Fast Food Chains

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 10 fast food chains.

We also look at animal welfare, marketing to children, shine a spotlight on the ethics of McDonald's and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying fast food:

  • Is it vegan or vegetarian? Animal welfare does not seem to be a priority for any of the fast food chains in our guide.

  • Does the company treat its employees fairly? Are employees getting a fair wage and adequate working conditions?

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying fast food:

  • Does it come in plastic packaging? Watch out for hidden plastics such as polyethylene lined card, and make sure non-plastic packaging comes from sustainable and preferably recycled sources.

  • Is it marketing to children? While there is now a ban on specifically marketing unhealthy foods to children, fast food restaurants are still allowed to market their ‘healthy’ options to children. This can be used to attract them to the restaurant where they will frequently choose the unhealthy option anyway.

     

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

Fast food chains: I’m not lovin’ it!

The fast food industry has never been exactly synonymous with ethics or sustainability, but recently some of the fast food old timers have been attempting to shake off their poor image, and some newer chains have come onto market selling themselves as a more sustainable fast food option.

We here aim to sort the claims from the reality.

Many of the issues we discussed in our guide to chain restaurants are also pertinent to fast food, such as workers pay and transparency on sourcing. 

Table Highlights

All of the companies scored worst for Environmental Reporting, Supply Chain Management, Factory Farming and Animal Rights, reflecting the nature of the industry as a whole.

More differentiation was seen on likely use of tax avoidance strategies. Wimpy, Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s all got our worst rating, while the others got best.

Packaging

One of the key issues surrounding fast food is exactly that – what surrounds it. Packaging has become one of the top environmental issues of the last few years and fast food is a big culprit. The amount of plastic entering our oceans is causing major issues for wildlife with animals ingesting or getting trapped in the debris.

Many of the big chains use card-based containers for items like burgers, wraps and drinks. However, they are often fused with a layer of polyethylene to make them waterproof. This means not only that they still contain plastic, but that they are very complicated to recycle due to the difficulties in separating the two materials.

Image: packaging fast food

There is no need for this- there are takeaway containers on the market made made from 100% recycled plant fibres.

While there is an argument that in some cases plastic packaging can help reduce food waste by increasing the longevity of food, when it comes to fast food there is no such excuse.

Fast food packaging is also one of the biggest sources of litter. In 2016-17 the government reported that 23% of all litter recorded was food packaging, including fast-food packaging.

Companies which are doing a bit better on packaging

Eat. offers a fully compostable coffee cup.

McDonald’s has announced a commitment that by 2025 “100 percent of McDonald’s guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled or certified sources”. However, currently only 10% of McDonald’s outlets recycle, and a lot of its packaging contains plastic.

Packaging requires industry-wide solutions

Packaging is a problem inherent in the concept of fast food that can be eaten on the go.

Industry-wide co-operation is likely to be required in order to effectively tackle the issue, and regulatory bodies can also play a key part. The UK Government is currently considering a tax on single use plastics, including polystyrene take-away boxes, following the success of the 5p charge on plastic bags.

In April 2015 Oxford became the first UK city to impose a complete ban on plastic take-away boxes. The EU is also moving towards a ban on single use plastics where readily available alternatives are available, as well as looking into shifting more responsibility to companies for dealing with the packaging they produce.

Deforestation

The hamburger is perhaps the most archetypal fast food item. But the beef has long been linked to deforestation, as trees are cleared to make way for cattle.

The Rainforest Partnership states that beef is beyond doubt the biggest cause of deforestation in the Amazon. It estimates that around 65-70% of Amazon rainforest clearing is due to cattle farming. And that does not even include forest cleared for growing animal feed.

It has been shown that deforestation can often be hidden as cattle are moved from ranch to ranch. This means that while the direct supplier may be free from deforestation the cattle could have previously reared on ranches that were not.

How companies are doing on deforestation

Burger King has pledged to get deforestation out of its supply chain. However, it has been strongly criticised for setting the woefully unambitious target of 2030. It also does not appear to be doing that much to achieve the goal. In 2016 the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) rated Burger King zero out of 100 for its effort to protect the rainforests.

Subway was also featured in the UCS report where it received a score of 5 out of 100. It only got the 5 points because it discloses the locations of some of its beef suppliers in South America. It has not made any public commitment to eradicate deforestation in its beef supply chain.

