How QSR businesses can better embrace environmental sustainability


How QSR businesses can better embrace environmental sustainability

Orignally published in Ad Age.

More than ever environmental sustainability is a driving force behind brand integrity, corporate responsibility and a growing measure of bottom-line success. As the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) comes to an end, public consciousness has come around again to rest firmly on sustainability, and there’s mounting pressure for businesses to respond.

At tms we have a long-standing history of helping global quick service restaurants (QSRs) achieve their sustainability goals, and we’re passionate about transforming the food industry. By doing so, companies not only can future-proof their businesses, but also create good-news stories that help generate customer good will and loyalty.

Below, we unpack how businesses can deliver on ambitious goals and balance sustainability needs, along with the convenience and value that consumers demand.

Pragmatism and prioritizing

Many QSRs have, rightly so, set ambitious 2025 targets – Burger King has set a net-zero goal for 2050, Wendy’s is aiming to source 100% of its customer facing food packaging from sustainable materials by 2026 and Chipotle (a pioneer in the QSR sustainability space) has shorter-term targets to cut all carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. Admirable as these ambitions may be, achieving them is complicated. As IBM-IBV reported in July 2022, 86% of companies have a sustainability strategy but only 35% have acted on that strategy.

For global businesses the challenge is greater and the stakes are higher. With wider reach comes a range of local variations in legislation and regulation, as well as supply chain and operational ecosystems. Therefore, it’s a huge risk to expect each region to achieve the same target when they are beginning the journey at different starting points and facing varying hurdles along the way.

To effect change, a deep understanding of a company’s macro goals needs to be translated into a nuanced roadmap of tasks at a local level, one that prioritizes realistic targets. Some regions will be further ahead on their sustainability journey, while others will need to manage expectations and take a more pragmatic approach. While the EU, for instance, is far ahead of the rest of the world with its green deal legislation, for other regions understanding all the components of a plan and translating it into a tangible business strategy isn’t easy.

We’ve been doing just that for a leading global QSR, mapping out how it can implement the required changes across a large economic area—with regional differences—and create a process to implement change. This strategy is powered by expert communications to ensure that everyone, from top-tier management to teams on the ground, understand the goals and are clear about how they will be met at every step of the journey.

Understanding regional differences

It’s a full-time job to keep on top of rules and regulations that are constantly evolving and vary from region to region, country to country and, in the case of the U.S., state to state. According to the London School of Economics, there have been 123 new pieces of sustainability legislation passed globally since.

One of the most progressive pieces of legislation comes into effect in January. France has passed a law requiring all on-site food services to provide food and beverages in reusable containers, and with zero tolerance for single-use or even recyclable plastic containers. This of course is hugely impactful for the fast-food industry. We’ve been working hand-in-hand with one global QSR to help it get ahead of this legislation and implement changes that will balance consumer expectations with the law.

Our work in France came into effect months before the legislation requires, and similarly in the U.K. we worked with a leading QSR to ensure that it removed single-use plastic, namely plastic straws, years before legislation came into effect there.

But getting ahead of the legislation has to be balanced with other factors, such as consumer attitudes and supply chain readiness. In the U.S., for instance, there is huge resistance to the introduction of paper straws with some customers going so far as to stage protests to bring back plastic straws. As a result, bioplastic straws made from recyclable plastics are being rolled out across many states as a halfway solution between paper and plastics made using petrochemicals.

In addition, the readiness of the supply chain is a huge consideration. There is no point trying to implement the same rules that exist in France to those in Malaysia because the supply chain infrastructure is vastly different. All these considerations must be incorporated into the global strategy, and require delicate problem solving and cultural sensitivity to stay on track for success.

Innovation and creativity 

Neste is the world’s leading provider of renewable diesel refined from waste and residues. It has recently been working closely with several leading QSRs in Europe to find innovative ways of transforming waste, such as cooking oil, into biofuel to help them to offset a particularly carbon-heavy part of the supply chain. This solution can ultimately help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% over the fuel’s life cycle compared to fossil fuels.

In conclusion, the devil really is in the details. It is only with astute subject-matter expertise, a forensic understanding of a complex ecosystem and the capabilities to think creatively and activate innovation that QSR businesses will flourish in a turbulent time.