By Ben Luginbill
In most major cities around the world, you will now see the iconic Golden Arches. When Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald’s Corporation, stumbled upon a small family restaurant specializing in hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes, he would forever change the way food was served. Over six decades, McDonald’s has become an icon of Capitalism and many attempts to replicate its financial success. However, this company may not be such a positive role model. The action of McDonald’s as a global Corporation demonstrates a culture which values monetary profit over any negative externalities of their practices that cheapens resources, such as the fictitious commodities of land and labor. Throughout the Anthropocene, humanity’s relationship with their natural environment has had a negative impact, but through establishments like McDonald’s, the capitalist approach accelerated deterioration in a short amount of time. This acceleration has shifted the narrative of our epoch towards the business practices that defined this relationship with nature, thus determining the Capitalocene geological age we live in. McDonald’s business practices are representative of business’ degrading relationship with the environment, specifically from the 1950s onward in the Global North.
The iconic Golden Arches went from a simple burger stand to a global, sometimes deceptive, corporation through the efforts of one man. McDonald’s began operations in 1954 under brothers Dick and Mac McDonald in San Bernardino, California. The brothers prided themselves on a limited menu but aimed to achieve a high level of quality and customer satisfaction. The McDonald brothers were content with their lives and envisioned their future as owning their “white house” where they would “sit out on the porch in the evenings and watch the sunset and look down on our place.” However, this story of a simplistic lifestyle did not appeal to the businessman who sold them their Multimixer milkshake machines. Upon checking out the eight Multimixer-owning business in person, Kroc “was fascinated by the simplicity and effectiveness of the system” the McDonalds brothers set-up in their restaurant. However, the simplistic lifestyle and business “approach was utterly foreign to my thinking”, according to Kroc. After this meeting, Kroc joined them as a business partner and it was Kroc’s singular profit-seeking mentality, regardless of negative side-effects, that transformed this simple burger stand into something that not only has a global presence but also is representative of a major economic shift during America’s “Golden Age of Capitalism.”
Starting in 1950, America began an economic period of enormous growth and this dynamic economic environment fueled McDonald’s business decisions. Many social scientists today know this time period by another name: “The Great Acceleration.” This period is defined by the exponential growth in human consumption and the origins of materials at an unprecedented rate, including the amount of carbon dioxide emissions and transportation infrastructure. Links between business practices to patterns of consumption can be seen through the lens of business moguls, such as Kroc. His life philosophy was often centered around working hard at all costs, illustrated in his autobiography through quotes, such as “work was play” and “I wanted to be out selling..and that’s what I did.” His primary life goal was to make a hefty profit, regardless of what it took and how it affected others. This outlook was a new way of thinking of work’s role in one’s personal life as opposed to family and religion being the main priorities of American life previously. Kroc serves the role of the Anthropos because he is one of the iconic pioneers of furthering environmentally unsustainable business practices in order to make a monetary profit. Kroc’s personal ideological shift of work’s role in life eventually went on to reflect on the priorities of McDonald’s as a business and a public image.
Business scholars have lauded McDonald’s massive growth, but this growth is mostly based on creating an image of success. There are many shortcomings in their ability to deliver on the high quality of food and customer service, both focuses of the original McDonald’s business model, but it’s their ability to maintain the “perception of quality” that maintains their status as a global force. For example, in a 2003 court case, a child named Ashley Pelman argued that McDonald’s products did not properly notify the customer of potential health effects. McDonald’s was able to dismiss this claim by arguing “the public is well aware that…fast food fare has such attributes.” This case drew interest from scholars Michelle Mello, Eric Rimm, and David Studdert due to its similarities to early litigation cases against the tobacco industry, which now has a negative public image due to numerous lawsuits that have amassed over three decades. While McDonald’s was legally exonerated, the concept that companies hold no responsibility for their products’ effects doesn’t make logical sense. McDonald’s is attempting to distract from their practices of both resources and human degradation, including their customers who they say is the reason for their drive for high quality.
When evaluating the Anthropocene, it can be better understood through the lens of Moore’s proposal of the Capitalocene. Moore argues that this “historical era shaped by relations profiling the endless accumulation of capital” provides insight into how these business models continue to operate with an emphasis on profit accumulation. This extensive network requires a massive amount of resources to both fuels the business itself and produce the food they are known for. Due to the global operation, McDonald’s has to constantly reevaluate cheap or deceptive ways to avoid legal issues, as demonstrated through their cunning response in the Pelman case. This business is running on the assumption that capital, specifically resources, is endless and plentiful for generations, but the plethora of facts show that this business model may be damped by social and environmental causes. Two years ago, McDonald’s finally removed artificial ingredients from their burgers after pressure from customers. While this is a step in the right direction, change is occurring at a slow rate. Under the structure Kroc laid out, the business focuses more on keeping up appearances to increase profits than to actually deliver on their brand image. This misleading appearance not only applies to the quality of food but also where the food is sourced from.
The food that is served on your tray is a result of both poor business practices and low-cost agriculture infrastructure. McDonald’s is not solely responsible for beef’s carbon footprint, but their use of over 350,000 cattle annually makes them the largest beef buyer in the US. Additionally, a Greenpeace investigation into Amazonian rainforest deforestation found an operation funded partially by McDonald’s where rainforests were being cut down in order to create land for soybean cultivation, which is used in 70-90% of the world’s animal feed. The 10 combination of providing more capital for mass animal feed production and supporting the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which is one of the largest carbon absorbers, demonstrates one company’s disproportionate negative environmental impact on the planet.
