Burger King’s sustainability efforts: barely trying

Burger King is lagging behind McDonald’s in making its business environmentally sustainable

Fast-food companies such as McDonald’s and Burger King are, by virtue of their very offerings, a tremendous toll on the environment. In 2012, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) called beef the “climate-harmful” meat.1 Beef’s environmental impact is astronomical compared to that of chicken and pork – per pound, it requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water, translating into 5 times more climate-warming emissions. The effect is even larger when considering beef consumption per calorie.2

Of course, both Burger King and McDonald’s run on beef. In this respect, their very existence is antithetical to environmental sustainability. But for this very same reason, it is imperative that these companies tackle sustainability seriously and diligently. It is the right choice for the environment, and in the long run, the right choice for their businesses and their bottom lines.

Over the past 5 years, McDonald’s has made great strides to ensure sustainable sourcing and selling of its products. Burger King, on the other hand, has failed egregiously.

Burger King’s shortcomings

Burger King has a long history of purchasing commodities that are linked to deforestation. The company is a major purchaser of beef, soy, palm oil, and paper products, items often viewed as the leading drivers of tropical deforestation. Despite repeated consumer calls for deforestation-free purchasing, the company has failed to implement verifiable, sustainable sourcing of its products. 3

In its most recent sustainability framework, released in June 2016, Burger King does not guarantee that its palm oil is sourced sustainably. This verification is a step they plan to implement by 2020. Burger King lags significantly behind McDonald’s, who has dramatically reduced its purchasing of beef and soy from non-sustainable sources, and eliminated its purchase of palm oil for restaurant cooking to sustainability-certified sources.4

Further, the company has done little to meaningfully influence consumer behavior. Burger King has not introduced any plans to serve more fruit, vegetables, and non-beef options in its restaurants, and its most recent energy efficiency and recycling efforts can be simply characterized as too little, too late.5

Setting a precedent

As a top global fast food chain, Burger King is in the enviable position of shaping the discourse on environmental sustainability. Today’s consumers are aware of the sourcing practices of restaurants, and this often influences their purchasing decisions. Further, sustainable sourcing is not only good for the environment, but in the long term, influences the supply of goods available to restaurants like Burger King. By sourcing items such as beef, soy, and palm oil sustainably, Burger King would be taking steps to ensure that it can receive these commodities at reasonable prices in the future.

Lastly, Burger King has tremendous influence over consumer demand. The company can play its part in encouraging healthier eating habits that are also more beneficial to the environment. For instance, the company can offer healthier snacks, reduced soft drink sizes, or financial or social incentives for its customers to eat healthier.

Initiatives to implement

Burger King should implement a long-term plan that ensures the following:

  • Sourcing of commodities from sustainable producers, and diligent verification of these sources
  • Serving of more fruit, vegetable, and non-beef options in restaurants, to encourage healthier and more sustainable consumer behavior
  • Increasing energy efficiency in restaurants, and setting energy efficiency targets that match or exceed that of other top fast food chains
  • Increasing use of recycled materials (for packaging, cups, and utensils), and encouraging consumers to recycle materials

Lastly, Burger King is a global company worthy of a global perspective. Burger King’s CEO should participate in global conversations around sustainability and deforestation, and be a leader in shaping these conversations. The New York Declaration on Forests and the COP21 Paris Agreement featured participation from multi-national companies such as Unilever and Cargill. These are unique opportunities for Burger King to hear from and participate in global conversations around sustainability.

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[1] Schwarzer, Stefan. Growing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Due to Meat Production. Geneva: UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service, 2012.

[2] Eshel, Gidon, Alon Shepon, Tamar Makov, and Ron Milo. “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 33 (2014): 11996-12001.

[3] “Stop Burger King from Destroying Rainforests.” ForceChange. July 15, 2015. Accessed November 07, 2016. https://forcechange.com/145170/boycott-burger-king-until-it-sources-sustainable-palm-oil/.

[4] “Sustainable Palm Oil Action Plan – McDonald’s.” Accessed November 7, 2016. http://corporate.mcdonalds.com/mcd/sustainability/sourcing/priority-products/sustainable-palm-oil-plan.html.

[5] “2016 Sustainability Framework.” Letter. June 29, 2016. In Restaurant Brands International. June 29, 2016. Accessed November 7, 2016. 1. http://www.rbi.com/sites/default/files/restaurant_brands_international_sustainability_framework.pdf.


