Fast Food Sustainability Part I: In-N-Out, Chick-Fil-A, & Chipotle
In this blog post, I will be assessing the sustainability of the three popular chains Chipotle, Chick-fil-a, and In-n-out Burger. These assessments will include the sustainability of the restaurant buildings themselves (energy efficiency, electricity sourcing, water usage, etc,) waste diversion (both food and landfill,) food packaging such as straws, to-go boxes, cups, etc, food sourcing/suppliers, and vegan/vegetarian options. Each chain will then receive a rating on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most sustainable/environmentally friendly and 1 being the least.
While the in-n-out website boasts a commitment to providing high quality, fresh food and simple ingredients, investigation into in-n-out’s food sourcing, cooking techniques, and ingredients tell a very different story. Despite claiming that their fries are cooked in 100% sunflower oil, further inquiry has revealed that they are actually often cooked in cottonseed oil which comes from cotton plants that are usually genetically modified and heavily treated with pesticides that can contaminate soil, groundwater, and nearby water sources. Cottonseed oil production in some countries is also responsible for deforestation. Not only does cottonseed oil often have a large environmental impact, it also sometimes contains small amounts of gossypol which have been linked to infertility, respiratory problems, and liver damage among other health concerns. A number of other concerning ingredients have been found in in-n-out’s food such as the artificial flavor vanillin made with petrochemicals and the byproducts of wood pulp in their milkshakes.
For a long time, In-n-out has sourced their beef from large factory farms where cattle are crammed into small, unsanitary corals with barely enough room to walk around and are often given antibiotics and growth hormones. These factory farms have an extremely large carbon footprint because of their poor land/soil management and an increase in methane released from cattle digestion and excrement as a result of antibiotic use. Eating antibiotic treated meat can also be dangerous to our health as it increases the risk for contracting dangerous antibiotic resistant infections. While in-n-out recently vowed to start sourcing beef only from suppliers that do not use antibiotics, it remains to be seen if they will follow through on this promise.
In terms of food options, this true burger chain has few vegan and vegetarian choices although they supposedly have grilled cheese and an impossible meat burger on their secret menu. For food packaging, in-n-out uses a mix of disposable and compostable items. In the last few years, a number of groups have called upon this chain to discard single use plastic, especially straws, and replace them with more sustainable options such as the Stevenson School in Carmel, California which launched a SpendRise campaign with The Last Plastic Straw asking in-n-out to #switchthestraw. In-n-out has acknowledged these requests but has yet to make any big changes with their single use plastic. Lastly, while I was unable to find sufficient information on the energy efficiency and sustainability of in-n-out buildings, it does appear that they have made efforts to practice more sustainable construction methods earning recognition from the Woodland’s Public Works Department for their efforts to divert 99% of the waste accumulated during construction from landfills by recycling debris and reusing soil in other projects.
I decided to give in-n-out a 3 out of 10. I was disappointed to hear about many of the environmentally unfriendly and unhealthy ingredients like cottonseed oil and vanillin that they use and that their beef is sourced from factory farms that use antibiotics and growth hormones. I also ticked off points for their lack of effort in reducing single use plastic and just general nonchalant attitude towards sustainability. The few points awarded to in-n-out were for their construction waste diversion efforts, a smaller transportation carbon footprint for produce that is sourced locally (because they want freshness,) their couple vegan/vegetarian options, and their new commitment to antibiotic free meat.
Because chicken has such a smaller carbon footprint than beef (8 vs 65% of global livestock emissions,) chick-fil-a already has an environmental leg-up from in-n-out. Unlike in-n-out, chick-fil-a also made a commitment back in 2014 to serve chickens raised with “no antibiotics ever” at all restaurants by 2019, a promise they have fulfilled. Today, all chick-fil-a chains serve 100% whole breast meat with no fillers, hormones, or steroids. Chick-fil-a’s latest challenge, announced in 2016, is to transition to serving 100% cage free eggs at all locations over the next 10 years; already they have begun working with egg suppliers nationwide to make this happen.
Unlike most fast food chains, chick-fil-a has put a lot of effort into sustainable construction, following strict protocols when building new restaurants to reduce waste, retrofitting existing restaurants to be more sustainable/energy efficient by doing things such as including more efficient lighting and refrigeration and installing water faucet restrictors, and building new restaurants in a sustainable fashion. They even constructed their first LEED Gold certified restaurant in Montgomery Plaza, Fortworth, Texas and plan to construct more LEED Gold restaurants in the future.
To reduce food waste, chick-fil-a has done two things. The first is to donate extra food to those in need through their Chick-fil-a Shared Table program (local food laws and regulations permitting.) The second, is to compost food waste with their recent partnership with Let Us Compost. So far only eleven chick-fil-a restaurants are participating in this program, enough to produce over 100 gallons of compost per week that can be turned into rich soil and used to grow new crops and trees, but the franchise plans to expand this program to include many of their other locations over the next several years.
