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Twenty years ago this month, McDonald’s Corp .and Environmental Defense Fund  (EDF) embarked on a groundbreaking collaboration to change the way environmental progress is achieved. Since then, both EDF and McDonald’s have maintained partnership and collaboration as key ingredients to achieving sustainable solutions and continuous improvement around environmental innovation.
In November 1990, McDonald’s announced that it would work with EDF to phase out its iconic polystyrene clamshell food containers in an effort to significantly reduce its environmental impact by cutting solid waste. It was the first partnership between an environmental group and a Fortune 500 company in an era when environmental and business interests were typically not aligned. Since this first partnership, both organizations have continued their innovative work with a broad range of industry leaders and NGOs to catalyze environmental progress.
“We are celebrating two decades of sustainable progress with EDF,” says Bob Langert, McDonald’s vice president, Corporate Social Responsibility. “We believe this positive relationship created not only an environmental benefit, but a model for us on how we’ve addressed substantive issues with NGOs going forward. We’re proud of all of the significant results achieved and business benefits attainedover the years.”
EDF and McDonald’s worked together to develop a new solid waste reduction plan . The initiative eliminated more than 300 million pounds of packaging, recycled 1 million tons of corrugated boxes, and reduced waste by 30 percent in the decade following the partnership, and this was all achieved at no additional cost to the company.
EDF’s President Fred Krupp, who started the conversation with McDonald’s 20 years ago, notes, “Our work with McDonald’s sends a strong message about the potential and profitability of sustainability. This partnership showed that collaboration can effectively spur innovation and lead to powerful results that make sense for both business and the environment.”
Twenty years later, EDF and McDonald’s continue to have measurable success working with other industry leaders and NGOs. EDF has helped develop cleaner trucks with FedEx , launch a comprehensive sustainability campaign with Walmart , and helped private equity leader KKR systematically improve performance of its portfolio companies.
EDF also has embraced other creative ways to encourage corporate environmental innovation. One of these programs, EDF Climate Corps , pairs MBA students with leading companies to develop energy efficiency plans that save millions in operating costs and carbon emissions. Since the program began in 2008, the EDF Climate Corps fellows have discovered efficiencies that could save $439 million in net operating costs and avoid more than 500,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions at Fortune 500 companies such as AT&T, Yahoo!, and eBay. This past summer, McDonald’s hosted a 2010 Climate Corps fellow who worked with the company’s operations and environmental teams to focus on increased energy efficiencies in restaurants.
The collaboration with EDF spawned nearly 40 additional programs and partnerships with McDonald’s over the years, which have resulted in sustainable progress on a range of issues. For example:
- An average of 99 percent of all McDonald’s animal handling suppliers have passed their animal welfare audits over the last three years. More than 4,000 audits have been conducted in the past 10 years. Every animal handling facility in the McDonald’s supply chain is required to be audited annually.
- More than 98 percent of McDonald’s whitefish originates from fisheries with favorable sustainability ratings, as a result of McDonald’s partnership with Conservation International to develop its sustainable fisheries program.
- McDonald’s developed its Supplier Environmental Scorecard with Conservation International to measure and reduce water, energy, air, and waste impacts in its supply chain. The scorecard is currently being used by bakery, beef, poultry, pork, and potato suppliers in the company’s nine largest markets.
“More and more companies recognize the business benefits of environmental innovation, and we look for ways to leverage the market clout of these industry leaders,” says Gwen Ruta, who has headed EDF’s business partnership program for the past 10 years. “Our program has grown, but our partnership model hasn’t changed – no financial contributions from companies, multi-disciplinary teams to develop environmental innovations, and transparency of project results. These three pillars enable us to push for big, bold goals that have industry-wide impact.”
Even with the significant results of its business partnerships over the past 20 years, both organizations agree that significant challenges for the environment remain.
McDonald’s latest efforts focus on improving sustainability in beef production. Earlier this month the company was a lead sponsor of the World Wildlife Fund Global Conference on Sustainable Beef, which convened 300 global stakeholders in the beef industry. Participants engaged in a series of discussions around eight key issues including food and nutrition, community, water, labor and business, land management, energy, biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of the Conference was to help clarify the issues and align the beef industry around the sustainability of the beef production system.