How McDonald's Is Supersizing Sustainability
By Alex Palmer
January 1, 2013
A Company-Wide Approach
For all of its events, McDonald’s has created a scorecard that it uses to assess how the properties that it is considering rate in wellness and eco-friendly initiatives. These include whether they have any type of LEED certification, how they handle waste, and housekeeping policies — e.g., whether they have a linen and towel reuse program in place.
McDonald’s also runs MEET classes (Meetings and Events Excellence Training) several times a year, aimed at teaching the company’s meeting professionals how to plan the events. One of these is on how to run a sustainable meeting, which has been taught as a live class for years and in 2012 was launched as the company’s first webinar, with about 50 attendees worldwide.
“We’re really trying to encourage it across all of our areas of the globe, for them to be more mindful of sustainability initiatives in where they select and hold their meetings, and execute their events,” says Julie Larson, project manager for McDonald’s meetings and events.
McDonald’s sustainability efforts have had real impact in recent years. The company jumped 32.7 points on Brand Logic’s 100-point Sustainability Reality Score between 2011 and 2012 — one of the largest increases of any brand — and the sustainable efforts at its meetings helped fuel this increase.
McDonald’s Happy Meal toys might be small, but almost everything else about the fast-food chain is huge, from its global footprint (more than 34,000 restaurants in 119 countries) to the amount of French fries it sells in a single day (about 9 million pounds). As the company has worked to make its meetings more eco-friendly, its sustainability efforts have been as big as its brand.
Nowhere was this more apparent than at the company’s 2012 Worldwide Convention of 16,000 owner-operators and global staff, held in Orlando last April. McDonald’s undertook a number of initiatives to enhance its green practices in virtually every aspect of the four-day show, creating a model of sustainability that the brand is putting into place throughout the company.
“Because of the size of the show, we can test-pilot and implement initiatives in a way that makes it a good microcosm of what can be done on a larger scale in all of our restaurants on any given day,” says Julie Larson, project manager for McDonald’s meetings and events, who spearheaded the sustainability efforts.
The entire conference, held at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), was run as something of an extension of McDonald’s overall corporate goals and planned in close contact with the company’s communications and corporate social responsibility teams, according to Larson.
She summarizes this effort as exemplifying the three “company pillars” of “Good Food, Good People, and Good Neighbor.” Good Food practices included encouraging the event caterer, Centerplate, to source as much of the food as it could locally (it managed to locally source 17 percent for the conference, but Larson expects that number to increase in the future). As a Good People activity, a group that represented all of the event’s stakeholders helped renovate a local Ronald McDonald House; and Good Neighbor translated into initiatives like donating leftover exhibit materials to local charities after the event.
“These sustainability efforts speak to the long-term benefits an organization can build and continue to offer to a devoted group of partners and consumers,” says Amy Spatrisano, principal of MeetGreen and co-founder of the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC), who worked with McDonald’s to benchmark and measure the event’s sustainability. “In McDonald’s case, these activities demonstrate that its brand is evolving with the needs of its audience. That offers their employees, suppliers, and consumers a new way to look at the company.”
According to the 2012 Cone Commun-ications Corporate Social Return Trend Tracker, released at the end of last October, 86 percent of Americans say they are more likely to trust a company that reports its corporate social responsibility (CSR) results. Additionally, 82 percent say they are more likely to purchase a product that clearly demonstrates the results of the company’s CSR initiatives. These are numbers that McDonald’s is keeping in mind as it gets a more eco-friendly brand message out through its meetings and marketing efforts.
“A brand’s approach to greenness absolutely drives preference today — in both positive and negative directions,” says Rick Segal, worldwide president and chief practice officer at marketing firm Gyro and an expert on branding. “Social and environmental responsibility is a lifestyle, not an ad slogan. Treat sustainability as a cosmetic fix, and you fail. Build it into your brand’s purpose — the way McDonald’s is doing with its convention strategy — and you prosper.”
Getting Exhibitors Involved
Taking place every two years, the McDonald’s Worldwide Convention serves a number of major strategic purposes for the company. It’s an opportunity for its large community of owner-operators and members of its corporate management teams to reaffirm their commitments to the company on a global, regional, and individual level, and learn about the latest equipment and services available to them. In addition to an educational conference, the event has a trade show that includes 200 exhibitors that sell their wares to McDonald’s restaurants around the globe.
One way that the company encourages the broad adoption of sustainable practices is by promoting eco-friendly goods and services that are available to its owner-operators. For the trade show component of the event, the company awarded green-logo designations to 55 of the exhibitors that were showcasing a sustainable product or practice that could be used at a McDonald’s restaurant.
For example, refrigeration provider Manitowoc received the designation for using environmentally safe alternatives to Freon in their chillers. Several other exhibitors were highlighted for offering products that reduced energy consumption, such as fryers that required less oil. The green logo was included on their booths and on the map of the show floor that every attendee could reference. It was also noted in the mobile app that McDonald’s created for the show — a first for the company.
“Increasingly, companies want to be able to make sustainability claims to the end consumer, not just about their products, but about the entire supply chain that brought the product to market,” says Gyro’s Segal.
One of the main vendors and show exhibitors that McDonald’s collaborated with was the exhibition company Freeman, which was charged with building the elaborate exhibits for each of McDonald’s regional groups. For the conference, one of its primary sustainability tasks was finding ways to recycle and donate materials at the end of the show’s life cycle.
Jeff Chase, Freeman’s vice president of sustainability, was struck by how the Freeman team that set up the exhibits embraced the goals. Every morning of the show’s setup, when Chase gave a safety speech to the workers, he included a message on sustainability as well, emphasizing the importance that McDonald’s placed on it and that they follow the eco-friendly practices.
