McDonald's and the Environmental Defense Fund: A Case Study of a Green Alliance

By Livesey, Sharon M. | The Journal of Business Communication, January 1999 | Go to article overview

McDonald's and the Environmental Defense Fund: A Case Study of a Green Alliance


Livesey, Sharon M., The Journal of Business Communication


In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, which had convened to address the global ecological crisis, produced Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report). This watershed event established the conceptual underpinnings for environmental politics and debate in the 1990s by reframing the problem of the natural environment as one of sustainable development. In the wake of this reframing, a new practice in environmental management emerged - that of green alliances or partnerships between business and ecology groups (Westley & Vredenburg, 1991, pp. 71-72). These alliances, considered one of the ten most significant trends in environmental management and the greening of industry (Gladwin, 1993, p. 46), appeared to signal a sea change in the way business, as well as environmentalists, could respond to the ecological impacts of firms' economic activities. Indeed, environmental partnerships offered both business and ecology groups the potential for a new rhetorical stance.

Business communication scholarship has identified a variety of rhetorical strategies adopted by corporations in the face of environmental controversy: defensiveness and apologia (e.g., Ice, 1991; Tyler, 1992), competing information campaigns (e.g., Lange, 1993; Moore, 1993), or retreat (e.g., Seiter, 1995). Green alliances provide business with an alternative to these strategies. Through eco-partnership, a firm can adopt, at both material and symbolic levels, a proactive approach toward the natural environment; its posture vis-a-vis environmentalists, or at least a wing of the environmental movement, can be collaborative rather than conflictual. On the other hand, green alliances offer environmentalists the possibility of direct influence over business practice and an alternative to - or as Fred Krupp, leader of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and an early proponent of eco-business collaboration, would have it, a tool in addition to - the jeremiad (Killingsworth & Palmer, 1996; Slovic, 1996). While eco-alliances have been discussed in the environmental management and green marketing literature, they have not been so far studied as business communication.

This paper presents a case study of the rhetorical aspects of an early green partnership, the 1990-1991 precedent-setting alliance between McDonald's Corporation, the leading quick-service restaurant chain, and EDF, a United States-based mainstream environmental organization. McDonald's and EDF formed a joint task force that publicly released a six-month study of McDonald's entire range of packaging and materials management practices. The partnership is most widely known, however, for the fact that three months into the study, at the last minute, and under pressure from EDF, McDonald's abandoned the polystyrene boxes (called clamshells) it had traditionally used to package Big Macs and other sandwiches. This dramatic event tended to overshadow other - arguably more important, and certainly less controversial - work, including a 42-step action plan to lessen the environmental impacts of McDonald's business. My study seeks to recontextualize the packaging decision, considering it within the broader dynamics of the partnership and within the context of McDonald's prior corporate environmental advocacy. Further, it locates the McDonald's-EDF partnership within the broader realm of environmental politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an arena where nonprofit environmental groups began to play a new and important role.

I focus on the symbolic and discursive aspects of the partnership. Relying on public relations material released by McDonald's and EDF before and during the partnership, as well as contemporaneous and subsequent news accounts, I show the variety - and the variability - of rhetorical strategies adopted by McDonald's in its attempt to construct itself as green in the eyes of its consumers and publics. I also explain the rhetorical approach used by EDF in its struggle to expand the scope of legitimate action by environmentalists to include collaboration with businesses. …

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