The company acknowledges that plant-based foods have a lower impact on the environment, but it reminds customers that they don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to limit their carbon footprint. If each year, every person in the U.S. ate 10 Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt sandwiches with chips instead of 10 quarter-pound burgers with fries, it would reduce emissions by 77 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to Panera. That’s equal to removing more than 16 million cars off the road in a year.
“I believe strongly that providing information and nudging guests to decisions that align with their core values but are also better for the planet can be incredibly impactful,” Burnett says. “We need to not only work on the supply side and the work that restaurants and our partners do, but there also needs to be some work on the demand side. And so we want to make sure that we’re being able to influence both.”
The Climate Challenge
For all the sustainable actions Panera has taken over the years, none may be more aggressive than its goal to be climate positive by 2050. That means the fast casual wants to take away more carbon from the environment than it emits.
The company said reaching this objective equates to removing roughly 2.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents each year compared to its 2019 greenhouse gas baseline. For perspective, that’s the same as the amount of carbon sequestered by 2.96 million acres of forest per year, an area 14 times the size of New York City. This is a plan that touches the sustainability team, as well as culinary, supply chain, human resources, and other departments.
“When we think about our bold climate goal of becoming climate positive by 2050, while, yes that’s a lot of years away, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Burnett says. “So when you think about our carbon footprint, over 90 percent of it is in our supply chain and value chain. So a lot of the work that we’re doing over the years ahead is working with our partners and working on agricultural practices in the field to distribution networks and how to shorten them.”
The brand has a host of projects planned, but Burnett says the number one challenge for any sustainability professional is breaking everything into parts and not “trying to boil the ocean.”
Panera is setting science-based targets, which Burnett says is the most credible way to measure and set a climate goal. These are things Panera wants to achieve in 10 years, but the company views climate change as too pressing of an issue to wait.
After the chain first released its climate-positive stance in October 2021, Chaudhary says the peer set agreed with the general intent that neutrality may not be enough. At the same time, they looked at 2050 and immediately asked, “So what are you going to do right here, right now in the near term?” It’s the right question, Chaudhary says. Here’s one answer: Panera has already realized greenhouse gas reductions by investing in more energy-efficient store designs, lighting, HVAC systems, and kitchen equipment. It also decreased fuel use by consolidating deliveries.
“I think there is more curiosity around, ‘OK, tell us specifically what you will do by when,’” the chairman says. “And realistically, I think people are able to wrap their heads around nearer-term milestones. What are you going to do by 2025? That’s pretty tangible. And then also as we move towards 2050, are you really walking the talk on things that you ought to be doing so that you’re constantly demonstrating through behaviors that this is a serious commitment?”
The chain formulated three specific short-term targets for 2025.
One of these goals centers around transitioning to 100 percent circular packaging. The chain opts for packaging made with recyclable, reusable, and compostable materials. Three years ago, the brand revamped packaging for most of its hot sandwiches, which involved eliminating individual boxes and using a compostable thermal wrap. The switch led to a 60 percent decrease in material use and a package that increased heat retention and portability.
Additionally, Panera moved from a tri-fold napkin to a bi-fold, which cut 30 percent of raw material needed, but kept functionality. The company lets customers help by providing an “opt-out” option for single-use cutlery in the mobile app, via kiosks, and through third-party delivery. For dine-in guests, Panera uses real plateware and silverware to reduce the use of single-use products.
Another short-term objective is to use renewable electricity for at least 50 percent of company-owned operations. When it comes to this goal specifically, Chaudhary says Panera is constrained by availability and capacity in the U.S., but it’s something the brand is working through.
The third pillar considers the menu. Panera wants to increase the percentage of Cool Food Meals to 60 percent of entrées.
“Those are the projects that we’re very much in the weeds on right now and working toward and making progress on each and every day,” Burnett says.
Chaudhary understands that setting a goal for 2050 comes with the understanding that future leadership will have to take up the mantle and continue what Panera started. But that’s the whole point of making the strategy public—so the company can stay accountable in the coming years. Plus, momentum around sustainability is only getting larger and more important. It’s too much for any significant leader to ignore, let alone Panera.
The chairman says the company doesn’t have all the answers, but it knows sustainability is the right problem to solve and that it has a major role.
“I feel very confident that the foundation of the brand and what makes the brand unique and distinctive is so closely tied to it being a good social steward,” Chaudhary says. “I’m quite confident that with these goals being publicly committed, that future leaders will also have a similar level of commitment to drive compliance.”