Image: fast food chains

McDonald’s is making somewhat more progress – it was rated 48 in the UCS report. It has also pledged to get deforestation out of its supply chain. And as part of its sustainable beef plan, McDonald’s UK now sources all of its beef for UK restaurants from the UK or Ireland.

Why McDonald’s is not doing enough

However, McDonald’s is still doing nowhere near enough. Firstly, it is a global chain with restaurants in over 100 countries. The UK may be getting UK beef, but what about restaurants in other countries?

Additionally, deforestation has not been eradicated from McDonald’s wider UK supply chain. Like Tesco and Morrisions, McDonald’s sources its chicken from Cargill- indeed it is Cargill’s biggest European customer.

Cargill is a giant food trader that has been heavily criticised for buying from deforested areas. Among other things, it is a major trader of soy-based animal feed. Since 2006 it has participated in a moratorium on buying soya from the Amazon, but there is evidence that it is buying soya from other areas that have been recently deforested, including parts of Bolivia and Brazil’s Cerrado forest.

Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive of Mighty Earth, told The Independent: “Despite the positive past steps McDonald’s has taken, everything we know about their suppliers suggests they’re still chock full of deforestation.”

Animal cruelty and factory farming

All of the companies in our table lose a full mark in our Animal Rights and Factory Farming categories, as they all sell meat that is not labelled free range.

Many of them have also been the target of specific criticism for cruelty to the animals in their supply chains. Websites Kentucky Fried Cruelty and McCruelty focus on chickens, and Burger King Cruelty focuses on cows.

Dominos has been particularly recalcitrant on animal welfare with Dominos spokesperson Tim McIntyre stating “We will never tell a farmer how to farm. We will never tell a rancher how to raise his or her animals.”

Animal rights activists have made some progress towards getting fast food chains to adopt stricter animal welfare policies. However there is no sign of a move towards free-range meat. In fact, LEON has a statement on its website stating that it gave up using free-range chicken because the cost rendered it unable to compete with other fast food chains.

This is a stark example of how poor animal welfare is an inherent problem in the whole fast food market. Even those restaurants positioning themselves as a more ethical and sustainable option seem to be unwilling to challenge it.

Choosing plant-based options is the obvious way to avoid animal cruelty.

Franchising

Many fast food brands utilise a franchising model whereby a franchisee pays a fee and percentage of profits to the franchisor in return for being able to use its branding and business model. This means that many fast food restaurants are actually run as independent businesses.

The TUC recently published a report (Shifting the Risk) examining business strategies that reduce a businesses’ responsibilities to workers, with franchising being one of the practices examined.

The report states that while the franchisor maintains a high level of control over certain aspects of how the franchisee operates the business, aspects such as worker’s terms and conditions are often left to the franchisee’s discretion. This makes labour costs and worker’s rights one of the key areas that franchisees can cut in order to maximise their profits.

Furthermore, franchisees will often be incentivised to do this in order to balance the cost of paying the franchisor, and this can be exacerbated by a lack of information about franchising contracts leading to them being skewed in the favour of the franchisor.

What can be done about franchising

The system can also make it harder for workers to fight for their rights. And right on cue, right wing blogger Tim Worstall has asked “McDonald's doesn't determine the wages franchisees pay; so why protest McDonald's?”.

However, if companies have the power to influence the payment of a living wage in their supply chains, they can surely take responsibility for the same with their franchisees. McDonald’s and other franchisors have a lot to gain out of allowing their franchisees to get away with paying excessively low wages, while denying responsibility for it. Yet in the UK parties are generally free to agree all the terms of franchise agreements, so there is no obvious reason why wage requirements cannot be written into them.

The TUC report argues for the law to be changed to give the franchiser and the franchisee joint liability for workers’ rights violations. It points to recent legislation in Australia which has drastically increased franchisor liability.

McStrike

Last September UK McDonalds workers made history by going on strike for the first time ever. The members of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers' Alliance (BFAWU) took the action to demand a real living wage for all employees, including those under 25, an end to zero-hour contracts, and improved working conditions. McDonalds responded by offering its staff their biggest pay-rise in ten years. However, it still leaves workers earning well below Living Wage rates, and it only applied to staff at company owned branches, not franchises.

Image: McStrike

The BFAWU stated “This pay rise is a step in the right direction for all of McDonalds workers but by no means is it the end of the campaign. If just 30 workers can lift wages above anything McDonalds have raised in recent history, or been forced to through legislation, then imagine what we can do when thousands organise across McDonalds and what we will achieve.”

