“Sometimes, I think we’re already buying sustainable beef,” Langert emphasizes. “The fact is, though, we can’t just say it and we can’t just tell stories; we have to prove it. So, let’s get on board together and prove it and sell more beef.”

Since McDonald’s announcement in January, plenty of beef industry speculation has revolved around what exactly McDonald’s means by sustainable.

Ask Langert and he’ll tell you that McDonalds’ doesn’t know. He’ll also tell you, though McDonald’s buys 2% of all beef produced globally each year, the chain isn’t big enough to demand beef that complies with sustainability defined by McDonald’s alone.

“We know that we’re one spoke in the wheel. We need the entire value chain to help define what sustainable beef is; what are going to be the principles, criteria and indicators. We want to do it in a way that we collaborate, not mandate,” Langert stresses. “We’re relying on the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) and all the stakeholders in the value chain to scientifically and rationally develop these principles so that we can begin buying sustainable beef in 2016.”

McDonalds is a founding member of GRSB, which began in 2011. That organization plans to release for public comment guiding principles for defining sustainable beef.

“We’re starting out from a foundation of strength, so let’s build on this and build in sustainability,” Langert says.

The sustainability vision

Although McDonald’s is working with others in the value chain to define beef sustainability, its vision for sustainable supply chains has been defined for a long time: “McDonald’s vision for a sustainable supply is a supply chain that profitably yields high-quality products without supply interruption, while leveraging its leadership position to improve the ethical, environmental and economic impact of doing business with McDonald’s,” Langert says.

He emphasizes that McDonald’s focuses on mainstream consumers. When he talks about sustainability and its ultimate value chain definition, he isn’t arguing for or against niche products and markets like locally grown, organic or GMO-free. But, he explains, “That doesn’t get us where we need to go. The definition needs to be holistic and account for people, the environment, food safety, animal welfare and economics. It’s multi-faceted.”

McDonald’s understands that any definition of sustainability that makes business economically untenable for its supplies means the same reality for its own company. For much of its history, a guiding McDonald’s philosophy has been: “We’ll be successful if our company does well, our owner-operators do well, and our suppliers do well.” The success of each is interdependent.

Incidentally, McDonald’s four growth platforms, in no particular order, are: beef, breakfast, poultry and beverages.

“We all need to do this in a way that is profitable and economic for our business model and for our suppliers’ business model,” Langert says. “Just thinking or saying you’re sustainable isn’t good enough; you have to have evidence points. It’s not just saying, ‘trust us,’ it’s proving it. Sustainability should be a mainstream part of our business and what we do.”