6 Fast Food Chains Seeking to Lower Their Environmental Footprint (Complete 2022 List)

6 Fast Food Chains Seeking to Lower Their Environmental Footprint (Complete 2022 List)

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Carla Shaik

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Fast food restaurant Initiatives such as net-zero restaurants have gained a lot of admiration for being proactive solutions to the worldwide environmental crisis. However, many people claim their climate solutions are meaningless and the benefits are exaggerated (also known as greenwashing). So we had to ask: Which fast food chains are really trying to lower their environmental footprint?

The best fast food chains committed to lowering their environmental footprint are Yum! Brands and Starbucks. Corporations such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Wendy’s are dedicated to sourcing locally grown produce and upholding the highest standards of animal welfare.

Keep reading to discover the fast food chains that are breaking the mold and fighting for environmental stability, as well as what you can do to reduce your own carbon footprint whilst still enjoying a meal out. 

Here’s What It Means for Fast Food Chains to Lower Their Environmental Footprint

The fast food industry is responsible for around 40% of all litter pollution worldwide, with styrofoam being the biggest culprit, alongside plastic straws and food wrappers. A significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions are also released during every stage of the food production process, from feeding livestock to the disposal of the food we leave on our plates. In total, global food production is responsible for producing 17.3 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.

In this article, we’re looking at the six fast food corporations that have publicly set commitments with the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across their supply chains. They have also pledged to cut back on consumer food waste and introduce more sustainable packaging throughout their establishments.

In short, we are looking at fast food chains that are now changing their strategies to lower their environmental footprints.

Environmental footprint: the effect that a person, company, activity, etc. has on the environment, for example the amount of natural resources that they use and the amount of harmful gasses that they produce”

Cambridge Dictionary

Most fast food chains have now released corporate statements claiming they are updating their methods to achieve environmental stability and fight against climate change. However, it is important to view these statements with a critical eye as many corporations have been caught using these as nothing more than greenwashing.

Greenwashing: behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”

Cambridge Dictionary

Still, there are fast food chains out there that are commited to reducing their environmental footprints. So let’s have a look at the six top ones next.

These Are the 6 Fast Food Chains With a Focus on Environmental Sustainability

Here is our ranking of six restaurant corporations that are working to make a difference and reduce their environmental footprints:

  1. Yum! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, & The Habit Burger Grill)
  2. Starbucks
  3. McDonald’s
  4. Chipotle
  5. Wendy’s
  6. Domino’s

(At the end of this article we’ll also share other more environmental-friendly alternatives to eating at any of these fast food chains)

Yum! Brands: We Have a Recipe for Good

Yum! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, & The Habit Burger Grill) earn top marks in this review for embracing initiatives in the three key areas for food and beverage greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Yum! is partnering with several global organizations for worldwide impact, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to identify and eliminate deforestation risk in their supply chain.

“We’re on a journey when it comes to our sustainability work and are proud of the progress we’re making on the priority issues that are most material to our business.”

Yum! Brands

Around 99% of the beef supply for Yum! Restaurants are from origins with lower risk of tropical deforestation. This work has been rewarded with a B score in the Forestry Report from the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project). 

Yum!’s “Recipe for Good” sustainability strategy combines their science-based targets (SBTs) with efforts around both waste reduction and sustainable packaging. Their 2025 goals include further reducing restaurant-level energy use and emissions. 

Yum! Brands is also looking to cut wastage by half and build on initiatives like Taco Bell’s recyclable hot sauce packets to make all packaging recoverable or reusable globally.

Since 2018, Yum! Brands has grown from 30 LEED-certified green restaurants (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to 45 global locations in 2021. In the same year, they also joined the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA). 

Starbucks: Share Great Coffee and Help Make the World a Little Better

Starbucks takes the second spot for their environmental commitment. For over 50 years, Starbucks has taken a leadership role in creating sustainable global supply chains for their key products. 

