CR Leaders Corner: Bob Langert

An Interview with Bob Langert, VP, Sustainability, McDonald’s Corporation

Bob Langert joined McDonald’s in 1983, beginning his career as a logistics specialist before moving into corporate responsibility.  What began 23 years ago as a short term assignment on a project team tasked with removing CFLs (chlorofluorocarbons) from the company’s packaging gradually expanded into his current role as head of McDonald’s entire global CR effort.  Along the way Bob has worked with Greenpeace, WWF, the Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, and legendary animal rights activist, Dr. Temple Grandin.

1. AccountAbility: From the vantage of corporate responsibility and sustainability, how has the job changed since you started?

Bob Langert: In the beginning, CSR was much more focused on our company values, our heritage of doing the right thing. In the last few years we’ve broadened our thinking to embrace the idea that sustainability is very important for the growth of our business. This evolution is not only the right thing to do, but necessary for our company to be successful in the future.

The CR leader’s job today is part orchestra conductor, part translator. A conductor in the sense that a company, like an orchestra, has many talented individuals. My job is to empower and educate and bring that talent to the forefront, so that everyone understands what sustainability means, and what it means in their own business. Sometimes people are working on sustainability, and they don’t even know it, because they’re not looking through that particular lens in their work.

The translator part relates to our role in bringing the outside world in and exposing those inside the company to the outside world.  We need to translate societal issues to the business context. And vice-versa, we need to work with our business leaders so that they see societal issues as a business opportunity. In my experience that needs a lot of translation.

2. AA: Describe McDonald’s CR journey. Where have you come from? Where are you headed?

BL: If I had to put it into a headline, I’d say we’re migrating from corporate social responsibility to sustainability. We’re moving away from CSR terminology as something that’s too narrowly perceived both within McDonald’s and externally as dealing with social issues and philanthropy.

The future is sustainability defined as the core of what we do. It is about our core business and how we intersect with society.  It’s the idea of creating shared value. Sustainability isn’t just about doing the right thing.  It’s also about doing something that’s going to benefit our company. There’s no need to be bashful about creating value because that’s what’s going to make our work sustainable and bring value to society at the same time.

3. AA: What does sustainability mean to the average McDonald’s employee?

BL: If you were to ask people at the front counter “What does sustainability mean to you?” you would get a different answer all around the world, or puzzled looks. That’s not surprising though because I go to sustainability conferences where I hear sustainability experts define sustainability and I hear 100 different definitions.

However, if you were to ask “What does being socially responsible mean?, then the answer you’d likely hear would be that it’s about a company dedicated to doing the right thing.

That’s a good thing because sustainability begins and ends with values, and having our people live those values every day, put them into practice, and make decisions based on them. If we do that, we’re going to be the most sustainable company in our sector.

4. AA: Is “mainstreaming” sustainability more difficult for a company like McDonald’s with a franchise business model?

BL: Yes and no. In some companies decrees come down from on high and everybody gets on board pretty quickly. But that’s not how our system works. Eighty-five percent of our system is made up of independent owner operators, true entrepreneurs.

It can be difficult to rally this many people. However, the reward for it is phenomenal. If you define sustainability as truly embedding it in your organization so that people want to do it, as we get our system and suppliers and staff people and owner/operators educated and aware, sustainability gets locked in. People are doing it because they see the value for their business, and for connecting with customers.

McDonald’s serves more than 60 million people a day. If we can get our 1.7 million people engaged, we’re going to be able to mainstream sustainability in a big way.

5. AA: You talk about economic impact as a neglected pillar of sustainability, how so?

BL: For most employees, the true measure of sustainability is that the company they work for stays in business, and they can keep their jobs and they can sustain their families. However, in most of the CR initiatives I see, or the CR frameworks that are out there — “people, planet, profit” or “ethics, environment, economics” — it seems that keeping the company in business, providing jobs, and paying taxes is an afterthought.

Profit shouldn’t be a dirty word.  It’s the key component of making something sustainable.

6. AA: What are the areas where McDonald’s can really make a difference?

BL: It begins and ends with food. We’re a food service company. People’s expectations of companies in the food business are extraordinarily high — higher than any other sector of business.

