Thursday, November 9, 2017

McDonald's: Environmentally Unfriendly Cups (2017)


McDonald’s caused stir by bringing back discontinued, environmentally unfriendly cups. In the summer of 2017 McDonald's supplied polystyrene cups, a product they went away from in 2013 due to shareholder pressure for environmental reasons, to several of their restaurants in Chicago only. The cups have not been put back into use at McDonald's in any other city than Chicago, so the issue is minor but could expand. Polystyrene material is styrofoam, and is mainly used for McDonald's tea cups at their restaurants. McDonald's deserves credit for its many diverse efforts to help promote a better effort to help the environment, however a blatant error that is not corrected immediately is an ethical concern. The redistribution of a environmentally unfriendly cup, also known as Styrofoam cups, sent a slight shock wave through shareholders who expected progression from the large restaurant chain. The issue many people with McDonald’s is not only the environmental impact but the way the company seems to have regressed in this one area, leaning towards cost savings over improving the health of the world.

The cup itself is made of polystyrene and it is hard to recycle or even destroy this product totally. This of course has an adverse impact on the environment because it has a slow natural decay, leading it to join the many other trash items being buried in dumps or the ocean. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The material has been banned in some U.S. cities due to its environmental impact.” The fact that it has been banned in more than one city is disconcerting to the average citizen. As a whole the shareholders of McDonald’s pushed for them to stop using this product completely, however they never promised to. The trash that polystyrene contributes to only piles up, and as residents in Maryland see, “Littered polystyrene foam never fully degrades yet absorbs other chemicals from the environment, which bioaccumulate up the food chain affecting the fish, oysters and crabs that may consume them, resulting in potential harm to people who eat Maryland seafood.” (Baltimore Sun) This bioaccumulation of chemicals can lead to many potential diseases for both humans and sea life. Cancer has been linked to constant usage of this material, hence part of the reason that it was banned in some cities. The sights of trash piling up, reading about global warming and the risk for a serious disease is disheartening. Any action by a company that results in a negative effect on stakeholders will be considered unethical by most groups. More is expected of McDonald’s as one of the world’s most powerful businesses to curb the trend and keep up the effort to “Go Green”.

The use of polystyrene can be traced to its cost savings compared to other recyclable plastics or paper products. Going to Walmart’s online store and comparing gave great insight into what that cost difference might be. A standard cup sold at Walmart is their Great Value Styrofoam, 8 FL OZ cup (Walmart #: 000444938) which came in at $1.68 for 51 cups which rounds up to about $0.04 each. Opposed to that are their SOLO Cup Company Bare 8 FL OZ poly-coated paper cups (Walmart #: 562896235) which priced at $65.02 for 400 cups which rounds up to about $0.163 each. This is a prime example of the cost savings McDonald’s could see sticking to polystyrene products over eco-friendly paper products. McDonald’s of course is buying these cups in the millions so they would see tremendous cost savings due to batch processing. McDonald’s is no different than any other business and wishes to capitalize on saving money, unfortunately for them this cost savings gives them a negative stigma about their actual loyalty to customers in the efforts to “Go Green”. As the richest fast food restaurant in the world and a trend setter their actions can possibly have an impact on the choices of other fast food restaurants, or perhaps they lose consumers who do not agree with the message they send by taking a step backwards. Honesty is an important integrity to consumers and business. Honesty is highly important in ethics and by showing dishonesty to stakeholders they have acted unethically.

In summation McDonald’s actions of going back to a polystyrene cup in the summer of 2017 (which they started to phase out in 2013 to appease shareholder pressure to “Go Green”) is considered unethical not only due to the potential environmental hazards and risk to human health, it also shows dishonesty towards stakeholders. The dumps and landfills across the Earth are already filled in many areas and it is a constant chore to deal with the massive amount of trash, contributing to that with a cup that has great difficulty decaying naturally is a risk to human happiness. While not outright lying by betraying their efforts to “Go Green” it shows dishonesty, and the same as the environmental issues it is an action pushed by greed which is unethical. The theories of Individualism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Virtue Theory each have a different take on what McDonald’s actions mean ethically.

                                                         The styrofoam cup in question.


The stakeholders are McDonald's, their employees, shareholders, suppliers, customers and people that live near the potential environmental hazard. Because these cups represent a hazard to the environment, it’s easy to say that all people residing on the planet are stakeholders, because someday it will be their problem. McDonald's faces backlash from the shareholders by seeming taking a step back in their efforts to be more environmentally friendly. The employees are sometimes caught in the “shoot the messenger” event where something is completely out of control yet they may still be harassed, this could occur at protests. By either purchasing or not purchasing these cups it impacts suppliers who would profit from the business, and also has the opposite effect for suppliers that provide different material cups.


Individualism focuses on making the decision that best benefits personal desire or need. As stated in The Case Manual, “Business actions should maximize profits for the owners of a business, but do so within the law.” In this case McDonald's did just that. Nothing that McDonald’s did was against the law and it also maximized profit. Instead of sticking with standard plastic products they went back to polystyrene, which is cheaper to make and more durable. It is a win-win for supplier and consumer at first, but the long-term impact of that product has a negative impact on the environment. In the eyes of an Individualist the outside impacts are irrelevant, it does not matter what happens unless it falls outside of the law. McDonald’s could cause a tornado to form or volcano to erupt but as long as their honesty to the law remained true it would be inconsequential. The cost savings gives McDonald's the most immediate and effective benefit, whereas using plastic products or paper (which better benefits the environment) would cost them more money. To an individualist McDonald’s focus on profits is precisely what needs to happen regardless of public pressure, “The business has no direct responsibility to any other interest-groups, which are often called stakeholder groups in the context of business.” (Case Manual). As noted in the Ethics Controversy Case the savings are immense and could be in the ballpark of seventy-five percent. Even if the savings were only two percent and the environment in jeopardy it would not matter.