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Student comments on Burger King’s sustainability efforts: barely trying

  1. Interesting post!

    You mentioned that, “Burger King lags significantly behind McDonald’s, who has dramatically reduced its purchasing of beef and soy from non-sustainable sources, and eliminated its purchase of palm oil for restaurant cooking to sustainability-certified sources.” I am wondering what “sustainable” refers to in this context, as sustainability is often (though not always) linked with climate change.

    I agree that the issue of sustainability should be top-of-mind for popular fast food chains like Burger King. Not only would doing so set a precedent for competitors to follow, but I also think that with customers becoming increasingly more mindful about how/where their food is sourced, failing to implement sustainable practices may hurt Burger King’s ability to retain customers.

  2. Great post – “Beef’s environmental impact is astronomical compared to that of chicken and pork – per pound, it requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water, translating into 5 times more climate-warming emissions.” particularly struck me – what role, if any, do you think fast food chains and other protein intensive companies should have in developing sustainable sources of protein or in developing protein alternatives? Are taxes the answer?

  3. Interesting topic!

    I must admit I enjoy eating fast food occasionally, particularly the offerings of Burger King. I’m disappointed to see this global brand has chosen to ignore sustainable practices, which are the need of the hour. Given the power of the brand, it seems unlikely that a significant number of consumers will boycott Burger King for its lack of sustainable sourcing. As you’ve mentioned, McDonalds is doing much more to practice sustainability in its business. If several other global fast food chains are doing the same, perhaps they can work with governments across the world to institute laws to mandate sustainable sourcing. This would force Burger King and other such chains to limit the impact of their businesses on the environment and coerce them into implementing sustainable practices.

  4. This is a great post in that it highlights the full spectrum of strategies companies are taking with respect to climate change. Clearly Burger King has made the decision that engaging in a robust sustainability program is not worth the associated cost. Do you see Burger King getting its act together in the future as consumers increasingly care about the practices of the restaurants they frequent? I would be interested to see how they are monitoring consumer perception of the brand as they increasingly look like a bad actor when compared to their chief rival McDonald’s.

  5. Great article and I would have enjoyed reading it more were it not for how dispiriting their lack of action thus far is! Given the impact the food industry has on climate change, in particular via protein production and its supply chains, is this an industry the government should look at regulating more closely? There is self-regulation to the extent to which public pressure exerts itself, but is this enough? We expect our legislators to play a role in any industry that has a significant environmental impact, be it in energy or auto production, inter alia, at what point and to what extent should we be regulating others, which are also responsible for an increasing part of C02 productions? My personal view is that self-regulation is insufficient as perfectly illustrated by how little Burger King has done.

    (1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804645/

  6. Interesting that BK is lagging behind MCD in terms of implementing more environmentally-friendly practices. Who’d have thought! I wonder if the fact that McDonald’s has some of the strictest brand and standardized procedural requirements in the quick service restaurant industry plays a role in how Burger King and others deliver a consistent message and operational strategy around environmental sustainability. Also, I love a MCD or BK burger just as much as the next person, but I wonder what expectations we should have on fast food companies whose very business models (e.g., meat usage, disposable packaging) are inherently at odds with climate change? One could argue that the above efforts is only change at the margin.

  7. Cow flatulence & manure are also contributors to climate change through the release of methane gas into the atmosphere. California has even gone so far as to pass laws to regulate the amount of cow methane released (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-methane-cows-idUSKCN11P22A). Personally, I think this law will have the effect of simply moving dairy production out of state. There are companies, like beyond meat, that could provide interesting solutions to BK’s sustainability problems by creating a nearly identical meat substitute made entirely from vegetables. http://beyondmeat.com/products/view/beyond-burger. It will be interesting to see how BK deals with the sustainability issue going forward.

  8. Delicious but fat article as Burger King and McDonalds. I think those companies are facing with significant pressures to be health friendly and cost competitive. When you add sustainability efforts on top of those pressures, their margins would drop significantly making them less and less competitive especially in emerging markets. Hence, I am highly pessimistic about eco-friendly efforts of low cost companies such as Burger King. The difference between BK and McD sounds just brand perception rather than real and scalable efforts. Coming from an emerging country where BK has a more premium positioning, I believe that attrition to BK’s eco-friendliness would be higher than McD.