This idea of using the land as a commodity is linked to Karl Polanyi’s fictitious commodities. Land exists regardless of a market, so for it to be an extraction point “subordinates the substance…to the laws of the market.” This is placing a value onto an object that isn’t even “produced by man,” thus giving it no plausible reason to be valued. Yet when applied to McDonald’s business model, they support destructive ecological practices that deforest the most biodiverse rainforest ecosystem on the planet simply for them to turn an increased profit by assuring their supply chain for meat is supported by ample animal feed. This unbalanced impact can be linked to other critiques of species thinking, which generalizes the human species as the culprits of ecological change. The McDonald’s corporation should be held liable for their massive ecological footprint and the practices they fund in order to keep up with the global demand they have created.
Besides quality ingredients, McDonald’s has prided itself on providing a high level of customer service; however, there are ample examples that they don’t deliver in this area as well. When Ronald Balvers, John Gaski, and Bill McDonald, no relation to McDonald’s, were researching customer satisfaction they found contradictory information. Their research found that according to the “American Customer Service Index (ACSI),” McDonald’s “score is less than 63 over the sample period (while the sample has a cross-sectional average score of 75).”12 This lack of ability to deliver the thing the company prides itself on most, customer service, shows a glaring reality that many of their other claims made on the McDonald’s website and to the general public may not be factual. Moore and Patel define cheapness as “a strategy, a practice, violence that mobilizes all kinds of work-human and animal, botanical and geological-with as little compensation as possible.” They not able to provide as great of 13 customer experience, but their employees aren’t in favor of their business practices either.
While the quality of experience for the customers that is degrading, the cheapening of labor is occurring as well. Chicago Tribune journalist Barbara Brotman wrote a story in April 1985 on sixteen-year-old Mark Montecinos who worked for an entire week like a chicken mascot as part of an advertising McDonald’s campaign for just $4 per hour, which was only $0.65 more than the minimum wage. Montecinos told Brotman he needed more money because he dropped out of high school in order to support his family financially. McDonald’s pay barely above the minimum wage to this day, the work is physically demanding and the public, especially younger ages, “have no respect” for Montecinos. This form of exploitation of Montecinos’ personal situations in order to improve their marketing campaign is reflective of Polanyi’s fictitious commodity of labor.
Polanyi sheds light on the fact that while labor and land are “essential elements of the industry,” they are “obviously not commodities.” The argument against labor as a commodity is that it is a part of life, regardless of its ability to be produced “for sale.” Another shift to reduce labor cost is the current transition to kiosks, instead of human workers, who for business purposes they treat like financial objects. Ed Rensi, a former CEO of McDonald’s during the 1990s, sees low wages for workers this as an effort to address labor cost as a result of “rising minimum wage.” Not only is it minimizes McDonald’s expenses fiscally, but it is also 15 cheapening their customer service. Good customer service can be shared through human communication and by eliminating the point of contact that the executives at McDonald’s value, illustrates that cheapness is not solely monetary but inherently subjective. McDonald’s Corporation is still pursuing monetary profits as their sole goal, just like their founder Ray Kroc did.
McDonald’s is a global icon of capitalism and the resulting financial success that occurs if a business is marketed and operated strategically. However, their inability to account for the environmental degradation that they fuel in the Amazon rainforest, the“perception of quality” in customer service and the food they pride themselves on and the commodification of employees and customers show the underpinnings of an unsustainable business model. The profit-seeking ideals Ray Kroc instilled in the company exemplify Moore and Patel’s “cheapness”, that builds off of Polanyi “fictitious commodities of land and labor”. These objects and ideas support Moore’s idea that we are living in the Capitalocene, where capitalism is the driver of geological change. Perhaps next time when you eat at the Golden Arches, this reality of McDonald’s poses the question: Am I really lovin’ it?
“10 Years Ago the Amazon Was Being Bulldozed for Soy-Then Everything Changed,” Greenpeace, May 10, 2016. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/victories/amazon-rainforest-deforestation-soy-moratoriu m-success/
Barbara Brotman, “McDonald’s worker showing his pluck: About the town Chicken” Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1985.
Ed Rensi, “McDonald’s Says Goodbye Cashiers, Hello Kiosks,” Forbes, July 11, 2018. Jason Moore. Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis. (London: Verso Books, 2015), 173.
Jason Moore and Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 22.
Jonathan Schlefer, The Assumptions Economists Make. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 215.
Julie Jargon, “McDonald’s Removes Artificial Ingredients From Burgers,” The Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2018.
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, Beacon Press, 2001), 75-76.
Malik Shabbir, “Innovation Strategy of McDonald Business from Historical perspectives,” International Journal of Global Business 11 (2018): 25.
“McDonald’s Environmental Issues,” UK Essays 4 (2019): 1. 10
Michelle M Mello, Eric B Rimm, and David M Studdert, “The McLawsuit: The fast-food industry and legal accountability for obesity,” Health Affairs 22, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 2003: 208.
Pelman v. McDonald’s Corporation, 2003 NY 237 F.Supp.2d 512 (2003).
Ray Kroc and Robert Anderson, Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s (Contemporary Books edition, 1977), 6,9.
Ronald Balvers, John Gaski, Bill McDonald, “Financial Disclosure and Customer Satisfaction: Do Companies Talking the Talk Actually Walk the Walk?,” Journal of Business Ethics 139 (2016): 40.
Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig, “The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015): 86-87.