McDonald's Goes Fishing for Sustainability

Timothy Fitzgerald

Tim, a senior policy specialist, leads EDF’s sustainable seafood program. You can follow him on Twitter @hawaiifitz
Published March 4, 2013 in Oceans

An eco-label with oompf, and possibly fries

Image by Marine Stewardship Council/MSC

McDonald’s recently got a lot of attention – mostly positive – for their decision to start labeling their new Fish McBites with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the MSC, they’re the major eco-label for certified sustainable wild fisheries.

 The news wasn’t that McDonald’s had all of a sudden started to buy sustainable seafood. In fact they’ve been sourcing from the same, well-managed Alaska pollock fishery for years. It’s that the company committed to a campaign to educate their U.S. customers about the MSC eco-label, which to date is not widely recognized or understood by American consumers.

So did McDonald’s make this move out of the goodness of its heart or because it’s good marketing? Probably both, but to be honest, I really don’t care. The potential positive impacts are enticing enough either way.

First, the company’s action almost ensures that the other big national fast food chains will follow-suit, if only not to lose market share to the Golden Arches. We saw this happen in the supermarket world when Wal-mart made a similar MSC commitment in 2006.

Even though the company couldn’t ultimately meet its five year commitment to purchase all of its wild seafood from MSC-certified fisheries, its announcement had an enormous domino effect in the grocery industry. Today, almost all major retail grocery chains have a sustainable seafood policy of one sort or another. So in the next year or two, look for Burger King, Wendy’s and others to try to out-eco McDonald’s on fish.

Second, the MSC announcement raises the question of whether McDonald’s will follow suit with sustainable purchasing and consumer education programs in their other major food categories – beef, chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, etc. EDF, which worked with McDonalds in the early 1990s to help them phase out the Styrofoam clamshell, knows that the company is committed to making environmental improvements in a variety of areas

Can a company like McDonald’s can ever truly be “sustainable,” in the eyes of environmental purists? That’s a question for another day. But for now, just think about how many people walk through their doors every hour.

If only a tiny fraction of them ever bother to notice the MSC logo – let alone take the time to figure out what it means and why it’s important – then that will be a major move forward in the sustainable seafood movement and in the public’s awareness of the precarious state of our oceans’ health. 

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