When you start thinking of food, there’s the nutrition side and there is the sourcing side. If you judge impact by a multiplying effect, sourcing is where we have the greatest impact because our supply system is everybody else’s supply system. As we raise standards for how beef and poultry and potatoes and lettuce are grown and raised.  We’re really raising the bar for everybody. That’s the greatest impact, the greatest reward, using our size and leverage to make a difference with food.

7. AA: McDonald’s is a big target for activists. What do you think has been fair criticism of McDonald’s?

BL: We’ve certainly had our fair share of attacks. Many people come to us with high expectations so in some sense, I find it complimentary.

But, on the other hand where do you draw the line as to what’s fair criticism? Most people that advocate something, advocate in one dimension. But sustainability is multidimensional. It’s about human rights, animal welfare, environmental stewardship, health and safety of products, sanitation. And when you take a look at any issue you have to look across the board.

I think it’s very fair for people to advocate for what they believe in. But translating that advocacy into something practical can be a challenge. If we change these animal welfare practices, sometimes the environmental impacts are not favorable. Or sometimes the health and sanitation issues are troublesome. So we have to balance those all out, and sometimes that all doesn’t come out in the public domain.

8. AA: How has McDonald’s made strides to respond to critics to change things?

BL: We listen, we engage, we try to understand different points of view. Our research shows that the global consumer wants more food choices, wants more incorporation of nutritional aspects into food. We care about that. We want to provide food that people feel good about. If you take a look at our menu over the last eight years, it’s evolved tremendously, with many more nutritional choices. That’s why we’re remaining relevant, and successful.

9. AA: How do you view the scope of what sustainability issues that McDonald’s needs to address?

BL: The scope has expanded tremendously and shifted in terms of what is expected of us. The whole value chain is part of who you are and that takes a different strategy for us. It means that we need to work on systemic issues and work with others more. We’re not going to change agricultural and animal welfare practices by ourselves alone.

For example, we buy mostly from suppliers that make a finished product. They make a hamburger patty. They make a chicken McNugget. They cut French fries. We’re not buying from where the main sustainability impacts come from, which is the cattle rancher directly, the potato farmer.

So then, how do we make an impact on how potatoes are grown? The traditional model is the supplier company, whoever it is that makes the French fries, works with the farmers. But today we have a fantastic project underway with the National Potato Council, which represents potato growers and other stakeholders to develop a program to monitor, measure and reduce pesticides for potato growing. That’s the type of work that we need to do more of.

10. AA: What initiatives are you most proud of?

BL: I’m most proud of things that we do that have a multiplier effect of changing things. Our work with the Environmental Defense Fund changed packaging for our industry, with more unbleached fiber, more recycled content, reduced waste, less packaging.

We did the same with animal welfare working with Dr. Temple Grandin who had these blue sky ideas about how animals should be treated within the supply chain. It’s been a long journey, but we’ve incorporated her animal welfare standards and audits into McDonald’s system globally, in 500 facilities around the world. We’ve basically made a standard operating procedure for the animal agricultural industry, and for the fast food industry to look at animal welfare not as a peripheral issue, but as part of doing business.

Let me give you one more example. A few years ago activists from Greenpeace showed up in our restaurants in the UK dressed in chicken suits to call attention to excessive soya farming in Brazil, and how it was destroying the Amazon rainforest. We were caught completely by surprise because we don’t get involved in buying soya. Our suppliers do. It’s an upstream ingredient. Soya is largely exported from Brazil to European markets for animal feed.  It feeds the chickens that we use to make McNuggets.

The reality is McDonald’s purchased through our suppliers, maybe one-half of one percent of soya. It wasn’t a matter of us being a huge user. It was more a case of using McDonald’s to draw attention to an issue.  And Greenpeace drew our attention.

We quickly verified that the report was accurate, that there were legitimate issues of increased soya farming causing rainforest destruction. And within just one day, our leadership said, “We don’t want to be part of that. That’s not who we are. And we’re not going to buy things that destroy the rainforest.”

So, we called up Greenpeace and said, “We agree with you. So, now what do you want to do about it? You can’t just be targeting McDonald’s alone. This is a larger issue.” Working with Greenpeace we recruited other retailers. We got suppliers involved, traders in Brazil, other NGOs. And believe it or not, within three months, a moratorium was announced on those practices and that moratorium has stuck.

When you’re part of making something happen that all parties are happy with, and you make an improvement like that that sticks, you feel good.  When McDonald’s does something, the ripple effect can be tremendous.

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