                                                          Styrofoam trash pile in Asia


Utilitarians focus on achieving "maximum happiness" or producing "the greatest good for the greatest number." In this case McDonald's focused on themselves and their costumers which yes do number many, but do not outnumber the amount of people who do not visit their restaurants. McDonald’s serves an incredible 68 million people per day, which equates to one percent of the population. That is an impressive number, however it does not cover the other ninety-nine percent meaning, "the greatest good for the greatest number," has not been satisfied. As society evolves and our impact on the environment is felt (look no further than Hong Kong, China) the pressure is added to companies to be more environmentally friendly. Companies are gaining more and more responsibility for the environment due to their large amount of assets. Even still many will skirt trying to put too much into public appeal, especially if it takes away from profits. As stated in The Case Manual, “To apply utilitarianism to business decisions or to evaluate business actions, compare the business action with other possible actions and determine which of the possible actions would maximize happiness in all affected parties in the long-term.” The key point is “long term”. Long term does not mean by tomorrow afternoon or by 2018, it means through time’s ultimate end. McDonald’s reuse of polystyrene cups is a short term cash fix, and unneeded with their high revenue. McDonald's took a step back with this choice and did not do, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Many would say it is just a single cup but those single cups add up with all the other trash and lead to ecological disasters that impact our oceans and add to landfills. Humanity’s garbage and how to dispose of it is a long term problem, one that impacts all humans.  A utilitarian would not see the sacrifice to save themselves money as just and would disagree with their methods.


A Kantian would agree that what McDonald's has done is immoral. Kantianism focuses on the benefits of each individual as a whole, where if one person is being mistreated the process is wrong. Equality amongst all is paramount. On page 2 of Kantian Business Ethics it states, "The Kantian approach to business ethics, like Kantian ethics in general, emphasizes acting with respect toward all autonomous beings. It claims that we all have duties toward one another that depend on our relationships with one another, the most basic and all-pervasive relationship between persons being that of a fellow member of humanity." These duties do not exclude respecting the world all people live on. By respecting nature humans respect one another. By purchasing and using a product that is environmentally unfriendly McDonald's has betrayed the everyone. As the German philosopher Immanual Kant stated in his formula of humanity, "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in any other person, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means." By going back to a product that harms the environment, and is not their problem but the companies that have to figure out what to do with the waste, humans are just a means to revenue for McDonald's. McDonald's is not required by law to provide ethical support of the community, they should still feel that pull to do so. By using a cup that contributes to an environmental issue they treat humans not differently than the non-sentient ground or water the trash is buried in. All humans should be treated as the free thinkers and so should the earth, which harbors much autonomous life that deserves its fair shake at living cleanly. McDonald’s has disregarded public pressure to continue using an environmentally hazardous material for their cups.  A Kantian would not agree with their methods.

 Images of products and how long their estimated decomposition time is (styrofoam bottom left; 50 years.)


A believer in Virtue Theory would also disapprove of McDonald's actions. The ethical rule of Virtue Theory according to The Case Manual, "Act so as to embody a variety of virtuous or good character traits and so as to avoid vicious or bad character traits." Some of the virtues mentioned are, “Courage, honesty, wisdom, justice, prudence, temperance, intelligence, insight, care, compassion, leadership, and teamwork.” From that it becomes obvious that feelings such as greed or power mongering are not allowed in the Virtue Theory creed. The ones that pop out as missing by McDonald’s are compassion, leadership, honesty, wisdom and temperance. Their lack of compassion is evident by their disregard of public pressure to remove polystyrene completely, which is banned in some cities due to the chemical biohazard it presents. Leadership is a combination of factors and they are a leader in their industry for their business prowess. However a leader does not sacrifice the many for the few, such as risking the home of everyone for saving profit. Wisdom is the ability to act or make a decision using experience and knowledge. Clearly McDonald’s has experience and knowledge, they have an entire team dedicated to their “Go Green” program. However they lack the ability to use that as wisdom and see the impact of their decision. Lastly they lack temperance because they failed to control themselves. They did not have the self motivation to stop themselves from this one simple act of not buying environmental hazard cups. By acting out against society and the environment, McDonald's has performed a vice. Their desire for price reductions outweighed their desire to benefit society as a whole, and a virtue theorist would not support those methods.


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1 comment:

  1. Dylan, I found your blog post extremely interesting. I completely agree that styrofoam cups have an terrible consequence on society's future, as a whole. The last graphic you used was so helpful. It visually showed how long it take for items to decompose. One error of your blog post that din't work for me was is the Kantianism section, where you talked about BP. I do not this this example was needed. I rather have you explain more Kantian concepts, such a the Formula of Humanity. In addition, I think in the Virtue Theory section, you should have focused on the four major virtues we talked about Justice, Temperance, Honesty and Courage. Other than those two points, I think you did a wonderful job.