McDonald’s moves toward net zero: the role of the supply chain
The McDonald’s journey in Ireland started 45 years ago, when it opened its first restaurant in 1977 on Grafton Street, Dublin. Today, McDonald’s spends over $2 billion on its supply chain for food and packaging across the UK and Ireland. 23,000 British and Irish farmers are supplying the brand with quality ingredients.
Where and how McDonald’s sources its ingredients is essential to how it addresses climate challenges. Back in 2021, the company launched Plan for Change, its agriculture and sustainability strategy to reach net zero by 2040.
A high-level overview of the company’s pathway to net zero was shared at Alltech ONE Dublin by Nina Prichard, head of sustainable and ethical sourcing for McDonald’s UK and Ireland. She also oversees Plan for Change.
The demand for change
Customer expectations, legislation and the cost of inaction were key drivers for McDonald’s to embark upon the net zero journey.
“As a business, in the long term, we have to be able to look ahead 10, 20 years to see what’s coming down the road to mitigate risk and to assure supply for the four million customers that we serve every day,” Prichard said. “And that’s quite a challenge to think that far ahead and be able to put action into practice today. But it’s something that we have to do, working together in collaboration.”
In the future, McDonald’s plans to continue serving its iconic Big Macs and McNuggets, as long as customers demand them. What needs to change, to address climate challenges, is how the company sources its ingredients. To achieve this, McDonald’s relies on government interventions, financial expertise and, most importantly, collaboration with farmers.
Accelerating net-zero ambitions
McDonald’s has made significant progress in achieving net-zero sustainability over the past decade without compromising customer experience. In fact, customers welcome the changes. While they still want tasty food in convenient packaging, there is an increasing demand for both food and packaging to be sustainably sourced and produced. McDonald’s carries out a lot of research to listen to their customers’ needs, then make corresponding changes in their menus and restaurants. Through this research, the company has identified three major areas of customer expectations: quality food, environmental improvement, and positive impact in communities.
Recently, McDonald’s eliminated 1,000 metric tonnes of plastic in their supply chain by substituting paper straws and paper-based cutlery for plastic. The company also now turns all of its used cooking oil into biodiesel for its delivery fleet. In addition, this year McDonald’s launched its second Net Zero Carbon location, where both building construction and restaurant operations meet the net-zero standard.
With the scale of a big brand, McDonald’s restaurants are also a place to educate people, especially the climate-conscious Gen Z, about sustainability across the supply chain and how McDonald’s is meeting that challenge.
Leveraging the power of the supply chain
When it comes to beef, McDonald’s has been scrutinized by the public, NGOs, stakeholders and media around issues of performance and sustainability.
“Beef is always a hot topic,” Prichard said. “How we source it, where we source it from, how it’s produced, the animal feed that goes into it, and also our future ambition around this particular category, given the data that’s out there from an emissions perspective.”
A turning point for McDonald’s in terms of measuring agriculture performance and sustainability came in 2017. The company started working with E-CO2, an accredited service that helps measure and improve environmental performance, to show British and Irish farmers how they could reduce their carbon footprint. Understanding the data means farmers can manage what they measure.
Through the program, McDonald’s saw a 23% reduction in its carbon footprint and £23,000 worth of savings, on average, for supplier farms.
“That was just a metric we captured to demonstrate that sustainability, moving in the right direction, doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to add cost to the system,” Prichard said.
McDonald’s has also invested in research on regenerative farming with farmers near Oxford, who have been transitioning entirely to regenerative farming practices over the past four years. Through this research, McDonald’s assessed farm profitability when farmers have to potentially destock to transition into other types of grassland management. The company could then start to educate and share practical knowledge with farmers to help them move toward sustainability without sacrificing profitability. This involves not just beef production but also land use and carbon sequestration.
This process is one of McDonald’s focus areas as the company continues to support farmers by demystifying environmental initiatives and mitigating some of the negative narrative around agriculture’s impact on the planet.
Change a little, change a lot
There are complexities in the way people look at sustainability. Prichard is confident that McDonald’s, through its strong brand and marketing prowess, can continue to simplify the subject for consumers and farmers alike.
“It’s so important to us that we work together to showcase what we can do and to collaborate,” Prichard said.
Through its continuing focus on improving sustainability across the supply chain, combined with its dedication, global reach and influence, McDonald’s is creating real change and inspiring other companies to do the same.
Related ONE content
Alltech ONE Dublin focused on collaborative solutions to the challenges facing the agri-food industry as it confronts the “4 Cs” — the major forces of climate, conflict, consumer trends and rising costs.
Explore our other content, including photos and videos, from Alltech ONE Dublin at one.alltech.com/Dublin.