The strike action was repeated on 1st of May, International Workers’ Day where the BFAWU criticised McDonalds for attempting to undermine its significance.

Marketing to Children

The advertisement of junk food to children has been shown to have a significant link to levels of childhood obesity. Some have also argued that it is more unethical to focus advertising to children because they can be less able to discern the difference between advertisements and editorial content, as well as being more susceptible to emotional and unconscious influence.

In 2017 The Food Foundation issued a report titled “UK’s Restrictions on Junk Food Advertising to Children”. They examined the effectiveness on policies which restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods to young people. They found that while restrictions were in place there were a number of loopholes that companies could exploit to still be able to reach children.

For example, there is less restriction on brand advertising, which means that fast food chains are still allowed to advertise their ‘healthy’ options to children, even though they will be just as likely to choose the unhealthy options when they actually get to the restaurant.

Another example is that while there are tighter restrictions on licenced characters (characters from children’s films for example), the restrictions are less tight on unlicensed characters (characters created by the fast-food chains themselves).

There are also limitations in what defines children’s programmes, as well as what actually defines a child. This means that programmes not specifically designed for children but watched by a high percentage of children will not have the same advertising restrictions placed on them.

Child marketing on social media

Concerns have also been raised about advertising on social media channels. It has been suggested that children are now at greater risk of exposure to junk food advertising there.

The Conversation looked into the issue and stated “Platforms also use children’s data to hone ad targeting. They identify children who are most interested in or vulnerable to junk food and its advertising, thereby sharpening children’s vulnerability.”

Overall, it seems clear that current restrictions are not doing enough to protect children and young people from junk food marketing. Campaigners such as the Children’s Food Campaign and the British Heart Foundation are calling for a ban on all advertising of junk food until 9pm. Sign the petition.

Slow food, regenerative food

Overall, the fast food industry is rife with ethical issues and even the supposedly more ethical choices do not score well in our rating system.

Some might suggest that this is in part due to problems with the whole concept of fast food. Slow Food International say that Slow Food is “a way of saying no to the rise of fast food and fast life. Slow Food means living an unhurried life, taking time to enjoy simple pleasures, starting at the table”. The slow food movement believe that the way we eat and enjoy food has a strong connection to the way our food systems operate and the way our food is produced. You can find out more about Slow Food by visiting the Slow Food International website or the Slow Food UK website.

In other news, McDonald’s has recently launched a pilot program to assess the ability of its cattle ranchers to sequester carbon in soil by implementing “regenerative” grazing practices.

However, while this may, of may not, make a small difference, it is important to be aware that it doesn’t compensate for the climate damaging nature of the beef. A recent review of the academic literature published by the Food Climate Research Network concluded: “the [potential] contribution of grazing ruminants [ie cows and sheep] to soil carbon sequestration is small, time-limited, reversible and substantially outweighed by the greenhouse gas emissions they generate.”

KFC’s wasted chicken 

KFC made headlines this year as it was forced to shut a significant number of restaurants after an issue in its supply chain led to stores without any chicken. The GMB Union announced that it had warned KFC of the risks of switching to a cheaper logistics service months before the crisis hit.

Unfortunately, KFC’s attempts to cost-cut led to vast amounts of wasted food. While KFC announced that it was aiming to donate this food to charity, The Guardian spoke to a number of different groups such as Trussel Trust, FareShare and St. Mungo’s, all of which said that they did not have capacity to safely accept the waste chicken.

It has been estimated that 1.9m tons of food is wasted every year by the UK food industry. Instead of focusing on solely on profits, large food corporations dealing with large quantities of food in complex supply chains must act responsibly in order to prevent mistakes like this adding to the existing food waste crises.

Company behind the brand

McDonald’s is one of the most successful global brands with its famous ‘golden arches’, recognisable across the world. It has been operating since 1955 and has over 34,000 branches in over 100 countries.

McDonald's has certainly not been synonymous with ethical or sustainable practices over the years. It became particularly notorious over the “McLibel” case in the 1990s, when it sued a couple of protestors for distributing a leaflet, leading to a ten year trial – the longest in UK history.

However, as this article has shown, McDonald’s is nowadays sometimes hitting the headlines in a more favourable light, with commitments to 100% sustainable packaging or explorations into regenerative agriculture.

Nevertheless, the company still sits firmly at the bottom of the table with a highly unimpressive score of 1.5, meaning that it lost marks in almost every Ethical Consumer category. It is still too soon to tell whether this represents a real shift in behaviour or just a greenwashing campaign.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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