Bob Langert thought he knew where his life was headed. A few years after college, he took a job at a transportation and packaging company outside of Chicago that did huge business with McDonald's. He envisioned working one day in logistics or operations for McDonald's corporate headquarters. Then in the late 1980s, he was given a six-month assignment to eliminate the chlorofluorocarbons and find a way to recycle the polystyrene in the clamshell packaging that McDonald's was then using. He had no idea what CFCs and polystyrene were, but he jumped right in. "It was my moment of change," recalls Langert, now 53. "I really love working on environmental issues, combining whatever talents I have for getting things done with my larger motivation for making a difference in the world."
Today he has found his way into the executive suite at McDonald's as head of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The Golden Arches may be better known for selling trans fat (now largely eliminated in the United States) and high-fructose corn syrup than for being green, but Langert believes that big companies are the best vehicle for creating broad, far-reaching change. (Think Wal-Mart's green initiatives.)
Under Langert's direction, the company has started buying from sustainable fisheries and recycling 100% of its frying oil in the U.K. into biodiesel. But if corporations don't deal with their most vexing sustainability issues, the aspirations of CSR chiefs add up to little more than PR.
For McDonald's, the challenge is what we'll call the "Big Mac problem." Studies show that beef production generates more greenhouse gases than any other food product, and it's no secret that industrial beef practices are an inefficient and unsustainable use of land and water. Langert says he intends to address these issues. "We have an obligation to use our size and leverage to work with our suppliers to make a difference," he asserts, shortly after eating a double hamburger, fries, and a strawberry shake for lunch.
But even a $23 billion company with 31,000 restaurants doesn't have enough pull in the beef business to effect changes on its own. By the time the chain gets its beef, it's frozen into the size and consistency of an air-hockey puck. The company has no direct contact with farmers, who could reduce nitrous-oxide emissions, or with feedlot operators, who could capture methane from manure lagoons and prevent wastewater runoff.
"McDonald's doesn't have all the influence we may think it does," says John Buchanan, senior director of business practices at Conservation International, which is working with McDonald's on a number of environmental initiatives. "It needs to partner with other big companies."
To that end, Langert is hoping to form a better-beef coalition with agribusinesses such as Cargill, major beef buyer Wal-Mart, and trade and environmental groups. Discussions are still preliminary, Langert says, but "we want to take a leadership role."
If it seems like a long shot, well, Langert knows a thing or two about coalitions. In 2006, after withering criticism in Europe that McNuggets were destroying the Amazon rain forest, Langert approached Cargill, which was trading soybeans from the Amazon. The two companies worked with Greenpeace and soybean producers ADM and Bunge on a ban on using soy from recently deforested areas in feed. The original two-year term has been extended once, and another renewal is expected in July.
Soon after winning the ban, Langert found himself floating down the Amazon in a motorized raft with environmental activists. "It was," he says, "one of the most memorable things I've ever done."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.