Book review: The Battle to Do Good: Inside McDonald’s Sustainability Journey

Mike Tuffrey, Co-founder of Corporate Citizenship, reviews a personal account of the inner workings of corporate sustainability at one of the world’s most recognisable brands.

A “sustainability page-turner” is not a description one often finds associated with books in the usually heavy-going world of corporate responsibility.  In the case of The Battle to do Good: inside McDonald’s sustainability journey, just published in hardback by Emerald Publishing, the marketing claim rings true.

Bob Langert, the book’s author, takes us on his 25 year journey from being given a “temporary environmental assignment” in the late 1980s to overcome opposition to the polystyrene clamshell, then littering America’s streets, to his retirement in 2015 as McDonald’s first ever vice president for sustainability.  Along the route we learn about chicken welfare standards, the infamous McLibel trial, Amazonian deforestation, childhood obesity, workers’ rights, much more on packaging, and many other topics too.

This journey started in denial, morphed into reactive harm-reduction on individual issues, then grew into a formal corporate strategy first agreed in 2010, and ended with a five year plan, the 2020 Sustainability Framework, with pillars around sourcing, planet, food, people and community.  That’s a journey many large companies have travelled in parallel, although few so much in the public spotlight and with so many individual customers intimately involved – 3.8 million every day served in the UK alone.

In this detailed account Bob Langert shares the ups and downs and work-arounds in his many battles, and draws out the wider lessons from each episode, with every chapter ending with Hard Knock Nuggets – practical tips on overcoming obstacles and winning allies.  Much will ring true with corporate sustainability managers on the same journey, perhaps especially his three Ps for success – passion, patience and persistence.  The final chapter – the profits of sustainability – on developing the sustainability framework will be especially useful for those managers now creating a ‘plan’ for their own companies, like the ground-breaking M&S Plan A and the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (full disclosure – I have consulted extensively on Unilever’s original plan and subsequent award-winning performance).

Top learnings for me from this compelling account are the crucial role that NGOs and campaigners play in spurring action, the vital importance of allies in the business to unlock internal barriers and – often understated – the personal character and tenacity of the chief sustainability officer (note the three Ps).

The one big thing that’s missing from this account is a final section on the next chapter in the journey, on the major challenges ahead.  This journey ends with a happy alignment of business and society’s interests.  Unstated, however, is the viability of the business model in a world of rising 9 billion, projected acute water shortages, and the craziness of continuing on our current climate trajectory towards 3.2 degree warming (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, October 2018) when the science – and in theory all the world’s governments in the Paris agreement – say we need to keep it below 2 degrees.

Bob notes the shift over his 25 years from risk aversion to seeing CSR as central to the business.  For the sake of life as we know it on our planet, the next big shift will need to be even bigger, towards true corporate sustainability.

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