Quick-serves might be faring better than most when it comes to recession-time profits, but they’re still just middle-of-the-road when it comes to sustainability, according to Greenopia, an online directory of eco-friendly businesses.
“It’s really hit or miss,” says Doug Mazeffa, research director for Greenopia. “Some of them, like Pizza Fusion, EVOS, and Le Pain Quotidien, they’re really good—to the point where they excel for a national company of any industry. … On the flip side, there are some companies who didn’t really do much of anything. It’s kind of frustrating because it’s not super consistent.”
Greenopia rates fast-food chains based on a four-leaf system that looks at sustainability reports, green building design, supply chain, recycling, and stock.
The result: While McDonald’s and Subway earned one leaf each for taking steps toward sustainability, several other big names in the industry, such Burger King, Taco Bell, Arby’s, and KFC, all earned zero leaves. Smaller chains, such as Pizza Fusion, EVOS, and Burgerville—each with 75 units or fewer, earned ratings of three or four stars.
Mazeffa says high-scoring brands impressed Greenopia with initiatives such as Pizza Fusion’s organic cotton uniforms or EVOS’ use of natural building materials and energy-efficient fixtures in its stores.
“It’s amazing the things they do,” Mazeffa says. “On the flip side, there are some companies who didn’t really do much of anything.” One that surprised Mazeffa was Wendy’s.
Even with more relaxed criteria than local restaurants face, Wendy’s received zero leaves (it was one of 11 restaurants on the list of 23 to do so).
“Wendy’s is typically considered one of the more healthier brands, and we really expected to see some sort of dedicated initiative based around the fact that they’re trying to promote the wholesomeness, the healthiness of their beef and their salads,” Mazeffa says. “Their reporting was nonexistent, and we couldn’t really find anything they were doing.”
Wendy’s declined to comment on the subject.
Yet, Mazeffa is willing to cut brands such as Wendy’s a bit of slack. “[Large chains] have a much more difficult supply chain to work with than a local restaurant that can go to the farmer’s market and get everything they need,” he says.
But EVOS’ co-founder, Dino Lambridis, thinks another factor beyond size is responsible for Greenopia naming EVOS the greenest burger chain.
“Even though EVOS serves fast-food with burgers, fries, and shakes, we do fall into the category of fast-casual,” Lambridis says. He thinks that the higher price point of fast-casual chains makes it easier for them to accommodate what can sometimes be the added expense of making eco-friendly decisions.
“One of the detriments to green products is price and then perceived lower quality for certain things,” Mazeffa says. “Those kind of fast-casuals, since they are significantly more expensive, can build that in to some extent.”
Accordingly, Chipotle earned two leaves and Panera earned one on Greenopia’s rating system.
For chains that have yet to earn their first leaf, Mazeffa points toward a sustainability report as a good first step for determining what might be the smartest—and most cost-effective—move for a company.
“The first step’s always the hardest,” Mazeffa says. “There’s really no magic bullet.”
While Greenopia has no set plans to expand its list of fast-food brand ratings beyond 23, Mazeffa would like to revisit the list some time soon.
“The food industry in general has changed so much in the last five years,” he says. “The fact that [the green movement] is trickling into fast-food and fast-casual restaurants is really impressive. … Based off the kind of success and feedback we’ve gotten [on the list], we do want to extend it.”
A full list of Greenopia’s fast-food chain ratings can be found here.