The University Record, April 5, 1993

Unusual alliance helps environment, bottom line

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

A few years ago, a seven-year-old girl went on the Today Show and told Jane Pauley and the nation that McDonald’s “clamshells”—those infamous, non-biodegradable polystyrene containers for Big Macs—were terrible for the environment.

Such testimonials, along with movements like the Ronald McToxic campaign, convinced executives of McDonald’s Corp. that they needed to address the corporation’s solid waste problem.

The clamshells have since disappeared, replaced by more environmentally friendly paper wrappers, thanks to a ground-breaking collaboration between McDonald’s and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Last Monday, two key actors in that unusual alliance described their experiences at the first of the Nathan Lecture Series in Corporate and Environmental Management. The lectures help inaugurate the new Corporate Environmental Management Program (CEMP), a joint degree program developed by the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) and the School of Business Administration.

Aware that a “Styrofoam wall” stood between the corporation and environmentalists, McDonald’s sought an outside partner to help reduce the amount of solid waste generated by the preparation and packaging of its products. Robert Langert, director of environmental affairs for McDonald’s, and Jackie Prince, staff scientist for EDF, were members of the seven-person task force formed to direct the collaboration in 1989.

Both entities had much to gain and lose from the experiment. “We were smart enough to know that we were only good at running restaurants and needed help,” Langert said.

EDF saw the partnership as an opportunity to create a model for future environmental-corporate collaboration that could have a ripple effect throughout industry. “McDonald’s offered 8,500 labs—restaurants—across the country and 18 million customers on whom to test changes,” Prince said.

But what would their peer organizations think about the collaboration, Prince and Langert wondered. “We worried that we’d be accused by other environmental organizations of sleeping with the enemy,” Prince said. “We knew we’d be at risk if the collaboration didn’t produce results and that EDF’s reputation as a credible science organization could be hurt.”

Not everyone at McDonald’s embraced the relationship in the beginning, Langert said. “McDonald’s likes to be known as a maverick among other corporations,” he said, and did not want to be perceived as “caving in” to environmental interests.

The two parties devised ways to avoid potential conflicts and take advantage of each other’s strengths. First, the task force set up clear ground rules—EDF would accept no money from McDonald’s, McDonald’s would not be obligated to use EDF’s advice, and the two parties “agreed to disagree.” EDF then helped McDonald’s attack the common goal systematically and scientifically.

“EDF laid out 42 tangible things we needed to accomplish to improve our environmental policy,” Langert said. “They helped us apply measurement tools to every part of the business, from suppliers to distributors to customers.”

McDonald’s, in turn, gave EDF a dose of reality by educating the staff about the complexities of affecting changes within a multinational corporation. The EDF partners learned why changes in packaging and preparation can’t occur overnight in a business designed to deliver quick service and high value.

Prince and other EDF staffers even donned McDonald’s caps and aprons for a month of hands-on experience in the company’s operations. “My colleague with a Ph.D. in molecular biology had to learn how to dress and turn out burgers and buns,” Prince said. “By the end of his first day on the job, he was a wreck.”

But by the end of the two-year collaboration, McDonald’s had significantly reduced waste, saved about $1 million and, with EDS, co-produced a final report that is serving as a blueprint for other companies. “In fact,” Prince said, “Burger King took the rationale of our final report and uses it for the environmental message written on all Burger King bags.”

Also speaking at the lecture were SNRE Dean Garry D. Brewer, Business School Dean B. Joseph White, and Jo Ann and Stuart C. Nathan, whose gift to CEMP makes the lectures possible. Stuart L. Hart, professor of corporate strategy, served as moderator.

CEMP combines an understanding of economic growth with sustained use of the environment. Students in the three-year program will be able to earn a master’s in business administration and master’s in environmental studies. The program also will include a one-year residential program for mid-career managers and intensive mid-career executive training through the Business School’s Executive Education Program.