The word “sustainable” has without a doubt become the most overblown and overhyped word in the English language. It’s now used by almost every sector of the economy to appear politically correct and environmentally aware. It wasn’t always so – at one time the word sustainable meant “bearable, maintainable, defensible, or workable”. Over the past 40 years, however, it seems that the word “sustainable” has come to mean “ecological, organic, natural, environmental” and other such green lobby buzz words. The use of the word in these contexts is no accident. Green groups have hijacked the word to give the impression that everything being done in the economy is unsustainable and therefore bad. The further implication is that only a radical change to their green ideology can save the planet from its present doomed course of unsustainability. It is a clever public relations approach and it gives green groups the moral high road on almost every issue, that being they are naturally right and everyone else is morally wrong. In a world where first impressions are all that matters, that’s the best position to be in to sell your cause.
That green lobby PR approach advantage put the commercial food production and retailing industry on the defensive and their response has been limited. Their hope was, and in many sectors it still is, that the facts will rule the day. Others were not so sure and the past years has seen a concerted effort by many in the food business to seize the green approach – the point being if you can’t beat them, join them – preferably on your own terms. For instance, we have seen devious green groups create bogus sustainable labelling programs, where retailers pay royalties to use logos such as “sustainably caught fish”. It gives the impression of being environmentally responsible, but the words are essentially meaningless.
The latest example of the word sustainable being exploited is an effort by McDonald’s, who plan to create a program that will see their beef supply becoming “sustainable.” That may come as a surprise to most citizens who have seen McDonald’s sell ever increasing billions of burgers with no particular concern over their supply being unsustainable. There is no problem with the beef supply to McDonald’s; it’s all just a matter of public perception, advertising spin doctoring and retail competition.
I expect the McDonald’s sustainable beef supply proposal also came as a bit of a surprise to the cattle industry, being they already consider themselves to be sustainable beef producers. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, however, was quick to support the McDonald’s sustainable beef program concept. They were wise to be on side with one of the biggest beef buyers in the country if not the world. They did point out that McDonald’s did not define what they meant with the words “sustainable beef”. One suspects that their version of what the words mean is probably a bit different from its original definition. Big fast food retailers are ever conscious of being seen in a positive light by their customers – keeping them happy and buying is rule number one. They have also learned that their critics in the green and animal rights business can cause them perception grief with spurious allegations. Therefore it’s always better to get the jump on those pesky folks before any damage is done – real or imagined.
That approach has some fast food operators making such claims as their eggs come from cage-free hens and their pork from gestation grate-free hogs. Another hamburger chain claims its beef is free from added hormones and steroids. McDonald’s has been following the trend in making politically correct statements about its food supply, but others seem to be ahead of them in the perception battle. One suspects that McDonald’s idea of a sustainable beef program will include all those claims made by its competitors and some new ones to give them a promotional advantage – just keeping up with the competition is not enough in the fast food advertising war.
There is one reality to the noble concern of fast food chains being sustainable and green – someone is going to have to pay for all that politically correct effort. That group instinctively knows who will be paying for consumers to feel good about eating beef and those folks are the primary cattle producers. Perhaps the day may come sooner than we think that raising cattle in a perceived politically correct sustainable way may itself become financially unsustainable.
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