By Catriona Stewart

THEY are one of the most famous global symbols, instantly recognisable in towns from Sydney to Skegness – but the McDonald’s golden arches are slowly turning green.

While the fast food chain in the UK and Ireland has long invested in sustainability in its supply chain – with free range eggs on the menu for the past 22 years, RSPCA assured pork and Fairtrade coffee – the company has now made a worldwide environmental pledge.

In 2017 it launched its Scale For Good commitment to use only sustainable packaging in its stores within seven years and last month it set out its Plan For Change climate ambitions, which include a goal of reaching net zero in the UK and Ireland by 2040.

Such is the corporation’s dedication to be seen to be making meaningful change, global chief executive Chris Kempczinski and a McDonald’s delegation attended COP26 in Glasgow, fitting in a visit to the Sauchiehall Street branch in the city centre.

The store has just undergone a refurbishment using sustainable materials and is the first of its kind in Scotland.

On hand to welcome him was Beth Hart, vice president supply chain and brand trust (UK & Ireland), who is spearheading much of the green change being embraced by the company.

Ms Hart, who came to McDonald’s from Marks & Spencer but has worked for numerous companies such as Safeway, Mars and Diageo, is clearly passionate about the tack the company is taking.

“It’s been quite a long road to Glasgow,” she said in an exclusive interview with The Herald. “From a long run up, the last few years we have been storming ahead.

“In 2017 McDonald’s launched a big, global sustainability commitment, Scale For Good.

“For a big business like ours, a big, mega-global brand to make a commitment like that publicly that would span the whole globe was pretty awesome, especially as it was using science-based targets for a restaurant group that’s home is in the US of A.

“And that was probably the start of a proper, committed, global journey.

“The UK and Ireland launched Plan For Change on the same day the global company launched its net zero commitment.

“Due to the pandemic, there was only a few of us in our office that day but we gathered together and had a wee moment.

“’Did we really go net zero today? Did we really make that commitment to the whole world that the powerhouse that is McDonald’s is going to make such a profound change?’”

One of the common themes at COP26 was allegations of greenwashing, climate activists accusing businesses of making only superficial change for the sake of positive publicity.

It would be easy to be sceptical about claims of change from a global brand such as McDonald’s, which has an entire business model based around throwaway packaging, drive through restaurants that encourage car use

and burgers from methane-producing cattle.

Ms Hart, however, has no time for cynicism, although she acknowledged these are “enormous hurdles”.

She said: “Everybody’s got an opinion on McDonald’s. You go to a dinner party and you think, ‘Please don’t ask me what I do for a living.’

“Some people say ‘I love it and it’s been part of the fabric of my life, I remember childhood birthday parties, I love a Big Mac’. Some of them passionately adore the brand and some of them it is as far opposite as you can get.

“This is the first time we’ve been out there talking about sustainability loud and proud and we might just shift opinion.

“Though we’re not really looking to shift opinion, to be honest with you, this is just the right thing and what we should be doing.”

McDonald’s is also the largest employer of 16 to 18 year olds in the UK and Ms Hart says the company faces pressure from young employees in particular to improve its environmental record.

One of the major benefits for McDonald’s is its sheer scale and the brand is using this to make changes that can be used by other companies.

Recently it made the switch to paper straws but sourced and scaled up production of branding-free utensils that could be easily open sourced elsewhere for low cost.

The eventual plan is to have entirely sustainable packaging.

Ms Hart said: “We have enormous hurdles to address. Everything will have a current life, a previous life and a future life – nothing will go to waste.

“I don’t have all the answers as to how we are going to do that yet but if anyone can do it, we can, because we are so big.

“We have so much influence, we have the resources. There are loads of people like me all across McDonald’s with 20 or 30 years of experience, contacts, passion and commitment, to connect the dots to be able to find and build those solutions.

“The other thing we can do is, boy, can we convene. Our CEO met Joe Biden yesterday afternoon. That’s so cool.

“You think, my goodness, we’re at the table with world leaders where we can influence change and we need to be sitting at those tables doing the right thing and driving the right level of change globally and locally.”

As well as meeting the US president, Mr Kempczinski was given his first taste of Irn-Bru at COP26 and gifted a pair of Irn-Bru underpants, a part of his visit he likely wants to keep quiet about.

McDonald’s is also committed to bringing its suppliers along with it given that, Ms Hart says, “in McDonald’s we mate for life”.

Long-term partnerships, such as with Scottish paper manufacturer Smith Anderson, which supplies McDonald’s globally, make it easier to deliver competitive advantage throughout the business.

Ms Hart said: “We talk about being very conscious of where we lay our feet on the planet.

“Every body comes to work every day to lead a good life and do the right thing and we can create the infrastructure to make that happen.

“It’s very privileged to sit in a role like this and have such enormous influence and to be able to mobilise so many extended resources and point them in the direction of doing the right thing.

“But we’re a business and we’re doing it because it makes sense for the business.”

For customers, the changes at McDonald’s will mean sustainable packaging, EV charging points at restaurants and quirkier changes. Hard plastic Happy Meal toys, for example, are being melted down to make children’s play equipment and a net zero prototype restaurant is being built in Market Drayton, in England.

The new McPlant burger, which features vegan cheese that took three years to develop, is also part of the change.

Will the vegan range be extended? “We wouldn’t go to the trouble of creating an individual brand – if you think of McFlurry, BigMac, those brands are bigger in their own right than some people’s entire businesses – so the fact that we’ve created a brand, a look, a feel, an entity, is an indication we are really serious about this,” Ms Hart said.

“You don’t get to use the Mc for everything.”

Acknowledging the scale of the challenge ahead, Ms Hart said she and her colleagues are more than committed to making the necessary changes.

“You only live one life,” she adds, “What, on your deathbed, would you like to think you’d achieved? I think that we are bringing on a generation of people who will have a very good story to tell because they have made a profound difference.

“When you understand the detail of what it takes to do, it sort of blows your mind a bit, the sheer scale of it, but I can’t wait to dig in to some of those gnarly problems and bring together the best minds around solving them.

“We’re humble and a wee bit frightened but we’ve got the resources to do it.”