News Focus: McDonald's Stakes Future on Beefing Up Its Image

Article excerpt

Byline: Deborah Cohen In Chicago

Stung by unfavourable attention it has attracted as a symbol of rampant globalisation, McDonald's is touting its record of promoting animal welfare, protecting rain forests and employing disadvantaged workers.

The world's largest fast-food chain plans issuing a 45-page document on a broad range of issues, including its relationships with employees, suppliers, the environment and local communities in the 121 countries where it operates. The report provides a detailed look at McDonald's 50year history of 'social responsibility', with topics ranging from fair wage practices to job training and education, transportation and community outreach such as its Ronald McDonald house charities.

In the past decade, as its global presence has grown to encompass some 29,000 restaurants worldwide, McDonald's has often been targeted as a symbol of corporate greed, blamed for upsetting localeconomies and ecological systems. Earlier this year French sheep farmer Jose Bove was sentenced to three years in jail for ransacking a McDonald's restaurant to protest at US trade barriers. And McDonald's restaurants are always first in line to be smashed up by radicals wherever world economic or Group of Ten summits are held.

'We understand that people have questions about the brand, and we have an obligation to talk about the business in a much broader way than just how much money we are making,' said chief executive Jack Greenberg.

'I think we recognise this obligation of being more open and more transparent about issues that are of increasing importance to our customers and to our own people.'

In the past year, Illinois-based McDonald's has faced lawsuits from vegetarians charging it failed to report its use of beef extracts in its french fries, a federal investigation surrounding a promotional contractor accused of cheating customers out of millions in prize winnings, and concern over beef safety abroad, where sales in Europe and Japan have suffered amid cases of mad cow disease.

Home-grown critics of corporate America have long found McDonald's an inviting target. At a McDonald's restaurant in Chicago's financial district last week customers were greeted with a cardboard cutout of company icon Ronald McDonald defaced with the words 'Ronald McMurder, Animal Liberation'. Despite the attacks, respected investors in the world of ethical stock picking said McDonald's social record has historically tipped toward the positive, and publicising it could help offset some of the criticism.

'They are strong on diversity issues, community issues, employment of the disabled, women and minorities,' said Amy Domini, president of Domini Social Investments, which manages pounds 1.2 billion and holds about 386,000 McDonald's shares. Domini is the largest US fund that screens its holdings for social responsibility issues.

'The company has been one that has been notably responsive to concerns that come from its shareholders and other stakeholders.'

Where McDonald's may be weakest, Ms Domini and other company watchers agree, is its unchangeable foundation as a hamburger maker whose Big Macs use huge amounts of beef, a resource that critics say taxes the planet through vast use of land. …