Fast Food Chains Going Green? Their Efforts May Surprise You

04/14/2011 06:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2011

Several weeks ago, Greenopia announced the annual update of its green fast food guide, which yielded some surprising results. The top of the list remained unchanged, with the greenest fast food chain being Pizza Fusion for the third straight year. Two other chains received Greenopia's highest score of 4 out of 4 possible leafs, Le Pain Quotidien and EVOS.

Two of the biggest chains, McDonald's and Starbucks, performed surprisingly well, getting 2 and 3 leafs, respectively. Other major chains did not fare as well with only Panera Bread and Subway getting at least 1 Greenopia leaf.

So what are these chains doing to lower their impact on the environment? One of the big pushes we are seeing in the industry are the number of chains that are adopting principles of green building design in their new and existing locations. This can be as aggressive as seeking LEED certification or simply retrofitting various existing fixtures to be more efficient.

Several chains have also made huge strides in terms of their supply chains. Some chains try to source locally, others focus on minimizing the impacts associated with packaging and transporting their food items. Some of the leaders in the space are even developing supplier rating systems to ensure that their suppliers are being proactive environmentally.

It also should come as no surprise that fast food chains generate tremendous amounts of waste given the numerous wrappers, containers, napkins, and the like used during service. Most chains utilize recycled content in these items (to varying degrees), but the leading chains offer biodegradable utensils and compost or recycle their food waste into biodiesel.

But, one thing that could really improve in this industry is its environmental transparency and overall reporting. We love to see companies publish comprehensive sustainability reports, letting the public know exactly what they are doing and where they stand in their plans.

Finally, it's impossible to forget the greenness of the food itself. There are a variety of steps a chain can take to serve more sustainable food including options that are organic, fair trade, natural, local, and/or hormone-free. Obviously, this can be quite the undertaking for the biggest chains, but even some of the largest companies will not source beef from locations that are clear-cut rainforest or will switch to sustainable palm oil providers.

Given that the fast food industry is over a $100 billion dollar enterprise, we encourage that when you have to grab a quick bite to eat, do so at a chain that is making a true effort to minimize its impact on the environment.