McDonald’s slip… on paper: a sustainability lesson

According to an article on the BBC News website ( Visited 02/05/19) a revolt has sparked among McDonald’s aficionados in the UK following a move from the fast food global chain to switch from plastic straws to paper ones, in order to make their service more “sustainable”. The move most likely stems from the strategic lines that the food giant has implemented lately in order to offset the threat to its mostly unsustainable business model by the mounting environmental awareness of customers. With some success and brightness, one should say.

However, the paper straw move stimulates some reflections about how sustainability should be dealt with to be a successful business tool, on one side, and how the maturity of the customer base should be part of the concerns of a global company.

A brief recap of the story: McDonald is switching away from plastic straws in its 1.300 plus restaurants because of customer pressure. For example, the article reports that a petition asking for a ban of plastic straws in cinemas got more than 215.000 signatures in last year. We are reminded that the fast food chain supplies around 1.8 million straws daily, to about 4 million customers in the UK. The choice to lighten the company’s straw footprint was going for paper straws. In about a week a petition from disappointed customers calling for a return to plastic has garnered more than 35.000 signatures, complaining that paper straws dissolve in the drink. The signatures are accompanied by some colorful comments, like this: “it’s like drinking a milkshake through an empty toilet roll tube”.

Here are some considerations, first from the point of view of the business decision.

The most immediate thought I have is that I feel little sustainability wisdom in the decision made: it is just too easy to think “let’s go on as usual, we just replace an environmentally unfriendly part of our product with another somehow more friendly. Same product, same service.” It’s very much like hoping to resolve the mobility conundrum by just substituting the ICE (Internal Combustion Engines) with the EV (Electric Vehicle): no way. For as much as in most cases an EV is better than an ICE. 

As well as the cleanest energy of all is the energy you save through efficiency (or the Nega-Watts that you simply don’t use) the most sustainable straw is the one you don’t supply to your customer. Therefore the real first sustainability question should be: how can we get rid of the largest possible amount of straws in our Value chain? Was this question asked by the sustainability team in McD? Honestly I cannot say, but I would bet a fair amount on the “no” by the response that was given to the customers’ pressure. Follow my reasoning for a minute: 4 million customers, almost 2 million straws. Does really every second customer of a McD shop NEED a straw? (Besides with a straw a plastic cover with a hole in it) I doubt it. Thinking of going more sustainable, how sustainable is the endless stream of soft drinks in paper cups with plastic cover and straw, plastic or paper? For sustainable, in this case, I mean “necessary to the best Value generation for all of the stakeholders”, which of course includes the environment.

Straws, plastic or paper, have a cost for the Company, for the customer, for the environment, i.e. for society as a whole, monetary and not. Thus straws, when not necessary, destroy Value for almost everyone, except maybe the producer of straws (to be seen in the long term). When necessary – debatable but I admit there may be cases – the Value they destroy should be offset by the one they produce. Overlooking the assessment of the global impact on Value – i.e. Value for all of the organization’s stakeholders – is a miss in sustainability decisions. Missing the opportunity to accompany the move with a massive elimination of the use of straws due to innovation in the product proposition is to me a serious flaw in the decision process that justifies the backlash. Other options are there of course to be explored (other materials among them, of course), but I prefer for the moment to concentrate on this, the most important to me. So far for the responsibilities of the Company.

Let’s look at the customer side. Yes, the customer: sustainability and climate change – yeah again, they are connected – is everyone’s responsibility. Among the critical comments reported in the BBC article there is one that strikes me: “”I am all up for saving he turtles but…” and goes on blasting the paper straw and the Company. Do really people believe that it’s all just about “saving the turtles”? Millions, billions of us completely miss the point and this is one of the reasons why humanity is facing a serious risk of failing to survive in the mid term, deservedly. As one who pays attention to sustainability in the little things, something that helps me help companies professionally because of the many ideas that pop up in every daily activity, I am aware of the many times you are purposelessly given a straw nowadays. Most notably if you are distracted for a moment when a waiter prepares a drink, or if your purchase is prepared out of your reach. We consumers are accustomed to useless waste to an astonishing degree. The bad news is that this addiction extends to the point of requiring the wasteful things even when they are completely unnecessary, just because we are used to them. Think about it: do we really need a straw to drink a glass of water, or a cola? Have we lost the capacity to drink without “drinking aids”? Cannot we any longer drink a milkshake and, perhaps, pick up the last drops with, for instance, a compostable spoon? Have our lips mutated? 

How much are REALLY people aware of the seriousness of the situation of waste and climate disruption and willing to act accordingly, doing the little changes in their daily habits that contribute to the effort to save our living ecosystem? It’s not about “saving the odd turtle” pal: it’s about me, you and our children and grandchildren: got it?

At this point let’s get back to McD and the big companies shaping the habits of their customers. Yes, this is an important part of sustainability: companies, especially global corporates, have the power to shape the people’s perception of their own needs and steer their behavior in the desired direction. Not the real Needs, of course, but people are more and more oblivious of their real Needs and unable to fulfill them, but this is another discourse. In any case, business has an educational responsibility in today’s world. 

Therefore, part of every sustainability effort by a company must be the education of its customers base. We know that companies can and has to connect its sustainability goals to its business ones, because basically they have to coincide for real, holistic sustainability to be achieved. Also they have to connect their sustainability objectives to their Value proposition and engage customers into the effort to achieve them. This is indeed part of the strategies to appropriate the competitive advantage from sustainability and circular practices that have to be integrated in the sustainability plan of action.

In a move like that of McD to change the material of the straws – and especially to eliminate the majority of them – customers should be involved, by illustrating the shift in the service proposal and the reasons behind it. They should be empowered to perceive the improved Value for them as citizens of the world and parents, to say a couple. Pilot projects should test the reaction from the public and adapt the model, and educational initiatives, getting inputs and suggestions. 

Was this made? Seems not. Although 35.000 people in a week on 4 million daily customers seem little, the sample is statistically significant once considered the abatement to customers base due to the need to take action voluntarily and sign a petition on such a trivial issue. Therefore it seems to me that the “educational opportunity”, with all its side effects of customers’ engagement and loyalty increase, has gone missing. Together with the opportunity to eradicate the straw addiction altogether.

In conclusion, sustainability is not just a matter of carbon footprint or LCA: first of all is a matter of leadership, considering a complex, multidimensional network of interactions and interconnections, all the while remembering that there is an infinite field of possibilities ahead and that we have a duty to explore them relentlessly.

The way out the predicament we are in lies in thinking out of the box and remembering the “motto” shared by the late Ray Anderson, former CEO of Interface: there is always a better way. With such awareness, would you really stop at a trifling change in material?