“I had lots of workers come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years and have seen so much thrown in dumpsters that could have been recycled, and I’m so excited that Freeman is stepping up,’” recalls Chase. “It was kind of nice to hear it from the union guys who you might think wouldn’t care.”
Kevin Wilhelm, CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting, says that it’s not uncommon for a company working to enhance its sustainability efforts to find support in surprising places.
“A lot of times vendors have never been asked,” says Wilhelm. “You may be having an event at a banquet facility, and the purchasing person says, ‘It’s going to be more expensive to have all recycled paper,’ but when you actually press them, they’ll say, ‘If you just commit to a two-year contract instead of a one-year, then we can do that for you at no extra cost.’”
The OCCC supplied Freeman with a list of about 200 charitable groups in central Florida, and working with Larson’s team, they matched them with the materials they knew would remain. An entire hall was set aside to gather the donations. For example, Habitat for Humanity received the countertops and cabinets; food went to the Harvest Foodbank; drapes went to a local theater group; 19 humidifiers went to a women’s shelter.
“Because the McDonald’s volume is so unbelievable, we often had to get creative in placing the items,” says Gwen Wilson, guest and community relations manager of the Orange County Convention Center.
Chase found that many donations coming from the McDonald’s event were so unique that it was a challenge to find the right place for them. “If it’s pens, pads, and lanyards, you know right where to go to donate,” he says. “But when you have a really cool built-out display that would be great for a theater group, at the end of the show you’re thinking, ‘What do I do with this stuff?’”
A series of booths that Freeman had created to appear like an outdoor marketplace, complete with tin roof and signage, was a great fit for a fairground 100 miles away. But the person picking it up underestimated the size of the exhibit, showing up with a small horse trailer when the full exhibit had required two semi trucks to transport it. Chase ultimately had some members of his team deliver it to the fairground.
In total, McDonald’s donated more than 67,000 pounds of materials, goods, and products to charity — about 7 percent of the total waste produced at the show.
Managing Attendee Participation
The theme of the 2012 show was “Be Bold,” a term that Julie Larson and her team took seriously as they thought through how they could make sustainability a bigger part of the attendee experience.
Beginning with the launch of the conference website about five months before the show, Larson’s team worked to engage attendees in the company’s sustainability efforts. In their hotel confirmations, there were links that tied them back to the website, promoting the recycling options as well as fitness and wellness offerings available at the hotels.
“From day one there was sustainability messaging,” says Larson. “We made sure they knew what we were doing differently for 2012.”
At the event, the message of sustainability was broadcast daily, with “show flow” videos played in advance of the keynote sessions. These videos offered details about recent company successes and how attendees could get involved. On the exhibit floor, attendees walked into a receiving area called “Portraits in Bold,” which featured a 12-foot-by-10-foot screen with graphics and visuals depicting innovative thinking by McDonald’s employees, including sustainability efforts.
“It really is amazing when you actually attend conventions of this size and then find out about all the amazing ‘green’ initiatives taking place to help local communities and the earth,” says Christopher Sander, general manager of a McDonald’s franchise in Exton, PA. “I was blown away at the efficiency of our sustainability impact.”
The convention’s more than 16,000 attendees created an audience whose attitudes toward environmental efforts ranged from enthusiastic to indifferent. This made it necessary for McDonald’s to take care of the back end so the event would be sustainable regardless of individual behavior.
A prime example was the composting program introduced for the first time at this show. HAVI Global Solutions (HGS), a supply-chain management company, working with disposal company Waste Management Inc., was responsible for deploying and managing the organic recycling service for the convention floor and buffet area. This removed any obligatory actions on the part of the attendees beyond throwing their food remains in the trash.
“This was new territory for McDonald’s and HGS, and both companies were dedicated to doing whatever we needed to do to plan for and execute the program efficiently with positive results,” says Jim Hansen, director of global sustainability for HGS.
Combining banquet and restaurant food, McDonald’s composted 84,180 pounds of organic waste, accounting for 8 percent of the event’s total waste. HGS also managed a battery recycling program during the convention. Retrieving batteries of all sizes from attendees at strategically placed kiosks, the company managed a haul of 36 pounds.
Beyond the Convention Center
About half of the attendees’ time was spent without a scheduled program, so the company worked to keep the sustainability in place outside the convention hall. Larson’s team and MeetGreen worked with the 17 host hotels to ensure that each had a recycling program in place and would be willing to measure how much material was recycled.
McDonald’s connected with Clean the World, which collects leftover hand soap, conditioner, body wash, and other amenities and delivers them to communities around the world, encouraging sanitization and cleanliness. “McDonald’s have been major advocates in building awareness and letting these hotels know that it’s not just a great option, but something that everybody needs to do,” says Shawn Seipler, co-founder of Clean the World.
Overall, some 1,900 pounds of amenities and soap (more than 6,700 bars of soap and 4,500 bottles of amenities) were collected.
“When they came to us with a list of what they would like to do, some of the initiatives involved practices that we didn’t really do at the Orange County Convention Center,” says Molly Crouch, director of environmental services for Centerplate, the in-house caterer. “We’ve done their show 10 or 12 times, and this was the first year we really went in with the goal of doing composting — stepping up really opened our eyes to what’s possible. I look forward to the event in 2014.”
Composting was extended to the company’s Menu Management exhibits, the five fully operational restaurants and 10 kitchens that served thousands on the exhibit floor. The composting done at the event offered a test case that gave the McDonald’s corporate team the confidence to try it at their headquarters as well as at a handful of restaurants.
Owner-operators were introduced to some of these efforts for the first time, and could see how simple and effective these practices could be in action.
“It gives credibility to the initiative,” says Sustainable Business Consulting’s Kevin Wilhelm. “When attendees see this in action, it helps make the business case for it.
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