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Food & Hunger

McDonald’s Vows Its Coffee Will Be ‘Sustainable’ by 2020

McDonald’s USA has announced that by 2020, all its coffee will be sustainably sourced. It’s the latest in a series of steps toward sustainability made by fast-food giant which has been remaking its "green" image in recent years.

McDonalds USA had already switched to purchasing all of its espresso sustainably. Comparatively, it’s U.S. franchise is well behind its international counterparts: all its coffee in Brazil locations has been sustainable since 2014, as well as in all of its European countries (excepting decaf coffee). In 2015, 37% of their coffee bean purchases worldwide were certified sustainable.

Their proposal to make all coffee sold in the US sustainable is a part of the franchise’s “2020 Aspirational Goals,” which lays out ambitious goals for the company’s ethical shift. The goals include sourcing 100% of its palm oil and fish from certified sources, as well as purchasing a portion of its beef “verified sustainably’” by 2016.

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According to McDonald’s, the Aspirational Goals program was motivated by the company's concern for the future of food.

“We want to make sure that we have sufficient supply for the long run,” said Townsend Bailey, a supply-chain sustainability officer for the company.

To secure such a steadfast source of arabica beans, the company has invested in an international farmer training program. It has said it hopes to boost the livelihood of farmers in places like Guatemala by sponsoring instructors who will teach sustainable coffee-growing practices. In the next four years, McDonald’s plans to spend $6 million on the program.

So how strict are its sustainability certifications? To vet the their supply chain, McDonald’s will partner with sustainability certifiers such as UTZ, Fair Trade Certified, and Rainforest Alliance, an NGO that works on the ground with farmers to promote biodiversity and sustainability.

For frequent coffee drinkers, Rainforest Alliance will be the most familiar: it’s green frog logo can be found on the coffee cups of other big names in the industry, such as Starbucks and Lavazza.

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Groups like Rainforest Alliance will hold McDonald’s farms to their Sustainable Agriculture Standard, developed by the Sustainable Agriculture Network. The standard, which is modified yearly, has just been updated to include stricter human rights standards, as well as pesticide regulation.

While their coffee may well be on its way to being truly green, sustainability advocates are not yet ready to let the fast-food giant off the hook. Where deforestation and beef production are concerned, a 2016 scorecard by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) scored McDonald’s at just 48 out of a possible 100.

A UCS spokesperson recommended that the company should publicly release more details about their implementation and verification. They also suggested that “loopholes in the company’s commitments and practices can allow for continued deforestation.”

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Other efforts by McDonald’s, such as its promise to bring “verified sustainable beef” have been criticized as food industry “greenwashing.” A letter signed by 23 NGOs described that project’s sustainability certifiers, the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, as “fundamentally flawed.”

The NGOs cited inattention to workers’ rights, antibiotic use, and a failure to make a traceable or verifiable system as key flaws to the certification. Their strongly dismissive letter concluded, “This initiative will represent nothing more than an industry-led attempt to greenwash conventional beef production at a time when real, measurable, and verifiable change is so desperately needed.”