Wednesday, October 29th, 2008...1:27 pm
The 5 Worst McCrimes Against Humanity (and the Planet)
McDonald’s, the world’s largest food chain, is a staggering company. The figures speak for themselves: over 26,500 outlets in 119 countries serving around 39 million people every day and annual revenues of over $23 billion. But this success has not come without its fair share of criticism and controversy.
Serious critisicm of the company has grown steadily over the last few decades as concerns over ethical and environmental issues have become more prevalent around the world. Public disapproval peaked a few years ago with McDonald’s regularly heading lists of the most unethical companies amidst a barrage of bad press and political pressure.
The resulting backlash drove customers away causing a significant slump in profits. The last couple of years, however, have seen the company’s fortunes recover with their massive PR machine chugging away, fruit and salad on the menus and sales back on track.
So what’s the beef? Well, let’s remind ourselves of some of the McControversies surrounding McDonald’s McBusiness McPractices. (I promise I’ll stop doing that now).
Having sold an estimated 100 billion hamburgers, the most common and fundamental criticism levelled at McDonald’s over the years has concerned the nutritional value of its food products. Throughout the last few decades, as diet and obesity have come into the public spotlight, purveyors of “junk-food” have found themselves on the receiving end of increasing castigation.
Popular criticism of the poor (or detrimental) nutritional quality of McDonald’s products surely peaked with the hugely successful documentary Super Size Me (2004), in which film-maker Morgan Spurlock put himself through the brave/stupid experiment of living on McDonald’s food exclusively for an entire month (not sure if that one’s covered by your health insurance!). The consequences for Spurlock’s health were severe, the consequence for McDonald’s was a PR nightmare.
This barrage of bad press and public pressure resulted in a series of damage-limitation measures from Ronald and his PR pals – introducing “healthy” items to the menu, battling lawsuits filed by obese customers, listing nutritional information on food packaging and generally trying to assure consumers, governments and industry watchdogs that the company truly cares about health and nutrition, not just profits.
With an annual advertising budget topping $2bn, McDonald’s has built one of the most recognisable brands in the world – as Eric Schlosser puts it in his book Fast Food Nation (2001), the “Golden Arches are now more widely recognized than the Christian cross”. The disconcerting problem here is that the company’s marketing aggressively targets children, and fears have grown over their increasingly pervasive strategies.
Alongside the bombardment of TV adverts, kiddie-friendly food products, collectible toys, play areas and birthday parties in restaurants, McDonald’s also implements vast campaigns and promotions in schools, youth-oriented community schemes, hospitals and other places that many consider should be out-of-bounds to corporate marketing. A dispiriting recent study backed these fears by showing that the McDonald’s branding had a major influence on the eating preferences of children as young as 3 years old.
McDonald’s advertising model is neatly epitomised by their mascot, the all-round freaky-looking clown bastard and scourge of coulrophobic burger fans the world over, Ronald McDonald: designed solely to entice children, colourful, ethically questionable and slightly scary.
Hindering Free Speech
With frequent allegations of malpractice and a legion of vociferous critics, McDonald’s has had to devote a great deal of resources to tackling criticism in order to keep the Big Macs selling. However, by employing unethical methods in their attempts they have often provoked further condemnation. This was most obvious during one of the company’s most detrimental and embarrassing episodes (and the longest court case in British history): the “McLibel” trial (which is comprehensively documented here).
The trial was a classic “David Vs. Goliath” story with two London Greenpeace activists (not to be confused with the international Greenpeace), Helen Steel and David Morris (pictured above), in one corner and the colossal food corporation in the other. As demanded by the twisted UK libel laws, the pair were forced to represent themselves due to a lack of legal aid and tasked with proving every allegation made in the offending article: What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know, a 6-page pamphlet which they had published and distributed covering many of the issues included here (uh oh!)
Predictably, in 1997 the Judge delivered a verdict ruling in favour of McDonald’s and awarding them £60,000 in damages. However, he upheld many of the pamphlet’s allegations including cruelty to animals, exploitation of workers and children and misleading advertising. This was a victory for McDonald’s in a legal sense only – their use of underhand tactics and exploitation of their considerable financial/legal weight to stifle freedom of speech and silence criticism that was in the public’s interest had been documented and publicised around the world. Furthermore, Steel and Morris won a subsequent appeal in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which ruled that the original trial had been a breach of their human rights.
Our societies’ ravenous demand for cheap meat has been a major factor in the decimation of the planet’s rainforests. Huge areas of forest have been destroyed to make room for modern agricultural and large-scale cattle-raising operations, the products of which are aimed at the cheap export market, and usually end up in the US and European fast food industry.
Though not directly involved, McDonald’s has been linked to deforestation on many occasions. The McLibel trial, for example, involved allegations regarding the company’s sourcing of beef from farms situated on recently deforested land in Costa Rica, Guatemala and other countries. But most damagingly, the issue was raised in the 2006 Greenpeace report Eating Up The Amazon in which McDonald’s patronage of Brazil’s huge soya farming industry (using the products for chicken feed) was strongly condemned claiming the industry was responsible for mass deforestation as well as illegal land-grabs and slave labour.
Increasing pressure in the wake of the report lead to a moratorium on soya crops from Brazil’s deforested areas, and McDonald’s quickly distanced itself from the industry’s unethical practices by assuring environmentalists that they would do their utmost to protect the planet’s rainforests in a display of altruistic PR posturing. It would seem that no trees die in the making of McNuggets anymore.
McDonald’s, along with that other ubiquitous US brand – Coca Cola, has long been a symbol of globalisation. The staggering success and worldwide proliferation of McDonald’s carbon-copy franchise organisation means that it has become indelibly linked to the homogenisation of global culture, a process which for many people is a deplorable process and a direct attack on the rich cultural variety of our planet.
McDonald’s has exported its brand of American fast food cuisine around the globe, and despite a nod to national culinary variations between countries (the Teriyaki McBurger in Japan and the McCurry Pan in India, for example) – in the pursuit of money rather than the preservation of cultural diversity – the food, and the whole dining experience in general, is essentially the same the world over.
As with the issue of dead-end employment and the “McJob”, McDonald’s affiliation with the processes of homogenisation and globalisation is so established that it has inspired popular neologisms. Sociologist George Ritzer turned the company into a verb in The McDonaldization of Society (1993) which argued that people have learned to sacrifice quality for certainty. Whilst Benjamin R. Barber extended this two years later by coining the term McWorld the (terribly titled) Jihad Vs. McWorld (1995), in which he criticised neoliberal economics and corporate globalisation as exemplified by company’s such as McDonald’s.