Greenwashing - the dark side of sustainability? The green marketing strategy of McDonald’s - greenwashing for a positive image or a sustainable promise?

An analysis of public articles, customer reviews and revenues

Pre-University Paper, 2020

19 Pages, Grade: 2+



Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Sustainability in business

3 Greenwashing

4 The green campaign of McDonald’s
4.1 Promises and aims
4.2 Sustainable strategy
4.3 Impacts of the green campaign
4.3.1 Impacts on public articles
4.3.2 Impacts on customers
4.3.3 Impacts on revenues

5 Conclusion



1 Introduction

Sustainability is now a big baggy sack in which people throw all kinds of old ideas, hot air and dodgy activities in order to be able to greenwash their products and feel good “ (McCloud 2010, p. 2).

Sustainability — Does that word make you think of McDonald's? Every one of us knows the fast food restaurant and has eaten there once. Why? Fast food is cheap and convenient but at the same time, we all want to live sustainably.

McDonald's has been struggling with a bad sustainability image for many years and has therefore set major "green" and "ecological" goals for the future with a green campaign. Does the green campaign of McDonald’s have a noticeable impact on public articles, customer reviews and revenues?

In addition, why is this question so important? More and more companies try to hide their bad activities behind a sustainability image, often it is difficult to decide whether we can trust a company or not. After all, I have chosen this topic because I believe that every consumer should be aware of that because we have the responsibility for the future of our planet, and sustainability plays an important role in this. Furthermore, most of us often go out to eat at McDonald’s, but do we know what is happening “behind the scenes”?

To answer the research question, I will proceed as follows: First, I will explain basic information about sustainability in businesses and what “greenwashing” means.

The next chapter deals with the green campaign of McDonald’s. With the help of the two latest sustainability reports of 2017 and 2018, I will present the promises and goals of the green campaign. Moreover, I will also explain the sustainability concept of the campaign. What visible methods is McDonald's using to implement its goals?

In the last chapter, I will analyse the impacts of the green campaign of McDonald’s on the press, customers, and revenues. To analyse the impacts on the press, I will examine articles from well-known German newspapers and blog posts from non-governmental organisations. Then I will conduct a survey to analyse how the green campaign affects customers. Furthermore, how does the green campaign affect McDonald's revenues in Germany? Does McDonald's generate more or even fewer revenues through the green campaign?

The term paper will end with a conclusion that summarises the collected knowledge and explains a possible outlook for the future.

2 Sustainability in business

What does sustainability mean? Sustainability can be illustrated with the help of the “Sustainability Venn diagram” (Purvis et al. 2019), which consists of three circles, each representing the economy, the environment and the social. All three circles are touching each other and the centre represents sustainability, which shows that these three aspects are forming a unity and mutually influencing each other. But what does this signify for a company?

In his book “Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business” by John Elkington (1999, p. 73), he describes the three pillars of sustainable development, which are also known as the “Triple Bottom Line”. Moreover, these three pillars are also known as the "Three P's of sustainability" which stand for “people, planet, and profits” (Young & Dhanda 2013, p. 17). Furthermore, the “University of Wisconsin Sustainable Management” (n.d.) outlines the meaning of these three aspects in more detail: The first aspect “people” means that a company, which concentrates on the triple bottom line, strives for fair wages and humane working conditions. Also, the aspect of the “planet” means that a company tries to keep its ecological footprint to a minimum, for example by reducing waste or investing in renewable energies. Every economic company strives for the last aspect “profits”, but sustainable businesses attempt to preserve a balance between profits and the other aspects.

3 Greenwashing

The environment is often associated with the colour green, so “greenwashing” are campaigns or public relations (PR) methods that represent a product or an entire company "green" which has the effect that the consumer believes that the product or the company acts in an environmentally friendly manner (Hoffman, J., & Hoffman, M. 2009). But this is often not true. Moreover, Mary Whitman, who deals with environmental issues and writes the article “Greenwashing as a marketing tool” (2018) for the “Sydney Environment Institute”, highlights that “This unethical marketing practice” (Whitman, 2018) would be a marketing technique in which companies expend more money on the marketing process than on sustainability.

Besides, “greenwashing” can be recognised in the language (sustainability reports, advertising) of companies or their activities. But a company's green activities do not have to be fictional, they are often just an exaggeration of what is being done (Sharmeen Somani & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D. 2019).

