07/07/2008 10:49 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Time for Fast Food Companies to Move Faster on Climate

Estimates suggest there are upwards of 300,000 fast food restaurants in the United States, one for approximately every 101 Americans. My guess is that the actual number of restaurants changes daily. In a world with "billions and billions served," how could we be more precise than "thousands and thousands serving"? That's not to mention franchises popping up of every shape and size and even the specter of venerable institutions in the industry being absorbed by yesterday's also-rans and what that will mean for consumers.

In a general sense, we know what fast food means for American consumers. Quite simply, it's convenience and affordability. In a culture perpetually on the run, who has time to cook balanced, natural meals at home? And with gas prizes pounding the wallets of families in "forced marriages" with their cars (as Colin Beavan of the blog No Impact Man says), who wants to spend more than a few bucks on something as important as food? Our self-imposed rat-race has driven millions of us into the waiting arms of the highly profitable fast-food industry.

Unfortunately, the cost of that now almost 80-year embrace with the drive-thru far exceeds what consumers can buy from the value menu. The industry has long been criticized for its impact on national health care by contributing to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and the effects of childhood obesity. It's been the target of animal-rights advocates and, more recently, forest advocacy organizations because of its packaging impacts. And now, it's become increasingly clear that the industry is a laggard on global climate change. In our annual Climate Counts scores of well-known consumer companies on their commitment to addressing climate change, four out of six companies (Yum! Brands [parent to KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and others], Burger King, Darden Restaurants [parent to Olive Garden and Red Lobster], and Wendy"s) in the food services sector made no improvements in their scores from 2007 to 2008. That's in a year when 84% of the companies we scored actually improved their scores, some significantly. It adds insult to injury when you consider that those four companies earned scores of one point or even zero points on a 100 point scale (100 being the highest possible score) for two years running. (Two other food services companies, Starbucks and McDonald"s, score significantly higher than the other four but much lower than many other companies we've investigated.)

What do the scores mean? They mean these companies are not measuring their climate impact, they're not substantively and comprehensively working to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, they're not supporting good public policy on climate, and they're not being open and transparent with consumers about any real commitment to making climate actions a part of long-term business strategy. These companies spend tens of billions of dollars every year on energy, and by some estimates, as much as 80% of that energy is wasted through outmoded buildings and restaurants and inefficient food storage. Their impact on climate and our communities is all too clear.

Suddenly, convenient and cheap food is not so easy and cheap anymore. Inefficient use of energy affects corporate bottom lines - and it hits consumers. But that's just the beginning. A report released in May from Tufts University and the Natural Resources Defense Council suggests that lack of action on climate will eventually cost our economy $3.8 trillion a year. What's truly astonishing is the significant amounts of that money that could be saved by businesses and families with a little forward-thinking and some thoughtful investment. But the time for this action is of the essence.

This summer, Climate Counts is circulating a petition designed to send a clear message to the fast- food industry that it's time to get serious about climate change. Through our partnerships with artists like Jack Johnson and organizations like the Hip Hop Caucus, we're asking people around the country to use their mobile phones to get active on climate change by signing our fast-food petition.

It's time to tell an industry skilled in the art of speed what urgency really means.