Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on McDonald’s Door: How UCS and Others Helped Secure Deforestation-Free Palm Oil Commitments

, former president | April 21, 2015, 3:18 pm EDT
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Making social and political change sometimes feels like walking down a long corridor and knocking on door after door; there is no way of knowing in advance which will open, and many turn out to be locked. But if you keep knocking long, hard, and creatively enough, a door will eventually spring open, and if you seize that moment, you can make the change you seek.

UCS just enjoyed a door-opening moment with McDonald’s. For several years, UCS’ Tropical Forest Campaign Initiative (TFCI) has waged a forceful campaign to stop massive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia caused by world demand for palm oil. Palm oil is ubiquitous in personal care, processed food and fast food products—but growing palm trees to make palm oil has led to the clearing or burning of millions of acres of ecologically rich forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Besides eradicating rich habitats for threatened species such as orangutans, the burning of these forests and the underlying peat soils contributes to global warming by releasing millions of tons of carbon stored in the trees and peat, and eliminating the critical role these forests can play in absorbing carbon emitted by other sources, such as fossil fuel burning.

Good Science + Strong Advocacy = Results

UCS took on palm-oil driven deforestation, knowing that it would be hard to change behavior on the other side of the globe. We also knew that it was important to try to convince major companies to source deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil, as tropical deforestation is responsible for about 10% of global warming. And we started knocking on doors.

First, UCS published a scorecard in 2014, which rated companies on their commitments to deforestation-free palm oil practices—meaning obtaining palm oil from sources that don’t destroy healthy forests and soils. Our public launch and private negotiations focused on companies that scored poorly on the scorecard, including McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Brands. We launched a petition that generated thousands of e-mails to each of the target companies within just a few weeks, and took out ads on Facebook highlighting the poor practices of various brands. This well-publicized scorecard, coupled with direct negotiations, and public-facing social media campaign tactics, scored some early wins, including securing commitments from a number of palm oil producers/traders, personal care and processed food companies to obtain their palm oil from deforestation and peat free sources.

But the door to the fast food industry, which has been resistant to change, seemed locked.

UCS knocked again. This time, we added pressure by launching a second petition focused on the entire fast food industry. We asked our supporters to share the following graphic and call on McDonald’s to do better:

mcdonalds palm oil2

And all throughout this period, we met with representatives from these companies and explained how they could change their practices.

The door to Dunkin’ Brands opened; in September 2014, they released a new palm oil commitment, spurring competitors Krispy Kreme and Tim Hortons’ to also make new pledges.

But not McDonald’s. And so another round of door knocking. We expanded our petition drive. We updated our scorecard. We partnered with allies, such as SumOfUs and SierraRise to generate nearly half a million petition signatures and e-mails to McDonald’s, and used a social media campaign to reach millions of McDonald’s potential consumers. Around the time of National Fast Food Day, we took the story to the press, and we took out ads targeting the brand on Twitter:

mcdonalds palm oil

This graphic was seen by a potential audience of nearly 5 million people, with more than 13,000 people sharing it with their followers.

And then the door to McDonald’s swung open.

Today, McDonald’s released a deforestation commitment. This commitment goes well beyond what any of the other target companies have made. McDonald’s has pledged to eliminate deforestation from its global supply chain—not just for palm oil—but all commodities linked to deforestation, including beef, fiber-based packaging, coffee and poultry. McDonald’s has agreed to verify the origin of raw materials for these five priority products and work with suppliers to protect high carbon stock forest areas and peatlands (swampy areas of carbon-rich soils), and to prohibit burning for land clearing and development.

This commitment is a potential game-changer. McDonald’s is the world’s largest fast food chain, and its sourcing requirements can become the “new normal” that drives widespread change in suppliers’ practices. And if McDonald’s can do it, so can other fast food producers that are lagging behind, such as Burger King, Wendy’s and Starbucks.

It is also a stunning success story. UCS and its partners drove important change with this formula: articulating a simple truth derived from science, making the message compelling with creative graphics, using social and traditional media to galvanize attention, and harnessing the influence of consumers, workers, and shareholders.

There are important next steps, and UCS will press the company for a detailed and ambitious timeline and verification mechanisms. But victories like this don’t come along that often, and for now I want to congratulate my staff and our partners who kept knocking on doors until they opened, and McDonald’s for making this welcome change.

Posted in: Global Warming, Tropical Forests

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  • Mr. Parcell, I respectfully disagree that UCS has misrepresented the significance of McDonald’s pledge, but I do agree that pledges are not the same thing as implementation! This is a great and positive step from McDonald’s, but our work is not yet done. We will continue to work with the company between now and this summer, when the company releases its palm oil targets–so McDonald’s adopts strong timelines consistent with the UN Declaration on Forests. For McDonald’s to be consistent with the Declaration, which it signed, it needs to aim for targets of no later than 2020 (not 2030) for products like palm oil and beef. UCS will continue to ask our members to call on McDonald’s to adopt more ambitious timelines.
    To take action and help us
    in this effort, visit You can read more on our take on McDonald’s new pledge in our press release–“McDonald’s Pledges to Eliminate Deforestation from Supply Chain–Pledge Has Much Potential, but Still
    Work in Progress”

  • kparcell

    McDonalds promises to work towards ending deforestation by 2030 in “all raw material supply chains” of primary forest and “high conservation value” forests, and provides no independent verification procedure to ensure that it meets this too little too late pledge to do as it pleases. I respectfully request that UCS set the record straight on these facts because it has boldly misrepresented this as McDonalds ending deforestation.

  • Kathy Dunn

    Let’s pray they REALLY do this, and FAST….

  • Richard Solomon

    KUDOS to UCS , its partners, and members who signed petitions. Keep pushing to get the timelines, ETD.

    Next up should be efforts to get McDonalds and other such companies to pay its employees a living wage.yes, yes they will protest that they cannot afford to do this. But doing so would lessen the number of employees on government sponsored programs like food stamps or Medicaid. We can pay for these low wages one way or the other.