“Taking care of the environment is imperative to the future of coffee and coffee farmers, and to the world we live in”

Starbucks

Have you noticed more non-dairy alternatives for your espresso? Starbucks’ has had soymilk on its menu since 1997. Coconut, almond, oat-milk, and even a plant-based whipped cream have joined the selection in the past 25 years, alongside the company’s efforts to source more sustainable dairy

Plant-based food items are also one of the strategies underpinning Starbucks’ science-based targets, as well as goals for carbon-neutral green coffee, forest conservation & restoration, and renewable energy.

Bring your favorite mug for your next cuppa and you’ll be participating in the company’s long-running BYOC (bring your own cup) initiative, which has now expanded to drive-thru and mobile orders as part of a bid to cut the waste sent to landfills in half by 2030. 

Today, Starbucks runs over 1,500 LEED-Certified stores across 20 countries and all 50 states, which is more than any other retailer worldwide. 

McDonald’s: Building Climate Resiliency and Protecting Nature

McDonald’s was the first major fast food company to set science-based targets in 2018, to cut both their own emissions and emissions in their supply chain.

“In partnership with our franchisees, suppliers and producers, we’re finding innovative ways to reduce emissions, keep waste out of nature and preserve natural resources.”

McDonalds

McDonald’s is one of the biggest buyers of beef in the world, which is one of the top three contributors to the overall carbon footprint of their supply chain. 

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to switch to a McPlant to save the planet. By the end of 2020, 99.4% of beef sourced for McDonald’s restaurants supported deforestation-free supply chains.

Across their stores, McDonalds utilizes the three R’s (reduce, reuse, and recycle) to minimize waste behind the counter. The company is also looking to reduce consumer-side waste by sourcing 100% of their packaging from renewable or recycled sources. In addition, they are committed to offering recycling facilities at all of their restaurants by 2025.

Related: If you are wondering where McDonald’s stands on being healthy… let’s at least say that McDonald’s is healthier than Burger King. (In case you are interested in that part, you could check out how each of these fast food chains compares against each other on various health claims.)

Chipotle Mexican Grill: Our Commitment to Local is Real

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a long-standing VegOut Award winner for Best Vegan-Friendly Fast Food thanks to their innovative plant-based menu. Chipotle Mexican Grill is also committed to sourcing local produce from local farmers. However, their waste reduction efforts still need some work. 

“Real is better. Better for you. Better for people. Better for our planet.”

Chipotle Mexican Grill

Chipotle Mexican Grill has set a science-based target to reduce their operational greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. What’s still missing is a target for reducing their supply chain emissions, which eclipse restaurant-level emissions tenfold

For example, in 2021, 31% of Chipotle locations participated in compost programs, with the goal to add compost programs to 125 restaurants by the end of 2022

The company also shared a goal of 5% overall waste reduction by 2025, but actually saw a waste increase in 2021. This suggests that the company may need to improve efforts in this area.

Wendy’s: Home of Fresh, Never Frozen Beef Since 1969

Wendy’s is making good progress in their US and Canadian company-operated restaurants. However, their environmental targets don’t include franchisees and international locations. They have also not yet formalized their science-based target.

“High-quality food, produced responsibly and delivered transparently”

Wendy’s

Wendy’s initial report to the CDP Disclosure Insight Action scored a  B for Climate Change but only an F for Forestry. 

However, to achieve their “Good Done Right” mandate, Wendy’s has set a goal to responsibly source their top 10 priority food categories in the U.S. and Canada by 2030. 

Furthermore, the Wendy’s Animal Care Standards Program means that the welfare standards adopted for the animals used are high. Wendy’s was also the first restaurant chain to partner with the innovative animal care and sustainability program Progressive Beef

Domino’s: Delivering a Better Future Through Food People Love

Domino’s is in the process of setting their Science-based targets (SBTs) and has already sent submissions to the CDP. However, their current score is a failing grade of F for Climate Change, which means they still have a long way to go. 

“We have focused our corporate responsibility activities on four key areas; our food, our environment, our colleagues, and our communities.”

Domino’s

Domino’s has committed to setting environmental sustainability targets however, it is not yet determined what those targets will be. Nonetheless, their pizza boxes are fully recyclable and the paper inside them comes from recycled sources or responsibly managed forests. 