    On the other hand, any combined efforts of those two giants will drive whole fast-food supply chain to be more sustainable and can create a positive snow ball effect. Hence, BK should be pressured more to match with McD’s efforts.

  9. Great article, which highlights important points how Burger King can overcome some of its current challenges. I agree that Burger King should care about the environment and source all inputs from suppliers with sustainable practices. Many research studies show a trend that people are shifting to more healthier food; however, I think it will be challenging for Burger King to change its business model and focus on healthier food – Burger King is differentiated by and known for being a junk fast food restaurant. If Burger King decides to take into account the changes in consumer behavior towards healthier food, it might be better to acquire a healthier fast food restaurant chain and operate it separately under a different name, rather than change the business model from junk to healthy fast food restaurant.

  10. Very interesting look into an industry laggard. Burger King has tried to find ways to gain a competitive edge over their larger older brother, McDonalds and are clearly blowing an enormous opportunity. What I find fascinating is the scale of this kind of company and the licence that this scale gives them to completely transformer their suppliers if they want to / see a consumer preference change where the customer is demanding sustainable ingredients. If they could change the behaviors and a start having people stop choosing “meat before morals”, then there would be a major impact on the fast-casual supply chain.

  11. Interesting industry. One of the most relevant business partner to 3G, Burger King´s owner, is Warren Buffet. Mr. Buffet´s grandson, Howard, is currently developing “the Berskhire Hathaway of sustainable investments”. I believe eventually Mr. Howard Buffet´s findings will permeate to Burger King´s operation; probably the most complicated part of adopting these findings into Burger King´s business model, given that Warren Buffet´s firm and 3G will, as they have, prioritize financial performance above all things. Nevertheless, this will be a great opportunity to “upgrade” the mindset at Burger King, which could leverage a very wide portfolio of sustainable initiatives (especially on sourcing and recycling) from Berkshire´s portfolio companies. (1)

    (1) Business Insider, “Warren Buffet´s grandson is trying to create the Berkshire Hathaway of sustainable investments,” November 20, 2015, retrieved on November 7, 2016 from http://www.businessinsider.com/howard-buffett-starting-ix-investments-2015-11

  12. Great article! As a fast food lover myself, I have always been curious about the environmental impact of those companies. It is interesting to learn that McDonald’s is actually doing a way better job than Burger King. To me, it seems the power of one company is limited in terms of help reducing climate impact. I was wondering if there will be a strategic partnership in the future so that all fast food companies such as Yum and McDonald’s can join force and set up more industry standards.

  13. I enjoyed the reading the article and can totally see how Burger King has so much to do, especially when compared to McDonalds. However, a lot of what we think it should do may not necessarily make business sense. For instance: I don’t think as a restaurant that attracts customers for its burgers should start pushing healthier options- it is unapologetically a fast food chain with large sized fries and sodas- that is its value proposition. I agree that they really need to start being more sustainable in their sourcing but I do not agree that customers necessarily think of sustainability when they are picking between fast food chains- Now this is an opportunity for McDonalds to educate the customer about why sustainable sourcing is better for them and the environment, which will put pressure on Burger King to think more seriously about its practices. A lot of these supply chains are hard to alter, instead of switching to sustainable sources, are there ways in which Burger King can extend its sustainability practices to its suppliers and hence lead a value chain move towards sustainability?

  14. Wow, what a shame. I agree with you that Burger King needs to act quickly to pursue more sustainable business practices, for obvious environmental reasons but even from a purely competitive perspective. In fact, I am surprised that industry regulatory groups have not already called them out. In the consumer package goods industry, the largest players such as General Mills and Unilever were ousted for not employing sustainable practices, and I would not be surprised if Burger King soon faced the same reputational fate and lose that gold crown.

    To mitigate, I would supplement your points and suggest that Burger King commit to sustainably sourcing 50% of its beef by 2020. After all, McDonald’s has already begun purchasing sustainable beef this year, and Burger King needs to make a firm commitment to compete and uphold its reputation. In order to do so, Burger King should partner closely with its beef suppliers and patty processors to investigate the beef production process being used and enforce rules that ensure that practices like overgrazing (which negatively impact climate change) do not occur. Lastly, Burger King should exam its full product life cycle from farm to table to measure its GHG emissions and proactively report its 1) shortterm and longterm targets and the 2) changes and methodology they plan to employ to reach those goals.

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