4 The green campaign of McDonald’s

4.1 Promises and aims

In 2019, McDonald’s Germany publishes its 2018 “CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY REPORT 2018” which presents McDonald's most important ecological, social and economic developments in 2018 but also outlines the most important sustainable goals for the future (McDonald’s Germany, 2018). According to the sustainability report (McDonald’s, 2018), the fast food restaurant presents these climate goals to the “Science Based Target Initiative”, which is supported by the environmental foundation “WWF” and encourages companies to set science-based sustainable goals.

According to McDonald's Germany, the company produces 1,44 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 (McDonald’s Germany 2019, p. 18) and promises that its carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by 36 per cent worldwide by 2030 (2019, p. 17).

Furthermore, the company has big goals for reducing plastic waste. The fast food restaurant but also other companies in the European Union must save plastic because the EU Parliament dedicate that disposable plastic should no longer be sold in the European Union from 2021, the parliament then will ban "single-use plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws and stirrers" (Rankin 2019). Now, McDonald’s aims to use only packaging materials from “renewable, recycled or certified sources” worldwide by 2025 and to recycle all sales packaging (McDonald’s n.d.). Today, 10% of McDonald's restaurants worldwide currently offer recycled packaging (McDonald’s n.d.).

Moreover, McDonald's possesses the “McDonald’s Beef Sustainability Program” (2014) and with this program, McDonald's promises more space for animals, more hygiene in the stables and better animal health with the least possible use of medicines (McDonald’s Germany 2018, p. 8). In addition, the farmers also benefit from the program because for every kilogram of meat the farmer gets 9 cents more wage.

Besides, the company promises that from 2020 onwards it will only buy its chicken meat from farms where the animals have enough space (McDonald’s Germany 2018, p. 9). In addition, McDonald's wants to process only meat from chickens treated without antibiotics from January 2019 at the latest (McDonald’s Germany 2018, p. 9).

4.2 Sustainable strategy

First, McDonald’s changed its logo in 2009 (Hegmann 2009). The company replaced the red background of their logo with a green background “to signal its respect for the environment” (Bleicher 2011, p. 199) because the colour green means a new beginning in the area of sustainability.

In addition, the company starts to redesign some German restaurants, for example, LED lighting has been installed in 20 restaurants and 33 old air conditioning systems have been replaced. Thus, in 2017, McDonald’s restaurants in Germany consumed 14 per cent less energy than in 2011 (McDonald’s Germany 2018, p. 14).

Moreover, McDonald's has set itself the goal of offering other packaging alternatives. To achieve this, the company carried out a ten-day live experiment called "Better M Store" in Berlin in 2019 (McDonald’s Germany 2020). In this experiment, packaging alternatives were offered so for instance, the hamburgers were packed in grass packaging, the plastic spoon for the ice cream was replaced with a wooden spoon and the guests were able to give their opinions on the alternatives (McDonald’s Germany 2020). From 2020, McDonald's wants to sell their famous "McFlurry" ice cream without plastic packaging and the company claims that this measure alone will “save […] 1,000 tons of plastic per year” (McDonald’s 2019, p. 13).

Besides, recycling is also a central aspect in the sustainability reports. Together with the logistics partner “HAVI”, McDonald's has set up a recycling system with which the paper cups can be recycled (McDonald’s 2019, p. 14). Moreover, the customer saves 10 cents per drink if he brings a reusable cup and this concept enables McDonald's Germany to save around 30 million paper cups in 2019 (McDonald’s Germany 2020).

However, the company's largest carbon dioxide emissions (McDonald’s Germany 2018, p. 15) come from agriculture (87 per cent). According to the fast food restaurant, 6 per cent (McDonald’s Germany 2018, p. 8) of the beef processed in 2017 came from the “Best Beef Program”. In 2018, it was 7 per cent (McDonald’s 2019, p. 6). That is why McDonald's has revised its old concept and has now introduced its new "Best Beef Program 2.0" (Deter 2020) which aims to control the meat production more strictly.

According to Philipp Wachholz (McDonald’s Germany 2020), the company spokesman for McDonald's Germany, the company is trying to pick up on the trend of occasionally eating food without meat, which is why McDonald's Germany launched its first vegan burger in 2019.

4.3 Impacts of the green campaign

4.3.1 Impacts on public articles

On the one hand, there exist many critical opinions from the press on McDonald's “green” promises.

