Bob Langert - Author of The Battle to do Good: Inside McDonald's Sustainability Journey

Bob Langert - Author of The Battle to do Good: Inside McDonald's Sustainability Journey

In The Battle to Do Good, former McDonald's executive Bob Langert takes readers on a behind-the-scenes eye witness account of the mega brand's battle to address numerous societal hot-button issues, such as packaging, waste, recycling, obesity, deforestation, and animal welfare. From the late 80s, McDonald's landed smack in the middle of one contentious issue after another, often locking horns with powerful NGOs such as Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and Corporate Accountability.

Bob Langert has engaged in social responsibility issues since the late 1980s. Bob joined McDonald’s system in 1983 with management positions in logistics, packaging and purchasing. In the 1990s, he had responsibilities for the environment, energy management, animal welfare and Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities’ grants. He was appointed McDonald’s first VP to lead sustainability in 2006.

Bob led the development of McDonald’s 2020 Sustainability Vision and Framework, including McDonald’s commitment to the environment, supply chain sustainability and balanced menu choices. He retired from McDonald’s in 2015 and joined GreenBiz, writing a regular column titled "The Inside View" and helping with the GreenBiz Executive Network.

Bob Joins Sustainable Nation to Discuss:

  • His new book, The Battle to Do Good: Inside McDonald's Sustainability Journey

  • Prioritizing sustainability efforts

  • Collaborating with NGO's on transformative sustainability initiatives

  • Advice and recommendations for sustainability leaders

Interview Highlights:

You talked about moving from a reactive company and where you were at when this whole movement started within McDonald's with the Styrofoam packaging. Do you think a lot of companies are still operating in that reactive way and why is it important for them to change?

I think so. A lot of the big companies and big brands had moved past this idea that sustainability is either a fad or it's going to go away or let's just play defense and be reactive to things. So, bigger companies, they get. They're coming up with these big goals and frameworks and strategies. It's getting integrated and it comes from the C suite. However, once you get past the big companies, there's a lot more companies that don't see it that way. They see it as a hindrance and that is not the way of the future. Sustainability is here to stay, it's a consumer mandate, an expectation that companies be very responsible and you just can't say that you're a responsible company. You got to prove it with actions and plans and goals and metrics, and sharing this in a very public way. So, companies need to take the ball and run with it and that's one of my main messages as I work with companies and organizations, is that the longer you sit on the sidelines observing and reacting, you're going to be left behind because the consumers got high expectations. The transparent world makes it imperative that you be open and honest about your performance and you need to start proving it every day so that your business can grow. I think the smart companies see sustainability as an avenue for growth for the business, an avenue for a better brand, more efficiency, more employees that stay with you and a stronger supply chain. I can build a business case almost ad nauseum and that's what we really should dominate with every company and organization out there.

So yeah, the McDonald's story is very much that journey that I described. The subtitle of my book is called "Inside McDonald's Sustainability Journey." I think you captured it really well, Josh, as I really felt that we were playing defense for probably a couple of decades. We were playing defense, I think in a good way because we had a good defensive team. We're got attacked on waste and found a great partner in EDF. We came up with a great waste reduction plan. We got attacked on animal treatment and we found a great expert and we really changed animal welfare within really the whole global beef supply system by implementing her program. I cite other examples but it really wasn't until 2014 that McDonald's itself developed a really proactive sustainability strategy. And that's the best place to be, to stand tall for what you stand for and not be defined by your critics or defined by others.

It's interesting just reading through this book and what you just described there about getting attacked by these different organizations. How do you pick your battles when you're such a large organization and you have so many facets of your business? Any large multinational corporation like that can really be scrutinized in so many different ways and I'm sure they are. How do you know where to focus your energy? I know you talk about a formula that you came up with in your book and I'd love to have you just explain that to our listeners and just give them an idea of that process of prioritizing and where you focus your work.

I think it's where you pick your battles. Actually, the big answer to that is by developing your own strategy, because rather than pick battles, you should choose what you want to work with on a proactive way. But the reality is every business is in society, we serve society and things are going to come up that you just don't expect. So you're right, you can't work on everything. I guess the formula that you might be referred to in the book is that when you look at all the pros and cons of what you should work on, I really do think that the amount of resources and effort that you put into it should be in proportion to the impact it has on your business and society. This whole shared value concept. So, let me give you an example that I thought was interesting at McDonald's. We were attacked by Greenpeace in 2006 about soy farming in the Amazon, and we were attacked in Europe for that because a lot of it is exported to Europe. I looked at the issue immediately as we're getting campaigned against, the Greenpeace people dressed up in chickens as they came to dozens of restaurants in the United Kingdom. So, it was a pretty big issue and made a lot of news. So, we had to decide what to do. To your question, is this a battle that we should get involved with? So, in one hand, I think a typical response would be we're 1/10th of one percent through our suppliers of soy. However, you know, nobody buys a lot of soy, it's very desegregated, and we already had a policy on purchasing no rainforest beef. So, within a day we talked to our management team and decided if we have a policy on beef not to come from rainforest land, then that’s the way it should be for all of our products. Within a day we called Greenpeace back and to their shock, we said, we totally agree with you.

I learned later on when I took a trip through the Amazon with Greenpeace, they told us how surprised they were that we agreed with them. But the important thing is we didn't agree with how to solve the problem. They had these strong mandates against McDonald's and we said McDonald's can solve the soy problem by ourselves. We're not farmers and traders. Let's get our suppliers involved. Let's get other retailers to the table, which we did. We ended up solving that problem with a moratorium within three months. So, I tell that story because sometimes you pick your priorities for how important it is your business or you're being consistent with your policies and programs as we were with that program.

What is one piece of advice you would give other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers?

Develop relationships and develop a relationship where you can build trust with others because as a sustainability leader, what I learned over the years, is that I'm given all this responsibility to help us be a good company, but you're not in charge of really anything. You're in charge of getting other departments and functions to lead on sustainability. You only do that through relationships, influencing them and them having faith and confidence in you. I was blessed with good bosses early on in my career that gave me a lot of rope to learn, travel and meet people. So, that's my first piece of advice. Less focus on getting things done and more focus on developing relationships and trusts where other people want to carry on the work that you're advocating for.

What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability?

I think the amount of collaboration I see on establishing big transformative changes gets me really excited. Certainly, my work in McDonald's gave me the most fulfilling feeling in the world - not only changing animal welfare for example, but changing it for the whole industry. Or when we helped save the Amazon a little bit through what we did. Or when McDonald's announced that it's going to be buying sustainable beef. So, working with the beef industry to change something for the industry. Doing that through partners like Conservation International, like Environmental Defense Fund, like the World Wildlife Fund is very rewarding. So, collaborating for big transformational change is what I see going on and that's the best thing in the world.

What is one book you would recommend sustainability professionals read?

Well, my book. I gave my plug already. I do like the Dave Stangis' book - 21st Century Corporate Citizenship. I recommend that book as well.

What are some of your favorite resources or tools that really help you in your work?

I think being connected to the networks. I learn best through talking with others, whether talking means in person through the GreenBiz network, which I think is phenomenal, or my connections through LinkedIn and Twitter and so forth. I learn the most from other people, other experts.

Where can our listeners go to learn more about you, connect with you, and most importantly, where can they find your book?

Well, I've got a new website: boblangert.com. Please read my columns. I put something out every three weeks or so Greenbiz.com. You can find my book right now at Amazon.com. It's a good deal. They get a nice discount. You can also get it through my publisher, Emerald Publishing.