UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability Blog

Fast Food Industry Cultivates New Growth Through Sustainability

April 30, 2012 By Christina Meinberg

By Christina Meinberg, MBA 2007

If you’re anything like me, once you start to get really hungry, you are on a slippery slope.  While passing through Roseville California recently, hunger struck and it completely took over.  I was tired. I was hungry.  And the clincher was that I was surrounded by six-lane roads and a blur otherwise known as corporate America at its finest. Stopping off in this Northern California town to pick up a pair of shoes en-route to a hike we had planned for the weekend, we found ourselves surrounded by over 40 national retail stores, not counting the 200+ in the mall a mile up the street.

When on-the-road, I generally try to look for healthy, sustainable (and as tasty as possible) options.  Yet being surrounded by this many fast food places usually means bracing myself for over-salted, awfully sweet and rather greasy food.

Fortunately, this time was different.  I relied upon my trusty smart phone to direct me to the nearest “burrito” – and the result was inspiring.

Christina Meinberg

Christina Meinberg

Can Fast Food = Fresh Food?

When I walked into a Rubio’s, I was greeted by a sign at the door that read, “we never start our meal without you”.  I felt my guard go down just a bit, as I pictured employees in the back not just for re-heating, but actually cutting and blending together fresh ingredients.  Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad.

Next, I squinted my eyes at the little icons on the menu and realized that there were flyers and info-graphics indicating sustainable seafood options.  Bravo, I thought (in between drooling over the salads and fish tacos)… someone in this company understands a bit about how to run a responsible business!

As I sat down to dine, I began to reflect upon the expanding number of choices in mainstream restaurants that did not exist just one or two years ago.  An award-winning Chipotle commercial came to mind: “We’re going back to the start”.

Leading Fast Food Companies are Waking Up

Are we really going back to the start?  Patagonia declared war on consumerism by running an ad on Black Friday this year, advertising “Don’t buy this jacket,” so couldn’t a burger joint similarly proclaim a vision for a world where people eat less carbon-intensive food options?

It may sound unheard-of, but it is happening. Swedish fast food company Max Burger published the carbon footprint of its menu items two years ago, pointing out the high levels of C02 associated with meat production.

We haven’t taken the transparency quite to this level in the US (with a few exceptions, such as small vegetarian chain Otarian in NYC), yet those seeking more sustainable food options certainly have more to choose from than they used to.  With over 250 restaurants in the Western U.S., In-N-Out Burger promises that “in a world where food is over-processed, pre-packaged and frozen, In-N-Out makes everything the old fashioned way.”  You can read their freshness promise, here… apparently their lettuce is even “hand leafed” (who knew?).

There’s something else that makes In-N-Out Burger stand out: they have joined the ranks of “fast food” companies like Chick Fil-A and Starbucks, offering their employees full benefits and a working wage.  There’s room for reducing the carbon footprint of a fast food meal, but relative to many other companies In-N-Out has grown sustainably and is professionalizing the fast food service industry along the way.  Even entry-level employees make $10 an hour (at least $2 more than minimum wage) and can get paid vacations in addition to comprehensive benefits and flexible work schedules.

Will Consumers Demand More?

Burger King has created a sustainability report, but does not put a stake in the ground and set any quantifiable goals or targets.  Will consumers hold BK’s feet to the fire, or has the box been checked – and please pass the mayo?

Increasingly, fast food companies that have not been able to innovate face criticism.  As consumers flock to values-based companies like Chipotle, Taco Bell had to do its “most significant menu overhaul in the 50-year-old chain’s history”.  Be good or be gone might be the lesson?

Similarly, as McDonald plays catch-up to Starbucks’ “fast casual” food options and in-store environment, it is making headlines for its exemption from the London Olympics sustainable food sourcing plan, and faces scrutiny from the 2,000+ health professionals joining the campaign to evict McDonald’s from hospitals.

Panda Express (one of the fastest growing chains in the U.S.) is getting a yellow flag as it attempts to expand beyond mall food courts (see demands from Duke and UC Berkeley for organic food and advances in sustainable practices).  To give it credit, the company introduced WokSMART dishes in 2009, which are labeled to indicate 250 calories or less; perhaps management will heed the wake-up call as it looks to expand.

Many universities are listening to students’ desires for local food – my own alma mater UNC boasts a popular 1.5.0 Diner.  The brand name, 1.5.0., was selected by members of Carolina Dining Services’ Student Dining Board and refers to UNC’s commitment to local food purchasing from within a 150-mile radius.

Will There be More Good News, or More Greenwash?

Had I not been famished on my drive through (no pun intended) Roseville, I may have said sustainability in the fast food industry is akin to putting lipstick on a pig.  But all in all, my trip made me appreciate that increased transparency – about health and wellness in addition to societal issues such as waste and obesity – could be resulting in some slow yet marked changes.  And we can help by seeking out those gems, spreading the word, and voting with our dollars on the days that we find ourselves seeking convenient food options.


  1. This just in, as well: Burger King goes cage free by 2017, which “will dramatically affect the welfare of the millions of chickens and pigs it uses annually”. http://bit.ly/Ik1FKh This demonstrates that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for fairness. Nice matching of purchasing choices with values!

  2. A hundred years from now, history books will look back on us and wonder how did we tolerate so many of God’s creature being tortured to death in the name of cheap food? These attempts by food companies to satisfy consumer demand for change is a step in the right direction. The most effective step is to stop eating meat, or at least in such massive quantities. It will be good for you and good for the planet.

  3. Wendy Hagen

    Thank you Christina for this article. It is so easy to focus on the negative about the lack of sustainable anything, cancer-causing everything, corporate greed . . . there is endless material. And it gets so overwhelming. It’s nice to read something with a positive spin. With a little hope. We have a long way to go, but at least we are making some progress. And hooray for “hand-leafed” lettuce 🙂

  4. Neha Mandhani

    Great post Christina! Cannot agree more that slowly but surely change is happening, yet there is so much more to be done. Another interesting trend is in the rise of “healthy” local fast food restaurants. Granted, they are a drop in the ocean but atleast it is the right direction.

    However, given how much of the growth is poised to happen in developing countries such as China and India, I wonder what their strategy for these countries is?

    Looking forward to your next post!