Last October, McDonald’s announced a bold ambition: to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent by 2030 and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. In so doing, it claimed to be leading on “issues that matter most in communities—and there is no issue more urgent globally and of impact locally than protecting our planet for generations to come.”

Well just hold my Madagascar Vanilla Cream Cold Brew, said Panera, which came out with its own climate announcement just two weeks later. In it, Panera did not stop at committing to reducing emissions to zero. Instead, it set a new standard, by promising to become “climate positive” by 2050, such that it would remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces.

On its way to this remarkably ambitious end post, Panera has set several benchmark goals, including some to reach by 2025, not even three years away. The 2025 goals include transitioning to 100 percent reusable, recyclable, and compostable packaging; using renewable electricity for at least 50 percent of Panera Bread–owned operations; and increasing the percentage of “Cool Food Meals” to 60 percent of dishes. Cool Food Meals are those Panera designates as low-carbon options, like the Mediterranean bowl with chicken, a strawberry poppy seed salad, and broccoli cheddar soup.

Despite the assertion by Panera’s CEO Niren Chaudhary that “it’s time all corporate leaders and companies embrace [a sustainability] mind-set, and many are. That’s how we start making meaningful progress,” there’s not much progress yet. Other retail outfits like IKEA have set goal dates for when they plan to become climate positive—which also is achieving record sales numbers while moving toward those goals. But Panera lacks a lot of company (or competition) among its restaurant peers. Thus McDonald’s, with its more modest climate goals, often stands accused of greenwashing, for taking what some environmental advocates regard as essentially meaningless actions, while failing to address the largest sources of emissions, like the cows that get turned into burgers.

For Panera, taking the lead and laying down the gauntlet is precisely they goal. By doing so, it can set an urgent, distinctive example and potentially sustainable competitive advantage.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might a company aim to become “climate positive”?
  2. What is greenwashing in the restaurant industry? Is it a problem for companies to engage in this practice?
  3. Do you think other restaurant chains will follow the path Panera is taking?

Source: David Gelles, “How Panera Bread Navigated Covid, the Labor Market, Inflation and More,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022; Heather Lalley, “Panera Makes a Bold Climate-Change Pledge,” Restaurant Business, October 20, 2021; “Panera Bread Announces its Goal to Become Climate Positive by 2050,” panerabread.com, October 20, 2021; “Fast Food Giants Ramp Up Climate Commitments Under Pressure From Investors In ‘Breakthrough Year,’” ceres.org, April 30, 2021; Hilary Russ, “McDonald’s Targets Net Zero Emissions by 2050, From Meat to Energy,” Reuters, October 5, 2021; “McDonald’s Accelerating Climate Action to Reach Net Zero Emissions by 2050,” corporate.mcdonalds.com, October 4, 2021; Heather Lalley, “Panera to Start Labeling Foods with Low Carbon Footprints,” Restaurant Business, October 13, 2020; Anna Ringstrom, “Ikea’s Climate Footprint Shrinks from Pre-Pandemic Level Despite Record Sales,” Reuters, January 18, 2022; Joseph Winters, “Beyond Greenwashing: How Chain Restaurants Could Actually Address Their Climate Pollution,” Grist, January 4, 2022