When it comes to sustainability, competition isn’t the name of the game.
Speaking at the University of Manitoba during a seminar hosted by the National Centre for Livestock and the Environment, Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stilwell of McDonald’s Canada said that efforts to make food production more sustainable need to be “pre-competitive.”
“We work very collaboratively, not only with our supply chain, but also with our competitors,” explained Fitzpatrick-Stilwell, senior manager of sustainability for the company. “I talk to Tim Hortons, to Starbucks, talk to Burger King, we talk to Wendy’s, we talk to everyone, sharing best practices in the sustainability sphere.”
For McDonald’s, having a sustainable food-service business also means having access to a sustainable supply of beef, chicken, eggs, potatoes and dairy products. All of which require a strong Canadian agricultural sector, he said.
“I want everybody to have sustainable beef, I want everybody to source potatoes sustainably from Canada. What I want is for them all to get them from Canadians, that’s were we want to focus,” he said.
Of course that sense of collaboration doesn’t extend to all aspects of the company, Fitzpatrick-Stilwell said with a chuckle.
“Talk to the marketing department and it may feel slightly differently.”
Letting consumers know
But marketing today also includes letting consumers know about the efforts being made to be greener and more environmentally conscientious. Something that in and of itself can be problematic, explained the sustainability manager, noting that consumers are particularly untrusting of large companies and corporations.
“Consumers have trust issues that they’re developing with almost everybody,” he said. “Consumers don’t trust NGOs as much as they used to, they don’t trust academics as much… and they really don’t trust big, multinational corporations, so how do you communicate with consumers?”
Transparency and honesty are key, Fitzpatrick-Stilwell emphasized. And every time a company makes news for not being honest, such as the recent revelation the Volkswagen used software to cheat emissions tests, it has a ripple effect.
One way McDonald’s Canada establishes transparency is with a long-running program called, “Our Food. Your Questions.” It allows anyone to ask the company anything. The questions and answers are posted on its website and can be shared via social media.
Questions ranging from, “Why do your burgers not rot?” to, “Am I allowed to ask for a fruit pie mixed in with my McFlurry?”
“Food is personal, it’s one of the things that we have to deal with as a food company that a car manufacturer or others don’t have,” said Fitzpatrick-Stilwell. “And complete openness is the only way to change perceptions.”
And while consumers can access copious amount of information via the Internet and social media, the manager said that that information isn’t always accurate, and often lacks context. McDonald’s aims to change that, in part by building trust through proven, sustainable practices, he said.
“The social licence for agricultural producers to continue to operate, more than ever, is intrinsically linked to consumer perceptions,” he said. “So if consumers are going to start to decide that what you do is not good… that’s where you’re really at risk of losing your social licence to operate.”
And maintaining social licence is key for everyone in the value chain, from the farmers, to the shippers, to the processors and suppliers, Fitzpatrick-Stilwell stressed.
But this isn’t a new approach for the company, which began working with the World Wildlife Fund nearly two decades ago to ensure that none of the products it sourced contributed to deforestation. Today McDonald’s is working towards sustainable coffee supplies, and recently announced it would phase out cage-raised eggs over the next decade.
As part of its work with the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef — which also includes companies like Walmart, Loblaws, Cargill, Costco and A&W — McDonald’s is also leading the way on verified sustainable beef, which it will start purchasing next year.
As the largest buyer of Canadian beef, almost 70 million pounds each year, Fitzpatrick-Stilwell said the company has an ability to positively influence the industry and the perceptions people have of it.
“This is an opportunity for us, when we’re doing things around sustainability, that when you’re purchasing 120 million eggs, and you make sustainable decisions around that, that can help change the whole industry for the better,” he said.
Although he was quick to point out that most beef producers are already producing sustainable beef and that the verification process is about being transparent with consumers, so they know how meat is being produced.
“We approach this in a really collaborative way, we realize that McDonald’s is not the expert in beef sustainability — the producers are,” he said.