Domino’s also recognizes that their use of palm oil has the highest potential impact on deforestation, which is why they have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil initiative.

What Are Other More Environmental Friendly Alternatives to Fast Food Chains

Don’t fancy a Domino’s or KFC? Luckily, many restaurants such as Bareburger and Busboys and Poets are also committed to reducing their environmental footprint. However, they are not located in every state. So, how can you be sure that your local restaurants are environmentally friendly? 

There are now a number of certification seals and awards given to eateries that are actively working to reduce their energy usage, wastage, and increase their use of recyclable materials. 

Many of these companies also display the names of the restaurants, cafes, and gastropubs that have been certified, on their websites. This makes them a great resource for sustainability-conscious individuals. 

Here are the main ones to look out for:

  • Fairtrade
  • Green Restaurant Association
  • Zero Foodprint

Let’s have a closer look at these next!

Fairtrade: Standing With Farmers for Fairness and Equality 

Fairtrade is the world’s most recognized and trusted certification company for sustainability. They now work with over 400 retailers, businesses, and cafes to encourage the responsible sourcing of produce. 

By partnering with farmers around the world, Fairtrade are increasing the use of climate-friendly farming techniques and driving down unsustainable practices used by many eateries. They also advocate for fair pay and safer farming conditions for workers. 

Look out for the Fairtrade Seal of approval to ensure you are purchasing ethical, environmentally friendly products. 

Green Restaurant Association: Greening Restaurants Since 1990

The Green Restaurant Association is an international non-profit organization that works to encourage restaurants to ‘go green’ by using transparent science-based certification standards. 

Restaurants can earn GreenPoints in eight separate categories, including building and furnishings, and wastage. They can also achieve a Star Certification Level of 1, 2, 3, or 4 for sustainability.  

All of the restaurants that have achieved certification are listed on the Green Restaurant Association website. You can also find a list of sustainable supply companies that have been certified. 

Zero Foodprint: Let’s Eat Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis

Zero Foodprint encourages restaurants to support carbon farming, which pulls harmful carbon out of our atmosphere by restoring soil biology. 

Restaurants registered with Zero Foodprint simply donate 1% of every consumer purchase to crowd-funding grants that support sustainable farming methods. All of the restaurants following the scheme are listed on the Zero Foodprint website.

How Can You Reduce Your Environmental Footprint When Eating Out

Eating out is a pastime that is enjoyed by many, but how do you remain environmentally conscious? Here are a few tips:

  1. Ask the right questions: Don’t be shy about asking your server where the restaurant sources their products or how they dispose of food waste. If your server doesn’t know, you can always get the information from a manager. Alternatively, you can look at the menu on their website (if they have one). Do they publicize that they use local ingredients? Do they incorporate seasonality into their dishes or do they serve the same food all year round? All of this information will help you to make an informed choice. 
  1. Reduce your food waste: If the portion sizes are large, consider splitting a meal between two or more people. Alternatively, you can ask for a doggy bag to take home so you can eat the leftovers later. If you are getting a takeaway, bring your own bag or reusable container and say no to plastic cutlery and extra napkins. 
  1. Eat more plants: This is arguably the biggest way we can reduce our carbon footprint as the global livestock industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change around the world. It is estimated that around 6 million hectares of forest are cut down every year to make space for farmland. 

Final Thoughts

Fast food chains are clearly now thinking about their environmental footprint as the global temperature rises and more and more species become endangered. But, they still have a long way to go before they become fully sustainable. However, the global crisis is everyone’s problem, not just fast food chains. 

By reducing your wastage and only eating in restaurants that buy their produce from local farm suppliers, you can also do your bit to combat the environmental crisis. These may sound like small steps to take, but every small step brings us closer to our ultimate goal; to save our natural world. As the famous cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Stay impactful,

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Carla Shaik

Carla is passionate about animal welfare and our natural environment and is on a mission to give you the knowledge you need to help protect our planet and all of its inhabitants. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, is a teaching support officer at the College of West Anglia, and also works as a cat sitter in her local community. Aside from writing, she has a love of music, teaching her daughter how to play piano, and enjoys getting creative with craft activities.

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