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Is your burrito bad for the environment? Chipotle has a tool for that

It’s an industry-changing idea, but does it go far enough?

Is your burrito bad for the environment? Chipotle has a tool for that
[Photo: Chipotle]
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It’s hard to be a conscientious consumer these days. Because every purchase you make, from food to clothing to internet storage, comes with the psychic burden of its environmental impact—an impact that is opaque at best.

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Today, Chipotle is addressing this burden head-on with what it calls a “foodprint”—essentially an environmental calculator for your order. Starting today, you can go onto Chipotle’s site to build your exact custom order and see the impact across five environmental metrics: carbon, water saved, improved soil health, organic land supported, and antibiotics avoided.

The tool was born in 2019, as Chipotle was considering its EP&L—that’s a series of figures known as environmental profit and loss, used by many companies to analyze the full impact of their supply chain.

“It was a big number; it creates a giant metric for your company,” says Caitlin Leibert, Chipotle’s head of sustainability. “[But] what does it mean for the average person? How do they know the impact they made?”

A carnitas burrito calculated.

Over the last year, Chipotle developed the concept of the foodprint. Its data is sourced from a collaboration with the sustainability research firm HowGood. So as you build your order in the tool, you can see that adding steak avoids 149.4 mg of antibiotics and 181.7 grams of carbon being released into the atmosphere, compared to the beef sourced across the restaurant industry.

Labeling products with their environmental impact is on trend. The meat alternative brand Quorn recently started adding carbon footprint to its products like frozen nuggets, with the information listed right alongside the nutrition facts. Meanwhile, Logitech is the first hardware manufacturer to add carbon impact on their mice and keyboards. Two weeks ago, Panera began to label its “Cool Food Meals” (pdf)—meals on its menu that have a low carbon footprint.

However, Chipotle is the first restaurant chain to label its own menu items with this much specificity, with a tool it offers goes further than any labeling effort we’ve seen before. You can literally measure the impact of adding pinto beans or a scoop of pico de gallo. (Btw, order those beans! They capture carbon and fertilize soil with nitrogen naturally!) In a slight missed opportunity, you don’t get a specific explanation as to why the numbers are going up or down.

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The tool itself works just like creating your real burrito in the actual Chipotle app, meaning it’s constructed with the same accessible user interface as Chipotle’s core product. In a world where most companies still publish long environmental reports that no one actually reads, Chipotle has essentially moved the fine print of its products into the foreground.

Well, to an extent.

The catch is that Chipotle is comparing its figures on items like chicken to industry averages. That means your chicken burrito’s environmental footprint is being compared to the footprint of a chicken sandwich from McDonald’s or Popeyes. From one perspective, that’s a fair comparison that highlights Chipotle’s careful ingredient sourcing, which prioritizes humanely raised meat, purchased increasingly from small and medium-size farms as opposed to factory farms.

However, where this whole metaphor begins to fall apart is when you choose sofritas (tofu) instead of Chipotle’s many options of meat. Selecting steak saves you nearly 150 mg of antibiotics. Choosing sofritas saves none—despite the fact that tofu doesn’t need antibiotics whatsoever. Meanwhile, choosing sofritas saves 0.4 gallons of water, while beef saves no water. To the casual observer, it looks like ordering tofu is saving you a few sips of water over beef, when actual the difference is more like a swimming pool.

A veggie bowl calculated.

According to the USGS, ¼ pound of beef costs 460 gallons of water to produce. Meanwhile, beef alone is responsible for 15% of the U.S.’s total greenhouse emissions. Tofu certainly comes with environmental costs of its own, but its footprint cannot compare to that of meat and dairy.

Chipotle’s incredible tool manages to sidestep this whole uncomfortable introspection about consuming meat and dairy—because Chipotle is comparing its ingredients to those of other companies, an area it tends to be superior, rather than comparing the impact of its own beef vs. tofu or sour cream vs. none.

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When I question this framing to Chipotle CMO Chris Brandt, he says, “There’s a lot of other metrics that say meat is bad, vegetarian is good. If you wanna live your life that way that’s great . . . everything is relevant to an industry average rather than a value judgment as to whether you eat meat or not.”

Leibert goes so far as to say, if you got bonus antibiotics saved for eating tofu instead of meat, it would be a form of greenwashing, since tofu doesn’t require the use of antibiotics in the first place.

Perhaps she’s right. But even though I prioritize a plant-based diet, I eat meat, and plenty of it. And I feel like a value judgement is exactly what I’m signing up for when I try a tool like this. I want to see how my behavior can make a tangible difference to the environment—beyond simply going to Chipotle instead of Burger King. And I want proper kudos for making the most sustainable decision, not a pat on the back for literally ordering anything at all.

That said, Chipotle may be on to something here. The company is committed to updating this tool regularly, even on a monthly basis, so that if its sourcing doesn’t improve, the numbers their customers see won’t improve. Furthermore, even if you don’t use the calculator yourself, every Chipotle digital order starting today will include your foodprint report after checkout. So the company is making unparalleled efforts to connect your individual order to environmental metrics.

“We just feel like the more you know what food you’re eating, you can make more conscious choices,” says Brandt. “A big problem is people don’t even know what the right choice is. So here’s one metric or measure that can make you feel good.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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