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McDonald’s May Not Be Saving the World, But It’s Doing Something (Anything) About Coffee

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Say what you will about McDonald’s place as one of the world’s largest beef-production-related greenhouse gas emitters — and there’s plenty to say about that — but the company seems at least to be taking a baseline commitment to coffee sustainability seriously.

The global fast food purveyor yesterday launched a major PR campaign to promote its sustainable coffee sourcing efforts, saying that 84 percent of its McCafé-brand coffee sold in the U.S., and 54 percent worldwide, is “sustainably sourced.” The company’s goal is to have 100 percent of its coffee sustainably sourced globally by 2020.

McDonald’s made its very first sustainability claims related to coffee in 2013, and in 2016 it made its 2020 commitment while rolling out a more fully developed corporate sustainability strategy.

So what does “sustainably sourced” mean here? Like Starbucks and several other private companies buying and selling massive volumes of coffee, the company has turned to the nonprofit Conservation International to help establish some sustainability benchmarks, while also joining the CI-led Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

While Starbucks has its C.A.F.E. Practices in-house sustainability platform, McDonald’s has what it calls the McCafé Sustainability Improvement Platform (SIP). Through this platform, the company has increased sourcing from third-party certifiers such as Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade International and Fair Trade USA, while also working with nonprofits to make targeted investments in numerous coffee-growing communities.

In this latest sustainability-related marketing campaign, the company is focusing heavily on climate change and the potential negative impacts it is expected to have on coffee-growing communities and total production throughout the world in the coming decades.

“We know many people enjoy coffee as part of their daily routine, and, at McDonalds [sic], we are taking meaningful steps to support farmers protecting it from climate change,” McDonald’s Director of U.S. Supply Chain Sustainability Townsend Bailey said in one announcement yesterday. “As we continue on our journey to build a better McDonald’s, we are using our size and scale to implement significant changes that are important to our customers, our people and the environment.”

The company is saying all the right things. But is McDonald’s radically transforming the coffee trade? Is it significantly reforming the distribution of equity throughout its own coffee supply chain? Is it slowing down the effects of climate change in the highlands of Ethiopia or Guatemala or even in its corporate hometown of Chicago?

Even if the answer to all these questions is “not quite,” McDonald’s is at least seeking guidance from NGOs within the coffee sphere to do something. Be it by upward pressure from a growing specialty segment, by changing attitudes toward corporate sustainability and competitiveness, by some pragmatic realization about the financial costs of climate change within the U.S., or by some profound ethical middle-of-the-night revelation (less likely), at least McDonald’s is doing something.

And that’s more than can be said for some of the world’s other largest coffee buyers.

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