Fast-food companies such as McDonald’s and Burger King are, by virtue of their very offerings, a tremendous toll on the environment. In 2012, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) called beef the “climate-harmful” meat.1 Beef’s environmental impact is astronomical compared to that of chicken and pork – per pound, it requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water, translating into 5 times more climate-warming emissions. The effect is even larger when considering beef consumption per calorie.2
Of course, both Burger King and McDonald’s run on beef. In this respect, their very existence is antithetical to environmental sustainability. But for this very same reason, it is imperative that these companies tackle sustainability seriously and diligently. It is the right choice for the environment, and in the long run, the right choice for their businesses and their bottom lines.
Over the past 5 years, McDonald’s has made great strides to ensure sustainable sourcing and selling of its products. Burger King, on the other hand, has failed egregiously.
Burger King’s shortcomings
Burger King has a long history of purchasing commodities that are linked to deforestation. The company is a major purchaser of beef, soy, palm oil, and paper products, items often viewed as the leading drivers of tropical deforestation. Despite repeated consumer calls for deforestation-free purchasing, the company has failed to implement verifiable, sustainable sourcing of its products. 3
In its most recent sustainability framework, released in June 2016, Burger King does not guarantee that its palm oil is sourced sustainably. This verification is a step they plan to implement by 2020. Burger King lags significantly behind McDonald’s, who has dramatically reduced its purchasing of beef and soy from non-sustainable sources, and eliminated its purchase of palm oil for restaurant cooking to sustainability-certified sources.4
Further, the company has done little to meaningfully influence consumer behavior. Burger King has not introduced any plans to serve more fruit, vegetables, and non-beef options in its restaurants, and its most recent energy efficiency and recycling efforts can be simply characterized as too little, too late.5
Setting a precedent
As a top global fast food chain, Burger King is in the enviable position of shaping the discourse on environmental sustainability. Today’s consumers are aware of the sourcing practices of restaurants, and this often influences their purchasing decisions. Further, sustainable sourcing is not only good for the environment, but in the long term, influences the supply of goods available to restaurants like Burger King. By sourcing items such as beef, soy, and palm oil sustainably, Burger King would be taking steps to ensure that it can receive these commodities at reasonable prices in the future.
Lastly, Burger King has tremendous influence over consumer demand. The company can play its part in encouraging healthier eating habits that are also more beneficial to the environment. For instance, the company can offer healthier snacks, reduced soft drink sizes, or financial or social incentives for its customers to eat healthier.
Initiatives to implement
Burger King should implement a long-term plan that ensures the following:
- Sourcing of commodities from sustainable producers, and diligent verification of these sources
- Serving of more fruit, vegetable, and non-beef options in restaurants, to encourage healthier and more sustainable consumer behavior
- Increasing energy efficiency in restaurants, and setting energy efficiency targets that match or exceed that of other top fast food chains
- Increasing use of recycled materials (for packaging, cups, and utensils), and encouraging consumers to recycle materials
Lastly, Burger King is a global company worthy of a global perspective. Burger King’s CEO should participate in global conversations around sustainability and deforestation, and be a leader in shaping these conversations. The New York Declaration on Forests and the COP21 Paris Agreement featured participation from multi-national companies such as Unilever and Cargill. These are unique opportunities for Burger King to hear from and participate in global conversations around sustainability.
 Schwarzer, Stefan. Growing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Due to Meat Production. Geneva: UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service, 2012.
 Eshel, Gidon, Alon Shepon, Tamar Makov, and Ron Milo. “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 33 (2014): 11996-12001.
 “Stop Burger King from Destroying Rainforests.” ForceChange. July 15, 2015. Accessed November 07, 2016. https://forcechange.com/145170/boycott-burger-king-until-it-sources-sustainable-palm-oil/.
 “Sustainable Palm Oil Action Plan – McDonald’s.” Accessed November 7, 2016. http://corporate.mcdonalds.com/mcd/sustainability/sourcing/priority-products/sustainable-palm-oil-plan.html.
 “2016 Sustainability Framework.” Letter. June 29, 2016. In Restaurant Brands International. June 29, 2016. Accessed November 7, 2016. 1. http://www.rbi.com/sites/default/files/restaurant_brands_international_sustainability_framework.pdf.