Following years of pressure from Greenpeace and similar organisations, McDonald’s has begun to experiment with environmentally friendly refrigeration. In the past, McDonald’s failure to address this flagship environmental issue has generated bad publicity. But McDonald’s sudden change of heart has as much to do with commercial reality as with idealistic environmentalism.

McDonald’s new restaurant in Vejle in Denmark will employ refrigeration and ventilation systems that do not use freon or hydroflurocarbons (HFCs). The pilot scheme is a belated attempt by McDonald’s to fend off criticism over its reputation as a poor world citizen.

Freon and HFCs, while efficient at cooling, have been blamed for damaging the ozone layer and are contributing to global warming. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have long campaigned for the introduction of alternative ‘Greenfreeze’ technologies.

In fact, highly visible global companies such as McDonald’s and Coca-cola have been in Greenpeace’s sights over this issue for a number of years. The Sydney Olympics were the last battleground – the organisers had announced that they wanted a “green” Olympics, an ambition which included HFC-free refrigeration. The failure of McDonald’s and Coca-cola to meet that goal, despite having eight years to solve any problems, drew stern criticism from the likes of Greenpeace.

Two years ago, however, McDonald’s took part in a Refrigeration Summit with the UN Environment Program, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Greenpeace and other NGOs. McDonald’s seems to be have been convinced by what it heard. The Vejle restaurant is the most obvious example of its new willingness to consider HFC-free refrigeration.

The key is that McDonald’s seems to have accepted that there are commercial benefits, or at least no commercial pitfalls, in pursuing green refrigeration technology. The company admits that its action is based on what it learned at the summit – presumably it was keen to learn about the costs and business practicalities of installing this technology as well as the environmental benefits.

Ultimately, it was Greenpeace’s success in easing McDonald’s concerns over the impact of greenfreeze technology on its bottom line that helped win the day. McDonald’s, meanwhile, has found a valuable opportunity to marry its business priorities with its environmental responsibilities.

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