Four Questions about a Fast Food Giant’s Role in Tropical Deforestation

August 1, 2016 | 10:14 am
Lael Goodman
Former contributor

Restaurant Brands International (RBI), the third largest fast-food operator in the world, recently released its first Sustainability Framework to the public. Formed in 2014, RBI is the parent company of both Burger King and Canadian donut giant Tim Hortons, and this international corporation operates in almost 100 countries and has more than $23 billion in sales. Its 13-page Sustainability Framework outlines RBI’s “areas of focus and priorities for the near future” and is full of information on RBI’s intentions and past efforts around five categories: food values, responsible sourcing, best people, communities, and the environment.

So I took a close look at RBI’s commitments in terms of tropical deforestation, and found that the plan is lacking in real action. The framework raises more questions than it answers. Here are four of them.

Why does a company that had a deforestation commitment in regard to beef production no longer have one?

With a brand name like “Burger King”, beef is front and center in RBI’s corporate identity. As beef drives a disproportionate amount of tropical deforestation, particularly in South America where cattle grazing often replaces natural ecosystems, corporations need to understand the risks in their own supply chain. With tropical deforestation causing 10% of all climate change emissions, hundreds of thousands of consumers have already demanded that Burger King and RBI go deforestation-free. RBI’s investors were so concerned they filed a shareholder resolution echoing customer sentiment.

The section of the framework on RBI’s commitments in terms of its beef started off very promising, “At Restaurant Brands International, our brands have made beef sustainability an important area of focus.” However, that’s about where the good news ends.

The sole commitment that they make in regard to beef, one of their most iconic ingredients, is that they are members of two different roundtables that work to address issues related to beef sustainability. The more relevant roundtable—which deals with regions where forests are at risk from beef cattle—is the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB). This roundtable works to improve sustainability in beef supply chains throughout the world. In joining the GRSB, RBI commits to a fee of $15,000, agrees to generally support the mission of the GRSB, to attend one meeting per year, and a few other nonspecific measures.

However, there is no requirement that RBI, or in turn Burger King, take any definitive action towards ensuring that the beef they are selling to their customers meets any type of environmental standards. In fact, RBI makes no mention that beef they are sourcing may be at risk of contributing to tropical deforestation. In essence, RBI simply states that they plan to explore making a commitment in this next year. Contrast this to a major competitor, McDonald’s, which is several steps ahead of Burger King, having committed to ensuring that none of their raw materials contribute to deforestation.

In 2010, Burger King put out a fact sheet which said, “For more than 20 years, [Burger King Corp.] has maintained a rainforest policy for its beef suppliers prohibiting the sourcing of beef from cattle that graze on lands formerly designated as rainforests. BKC is currently reviewing its overall rainforest policy to include all of its products.” However, I am no longer able to find this statement publicly, nor can I find this overall rainforest policy.

Why does one of the largest fast-food companies in the world still need to develop a plan to deal with deforestation, when they committed to doing so at least 6 years ago?

I’ve been following this company for almost two years now, and Burger King even before that. When the merger of Burger King and Tim Hortons was announced in August of 2014, I was concerned that their parent corporation, RBI, would not strengthen the fast food giants’ palm oil policies. Individually, neither company had committed to ensuring that all the palm oil used in their products was free from deforestation. In particular, UCS scored Burger King’s commitment to deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil in both 2014 and 2015. In 2014, Burger King’s commitments on palm oil were so weak that they did not merit any points. In 2015, their score was marginally higher based on the fact that they joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a multi-stakeholder group with interests in the palm oil industry. However, at the time they made no demonstrable commitment to further action.

Sound familiar?

Why does a company that, at one point, acknowledged that all products need to be deforestation-free now only recognize deforestation risk in its palm oil and fiber-based packaging?

Eventually, RBI did go slightly further than joining the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. It currently buys GreenPalm certificates, which are widely seen as insufficient for addressing the deforestation risks related to a company’s palm oil purchases. While RBI has plans to source palm oil through better channels, the implementation plans still fail to live up to their pledge to “source palm oil that does not contribute to deforestation nor development on peatlands, and protects both High Conservation Value and High Carbon Stock areas.” This lack of follow-through and understanding of what Roundtable initiatives can do is troubling in the palm oil context and beyond.

What’s the value of roundtables?

I am by no means denying that multi-stakeholder initiatives can play important roles in transitioning agriculture towards more sustainable operations. Truthfully, it is encouraging to see major players in the space engaging in conversations and initiatives to hopefully transform the industry for the better. They also can connect corporate actors with civil society organizations, government, and academic institutions, allowing for more collaboration and sharing of lessons learned between these groups.

However, too many companies join these processes in what I see as a move to avoid taking real action on their supply chains. The cost to join, for a company with sales in the billions, is a pittance. Yet for the price of membership, companies are able to fill their sustainability reports with fancy-sounding initiatives to fool the general public into thinking that they are making concerted efforts towards sustainability.

Roundtables can only be successful when members commit not only to joining, but also to assuming an active role within these multi-stakeholder groups and taking steps within their own companies to move forward. Roundtables can be great fora for envisioning a future beyond what is already feasible. But they are not a substitute for individual company action.

Joining these roundtables would be an encouraging step if RBI also took individual responsibility for the impacts of its own supply chain on deforestation. It needs to recognize that beef, soy, and many other commodities are linked to deforestation and put into place a timebound plan for ensuring that its own supplies are not.

We are all waiting for answers to these questions.