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Would “The Founder” be a green business leader today?

McDonald’s Corporation’s Ray Kroc and the real McDonald brothers might have had a contentious relationship. But they all shared a love of resource efficiency.

The movie, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc, is a layered, somewhat ambiguous and timely tale of business and ambition. Some critics say it is perfectly suited for the age of Trump – an observation I do not share.

But I’m neither a movie critic nor am I objective. I once worked indirectly for the company on the burger chain’s account in the corporate PR firm Golin-Harris Communications (now Golin). What struck me then as today was the efficiency credo of the company and the culture of people who lived it.

To film "The Founder," a replica of the original red-and-white restaurants was built in Georgia. - Photo courtesy of Michael Corenblith, the Oscar-winning production designer who designed the set and adapted it to depict the many different locations in the movie.

My tenure there was from 1986 through 1990, with a bit of consulting/vendor work in subsequent years. Ray Kroc died just two years before my arrival, so his presence was strongly felt and liberally referenced. I also had opportunity to meet his widow, Joan Kroc, as well as Dick McDonald, one of the two McDonald brothers who truly invented the concept and who somewhat unhappily sold their name to the franchising company (a point of focus in the film, and probably why critics make Trump comparisons to this movie, filmed long before he was the Republican nominee).

Energy efficiency, circa-1950s

That aside, I think the hyper-efficient restaurant has a bit of a green story to tell. Microeconomic topics – lowest-cost production, minimal waste – always fascinate me. This has a lot to do with my interest and work in environmental sustainability.

Which is what McDonald’s was and remains to be all about. One scene in “The Founder” touches on the prodigious energy use that went into ice cream freezer storage at every one of the company’s restaurants. It was a late 1950s moment that is exceptionally relevant in the 21st century. The franchising company – over the protests of the McDonald brothers – switched to a powdered mix that significantly cut the need for freezers, effectively reducing energy costs by a large sum at every store. The founder, the franchisees – spouses included – and suppliers were always looking for ways to make things faster, better and at a lower cost. Innovation was a game to them – a profitable game.

Fast forward to now. Innovation is our best hope in tackling energy, pollution and climate issues. And while a large segment of the population favors sustainability and renewable energy in particular, cost-benefit ratios are the ultimate determinant for businesses as well as individuals. The ROI is as sacrosanct as preserving shareholder value.

The Golden Arches have a green hue

As best they can, McDonald’s seems to have found its way to honor investors’ and environmentalists’ values. As explained on the Environmental Defense Fund’s website, the company’s U.S. restaurants alone have reduced packaging waste by 30% while also saving $6 million per year. That’s just one example.

Now, as someone with a PR background I also look for evidence of greenwashing. I trust the EDF’s analysis, but also know that packaging waste is only a small part of the picture. What encourages me is the company benchmarked its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2013, traced across a full life cycle assessment of the restaurants, supply chain and corporate offices. They are willing to look at what can be done – from sustainable agriculture to solid waste reduction, energy and water conservation – and to be transparent about it.

Anyone who has familiarity with the company also knows that when McDonald’s figures out how to do something, many other businesses benefit. Those suppliers will figure out ways to similarly reduce their GHGs, which in turn reduces adverse impacts in other parts of their businesses and with their other (non-McDonald’s) customers. I discovered this while writing an article just a few years ago about a LEED certified set of McDonald’s restaurants in North Carolina. After the construction firm completed the first green McD’s, they were able to build the second one with greater efficiency at a lower cost. The culture endures.

Ray Kroc as portrayed in “The Founder” was a flawed individual who nonetheless achieved great success. His motives were to build the most successful restaurant business in history by way of efficiency. Count me impressed that more than sixty years later those founding principles endure – and that efficient resource use and profitability in a modern world still contribute to shareholder value.

McDonald’s culture understands how the sustainability of its business is rooted in the durability of its business partners, its customer communities and the agricultural systems from which it sources its products.

Wouldn't it be great if this holistic and long-game, efficiency-oriented culture and leadership were to form present-day government policies on commerce, energy and the environment?

Russ Klettke evolved from burger promotion to nutrition author, sustainability advocate and all-around business writer in a broad range of industries (financial, construction, healthcare, law, and others). Contact him to discuss communications content development.

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Russ Klettke

Business Writer

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