Would You Like Veggies With That Big Mac? The Plan to Green the Golden Arches

Asparagus French Fries
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It’s true, folks: Last week, McDonald’s the world’s biggest fast food chain with 34,000 restaurants in 118 countries announced plans to offer healthier food. In its 20 biggest markets worldwide (reaching some 40 million customers) McDonald’s will slash sugary sodas from its Happy Meals menus and promote milk, juice and water instead. In lieu of French fries in adult combo meals, it will offer fruit and vegetable sides like carrots, corn, pineapple, and kiwi.

The fast food titan also plans to change the way it advertises food to kids, which is now dominated by movie promos, to include a “fun nutrition or children’s well-being” message. It will also design packaging for “healthy” bites to be more appealing to kids carrot sticks in a fiesta-colored baggie, for instance.

This is all part of an effort to help fight childhood obesity in America, said McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson at the Clinton Global Initiative last Thursday. It’s also part of the food chain’s much broader global campaign to become greener and healthier.

But how green and healthy can McDonald’s with its colossal caloric impact and monstrous carbon footprint really go? This is a company, after all, that sells more than 75 hamburgers every second, and has a global annual energy bill topping $2 billion. And from a health standpoint, adding a few carrot sticks to a meal that is otherwise comprised of salt, sugar, and fat doesn’t exactly make it low-cal or nutritious.

Marc Gunther, of Fortune points out that while McDonald’s has “glaring flaws” when it comes to sustainability, the company can also have a massive impact, especially when influencing its suppliers: “Small and mid-sized companies create sustainability solutions, as a rule, but the impact comes when big global corporations embrace them. Size matters.”

Overall, the scope of Mickey D’s environmental initiatives is impressive or at least a good start. Beyond its more-veggies-less-soda program, McDonald’s is now sourcing fair trade espresso beans for its coffee drinks (thus the little green frog seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance on the pumpkin latte). And what’s that gracing the packaging of Fish McBites and Filet-O-Fish? A blue eco-label from the Marine Stewardship Council certifying that the pollock comes from sustainable fisheries. McDonald’s also announced last week that it will swap out styrofoam coffee cups for paper cups in all its 14,000 US locations. And it’s working to ratchet down its energy use with LED lighting at stores and other efficiency measures.

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There are two other promises McDonald’s has made that could have more positive impact than any others: It plans to pressure its suppliers to reduce the amount of toxic pesticides it uses to grow potatoes for McDonald’s fries (a big deal since the food chain buys 3.4 billion pounds of U.S. potatoes a year). It also plans to take a big bite out of carbon emissions that come from raising the beef in its hamburgers. (A UN report found that raising animals, particularly cows, generates almost a fifth of greenhouse gases globally.)

Whether they deliver on these promises remains to be seen, but they’re certainly talking a big game. And if they do deliver, the results could be pivotal. Let’s be clear, though: it’s not do-gooder instinct that’s pushing McDonalds in this direction. It’s the customers themselves. Last year, McDonalds saw its first dip in monthly sales in nearly a decade, and things have been iffy ever since. The titan is losing market share to booming newcomers like Chipotle and Panera, which have put a lot of emphasis on selling food that’s “healthy” and “fresh” and environmentally conscious, and customers are gobbling it up.

“What is it that customers will choose, and what will they eat?” Thompson asked his audience at the Clinton Global Initiative. “What we don’t want to do is just put something on the menu and say, hey, we did it. We really want consumption.”

What that means is: The ball is in our court, folks. By no means are we encouraging you to eat McDonald’s, but if you do, buy the healthiest options available and you’ll be pushing a positive shift.

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