The coffee industry is under increasing pressure as consumers and organizations like Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance set standards for sustainable certification. Currently, just 37% of the fast-food chain coffee comes from certified sustainable sources but the industry is working with Conservation International, the nonprofit that helped Starbucks reach the milestone of using 99% “ethically sourced” coffee.
So when a brand as big and influential as McDonald’s announces it will buy all of its coffee from sustainable sources by 2020, a sea change in sustainability has arrived.
“A lot of people have assumptions about what McDonald’s food is,” McDonald’s corporate chef Jessica Foust told Business Insider. “There’s a stigma about what [quick-service restaurant] food is, and that is very, very unfortunate. Personally, I don’t think that helps people eat well.”
Under CEO Steve Easterbrook who took over in March 2015, the chain has tested fresh beef patties, pledged to cut antibiotics from its chicken supply and source cage-free eggs, and replaced margarine with butter in its breakfast sandwiches.
Customers are increasingly demanding transparency about sourcing and ingredients from their brand choices and Papa John’s, Panera and Taco Bell recently cut artificial ingredients from the menu, while Subway, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s are reducing antibiotics in their supply chains.
“Our customers want to see where are products come from, what’s in it, and how it’s made,” Townsend Bailey, head of supply-chain sustainability for McDonald’s, told Bloomberg. “We want to make sure that we have sufficient supply of high-quality coffee for the long run. With changing dynamics in coffee with climate change, it’s really an important topic to make sure we are engaging farmers and helping them.”
McDonald’s has already invested nearly $6.7 million helping Guatemalan farmers adapt to difficult weather conditions and coffee-rust disease. “It is something that we are investing a lot in,” added Bailey. “It’s not cheap to have engagement at this scale.”
“We joke that sustainability is our best-kept secret,” said McDonald’s spokeswoman Molly Starman. McDonald’s will be featuring farmers’ stories on its website.
“Having a major brand like McDonald’s taking a very visible step will definitely drive restaurants and brands of retail names to join in the sustainable coffee challenge,” said Peter Seligmann, CEO of Conservation International, to Bloomberg. “We see this as an important, catalytic event.”