In terms of packaging and plastic, chick-fil-a definitely has some room for improvement. From straws to plastic gluten free burger bun bags to dip containers, chick-fil-a produces a large amount of single-use plastic. Chick-fil-a also uses styrofoam cups which while technically recyclable (unlike many paper-plastic combined cups) are not accepted by many recycling centers across America. However, the chain is taking some steps to remedy their plastic problem, recently introducing a new sustainable bowl design which will reduce their nationwide plastic use by 8.5 million pounds annually and vowing to look into other plastic alternatives. Perhaps the area chick-fil-a lacks most in is providing vegan and vegetarian options. Aside from a few drinks and sides like french fries, they have stuck faithfully to their chicken and eggs for all entrees, essentially excluding the restaurant as an option for vegetarian and vegan individuals.
I decided to give chick-fil-a a rating of 6 out of ten. Overall, I was happily surprised with the myriad of ways the chain is trying to become more sustainable from reducing plastic to retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient to committing to antibiotic free meat and cage free eggs. That being said, they still have a ways to go in reducing plastic usage, are quite lacking in vegetarian and vegan options, are largely buying chicken from big farms with large carbon footprints, and have a lot of room for improvement with waste diversion through initiatives such as their composting programs. I also think it is important to recognize the political and social stances this restaurant, or rather its owner, has taken on matters such as LGBTQ+ rights when considering whether or not to support it.
Not going to lie, I was IMPRESSED with Chipotle’s commitment to sustainability. For starters, Chipotle was the only fast food/chain restaurant to receive an A on the antibiotics off the menu “Chain Reaction Scoreboard” in 2019; by comparison, Panda Express, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and a number of other popular chains all received F’s. Chipotle was also the highest ranked restaurant on the list for the Humane Society United States’ Food Industry Scoreboard out of nearly 100 major food companies.
In terms of food, particularly meat, sourcing, Chipotle is light years ahead of other chains. In 2019, they increased their total pounds of pork produced domestically by small-to-medium sized farms (those selling between 10 and 1000 hogs per year) by 33.4% and purchased 29.5 million pounds of chicken fed by non-gmo grains. They are the only fast food restaurant dedicated to these two things. Chipotle has also decreased their carbon footprint by purchasing a good amount of their food from local growers. In 2019 alone, they increased local produce by 6.5 million pounds and growers from 43 to 62. In addition to serving locally grown food, Chipotle is also dedicated to organic ingredients, constantly increasing their organic food supply. In 2019 they purchased 15 million pounds of organic rice, beans, and wheat for tortillas and increased organic cilantro from 30 to 50%. As a hugely popular chain, Chipotle recognizes its influence in the agricultural industry which is why they contributed over $500,000 in 2019 to support the next generation of sustainable, ethical farmers; not only is this chain improving its own sustainability as a restaurant, but it is also helping to create a more sustainable agricultural industry.
Waste diversion is another sustainability category Chipotle is excelling in. In 2019, 91% of restaurants recycled and 27% composted. That is 1,465,490 cubic yards of recycling and 36,972 of compost out of a total of 3,550,804 cubic yards of waste. Chipotle is constantly working to expand composting and recycling to new locations with a goal of diverting 50% of landfill-bound waste from landfills by the end of 2020. Chipotle also works to reduce food waste by donating extra food through their Harvest Program partnerships.
While most of Chipotle’s take-out materials like to-go boxes, cups, aluminum foil, and napkins are either compostable or recyclable, they still use plastic lids, straws, gloves, wrap, and a few other items at a number of their restaurants. However, with their glove to bag program where plastic gloves are recycled and made into trash bags, many of which are used again by Chipotle, collaboration with suppliers to reduce plastic content of cutlery, and alternatives to plastic lids, straws, and cups that they are working on implementing, Chipotle hopes to make huge cuts in their plastic waste over the next few years.
More recently, Chipotle has made a number of changes and investments to become more energy efficient and reduce their carbon footprint. In 2019, they completed the rollout and implementation of energy management systems at all applicable restaurants domestically and continue to install these systems in new restaurants. They also increased the amount of renewable energy they source to 21.33% by the end of 2019 and have set a goal to work with the Science Based Target Initiative to create science-based reduction targets for company wide emissions by the end of 2021. Chipotle has even gone as far as to begin researching and supporting carbon offsets that are actively reducing or sequestering carbon emissions such as landfill methane capture and agricultural methane digesters.
Chipotle’s most recent environmental initiative is “Real Foodprint,” a sustainability food tracker for digital Chipotle orders. This tracker compares average values for each of Chipotle’s 53 real ingredients to their conventional counterparts against five key metrics: antibiotics avoided, improved soil health, less carbon in the atmosphere, gallons of water saved, and organic land supported. The hope for this tracker is to help customers make more informed and sustainable food choices. In the final department, vegetarian and vegan options, Chipotle also does decently with veggie options for all entrees (burritos, burrito bowls, etc) and a plant-based meat alternative labeled “sofritos.”
It is clear from my research that Chipotle is by far the most sustainable and environmentally friendly fast food chain that exists which is why I have given it a 9.5 out of 10. Obviously there is always room for improvement, but clearly Chipotle knows what those areas are and is constantly working on improving them to become a more earth friendly business. So next time you are on a road trip and have the option, maybe go for the burrito bowl over the in-n-out burger.
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