In particular, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Greenpeace is demonstrating in Germany against McDonald’s because Greenpeace believes that the fast food restaurant would be a prime example of “greenwashing” (2014). Greenpeace's opinion is illustrated by the blog post titles (Greenpeace 2014; Hassenstein 2017) "MCDONALD'S GRÜNE SCHMINKE" (“McDonald’s green makeup”) and "Glaub nicht alles, was McDonald’s dir erzählt” (“Don't believe everything McDonald's is telling you”). Greenpeace criticises that McDonald's wants to use genetic engineering in poultry feed again. That is why Greenpeace wrote a letter to McDonald's and uploaded the company's response on their blog post. McDonald's admits that there would not be enough quantities of GMO-free (no genetically modified organisms) feed at a good economical price. But Stephanie Töwe, Greenpeace's agricultural expert, emphasises that a chicken burger would only cost 1 cent more if the company continued to refrain from using genetically modified soybeans in poultry feed (Greenpeace 2014).

Some well-known newspapers in Germany have also a critical view of the sustainability concept of McDonald's: The newspaper "Hannoversche Allgemeine" (2019) quotes in the article “Müllproduktionsmaschine? Kritik an McDonald’s-Fahrplan zur Nachhaltigkeit” ("Rubbish production machine? Criticism of McDonald's sustainability plan”) Istel, a speaker for resource policy at the non-governmental organisation “Naturschutzbund Deutschland”, who believes that McDonald's would only try to act sustainably because of the new law of the European Union (Rabe 2019). Istel claims that the fast food restaurant would only switch their packaging from single-use plastic to single-use paper but according to the expert, paper waste would also be a waste of resources because the production of paper would not be environmentally friendly.

In the article “McDonald’s versucht’s in Grün und scheitert “ (“McDonald's tries green and fails”), from the online magazine "" (Rödder 2016), the author criticises that as a customer you do not know where the meat comes from because when she asked McDonald's, she did not get an exact answer of the manufacture of the place. Her opinion of the green campaign is illustrated by negative adjectives like "irresponsible", "ugly" or even "inhuman". Furthermore, the author states that the green campaign would only be “greenwashing” and image polishing because she highlights that McDonald's would still use a lot of packaging waste and as a customer, you do not know where the meat comes from (Rödder 2016).

But not all German newspapers and non-governmental organisations see McDonald's sustainability strategies as negative: The organisation "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" (PETA) praises in the blog post “Big Vegan TS: McDonald's hat jetzt einen veganen Burger” (“Big Vegan TS: McDonald's now has a vegan burger”) McDonald's for the introduction of a vegan burger (Huth 2019). Also, the organisation believes that it would be good to support vegan options of non-vegan companies because customers who are not vegan may also try these options and there may be greater demand for vegan products.

Furthermore, the newspaper “Der Tagesspiegel” praises McDonald's in the article "Weiteres Engagement für Klimaschutz: McDonald's plant deutliche CO2-Reduktion […] “ (“Further commitment to climate protection: McDonald's plans significant CO2 reduction […]”) for their commitment and already significant results for climate protection (2018). In the article, the author summarises the success of McDonald's carbon dioxide reduction: The company has been operating its restaurants in Germany with 100 per cent green electricity since 2014 and so McDonald’s generates 98 per cent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than the German electricity mix. Furthermore, the author particularly likes the fact that McDonald's uses advertising to take sustainability issues entertainingly and humorously, rather than seriously as many other companies do (Der Tagesspiegel 2018).

4.3.2 Impacts on customers

To analyse the impacts of McDonald's green campaign on customers, a survey with three questions has been created and a total of 20 McDonald's customers were surveyed using a questionnaire in Bonn (Appendix 1, Fig. 1).

The results are as follows: The first question is about how sustainable the interviewed people find McDonald's. The interviewed customers can choose between the numbers one to five, number one means that they think McDonald's is not sustainable at all and five means that they associate the company with sustainability (Appendix 2, Fig. 1a; Fig. 1b).

Half of the questioned people believe that McDonald's would not be sustainable at all, the majority of those who think this is over 45 years old (75 per cent). Moreover, 35 per cent believe that McDonald's would be less sustainable, especially young people between 15 and 18 years old think so. In addition, the remaining customers are not sure how sustainable they find McDonald's. One person also states that she had heard that McDonald's is trying to be sustainable but she is unsure about it.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Greenwashing - the dark side of sustainability? The green marketing strategy of McDonald’s - greenwashing for a positive image or a sustainable promise?
An analysis of public articles, customer reviews and revenues
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Englisch, Greenwashing, McDonalds, Sustainability, Nachhaltigkeit
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2020, Greenwashing - the dark side of sustainability? The green marketing strategy of McDonald’s - greenwashing for a positive image or a sustainable promise?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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