Sustainable agriculture must be pre-competitive.” This phrase was repeated several times by Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, McDonald’s Canada’s senior manager for sustainability, during a seminar at the University of Manitoba on September 28.
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell’s lecture, “McDonald’s Perspective on Sustainable Food Systems,” was put on by the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, and sponsored by the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment (NCLE).
Canadian McDonald’s restaurants see three million customers per day at 1,400 restaurants nationally. “That’s a lot of people we can talk to about sustainability,” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell. “One of the things we’re trying to talk to people about is our sourcing practices. All of our products are sourced from Canadian producers. That’s 67 million pounds of beef, 52 million pounds of chicken, and 143 million pounds of potatoes,” he claimed, later correcting his statement to acknowledge that McDonald’s Canada’s pork comes from the U.S. via a bulk purchasing agreement.
He cited experts that say in 40 years the world will need 100 per cent more food than populations currently consume. “How are we going to sell 100 per cent more stuff than we do today, and do it sustainably? It will happen through innovation, tech, education, investment, entrepreneurship and partnership,” he said.
McDonald’s and other quick-service restaurant chains have come under the microscope in recent years for their environmental policies, including issues related to animal welfare. This fall, the company announced a commitment to revert to cage-free eggs in the United States and Canada by 2025. The announcement follows a pledge from McDonald’s USA this March to eliminate use of human antibiotics in chickens by 2017.
The company has begun a verified sustainable beef pilot project in Canada, committing to begin purchasing a portion of its Canadian beef supply from verified sustainable beef sources by 2016.
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell says the pilot is a collaborative effort aligned with Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) principles, and includes the whole beef value chain in Canada. The goal is to establish third party verification and transition a working program to the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB). “We’re not creating a standard, but helping to inform ourselves,” he said.
McDonald’s website claims that the pilot’s first wave of on-site verifications began in May 2015 and verifications will carry on till March 2016.
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell says being “pre-competitive” means sharing sustainability best practices with competitors. “We can’t be competing against each other on sustainability attributes. That’s not helping anyone in the end — McDonald’s as a brand, producers or the whole value chain,” he said.
Sustainability and Millennials
Sustainability requires profitability, and companies that ignore consumer demands for increased transparency and environmental best practices will lose out in the end, argued Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, highlighting what he called the “Millennial risk/opportunity.”
“The dominant users of today are not the dominant spenders of tomorrow’s market,” he said, pointing out that 18- to 34-year-olds born between 1980 and 1994 will outnumber baby boomers by 22 million by 2030. This group, more than any other, is concerned with corporate social responsibility and places little trust in multinational corporations.
Fitzpatrick-Stilwell pointed to Cone Communications’ 2013 Social Impact Study, which claims that “when companies support social and environmental issues.”
Millennials, like the general population, respond with increased trust (91 per cent) and loyalty (89 per cent), as well as a stronger likelihood to buy those companies’ products and services (89 per cent).” But many Milennials are just as likely to take to social media channels to challenge companies they believe “aren’t living up to their promises.”
“The social license of agricultural producers to operate is intrinsically linked with consumer perceptions,” argued Fitzpatrick-Stilwell. “If consumers start to decide that what you do is not good, that’s when you’re at risk of losing your social license to operate.
“The reality is that most Canadians do not have a direct relationship with farming or a direct experience with farming, yet they have lots of thoughts about how farming is done, with no context about how it’s done.”
The only avenue to changing these perceptions is transparency, he said. McDonald’s has launched several campaigns that seek to improve transparency, including its “Our Food. Your Questions” campaign. Even this campaign has drawn critique, however, as an attempt to make McDonald’s appear a farm-to-table company versus a factory farm-to-table multinational corporation.
But for McDonald’s, “the triple bottom line is economic, environmental and ethical/social,” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, emphasizing producers’ profitability as a key ingredient for long-term sustainability strategies. “At McDonald’s we get very focused on this for producers — you have to be in business for us to get to the good stuff after that.”