practice, hundreds of thousands of cows per year are being used in the name of fast food.

With every cow producing about 242.5 pounds of methane a year, each cow releases 485 pounds of methane in its lifetime. After slaughter, the energy needed to process the meat and get it shipped off, cooked, and consumed adds up to over 71 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year created by the fast food industry alone.

One reason unhealthy practices are still used may be that they are cheaper than using less harmful products, allowing prices to remain as low as they are. The industry fails to see the positive long-term effects of changing to healthier food alternatives. A lot of money will go into trying to revamp an enterprise that has long been based on unhealthy fast food, but over time, greater public image can come from using better food and can provide exponential growth for companies.

The biggest factor that may be making companies hesitant to change deeper structural issues, as opposed to providing largely surface-level fixes for public appeal, is the quickly rising cost of fast food. Eating in is becoming more common and the higher prices are also working to offset increased employee wages, contributing to fast food prices that have increased 110 percent in the last 10 years. Competitors are working harder to produce faster and more easily-made food, an extension of the traditional practices of the fast food industry. This leads to additional environmental damage and adds to the destruction that companies have already put in place from years of trying to the make the quickest “ready-to-go” foods by using the cheapest and, coincidentally, unhealthiest ingredients.

Unfortunately, there’s little to convince these companies to stop advancing as quickly as they are. At the rate that the fast food industry requires meat, farmers, most of whom are severely underpaid, have little ability to keep up while also providing non-harmful ingredients for consumers. Not only is it expensive for the meat industry to use less preservatives or more animal-friendly practices, but participants don’t receive much in return for any efforts to be environmentally friendly.

Much damage has been done, but it doesn’t mean that fast food companies shouldn’t make an effort to change. Instead of buying meat from an industry that is already a target of animal rights activists for its sometimes cruel slaughtering processes, the food industry can turn to providers that use more sustainable techniques. It may be more expensive, but it provides incentive for farmers to try healthier techniques when raising their animals or harvesting their crops. Increased PR and customer loyalty may also be able to persuade companies that sourcing from farms with safer practices is worth the money.

But doing it for the money shouldn’t be the only reason why the fast food industry is pursuing the green movement. The most direct solutions may come from stricter government regulations. At the moment, those imposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service aren’t trying to ensure environmentally friendlier practices. In the meat and food processing industry, most of the focus is on hygiene and preventing the mislabeling of food. The regulations on the fast food industry work to reduce America’s high obesity rates by simply asking restaurants to put nutrition facts on their products. Though these are important to address, organizations like the FDA and World Health Organization need to take into account the problems of pollution and global warming, which are most contributed to by the fast food and meat industries. Using a cleaner production system should be a part of the process for the food business to provide healthier products for consumers.

If they’re hesitant, fast food giants should look to Max Burgers, which has seen great success since it started making products that are healthier and less damaging to the environment. Though there are many cons to changing their ways, companies should ignore extra costs and look to the benefits that come with making the big leap to a healthier food industry.