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McDonald’s is very green — and now hiring

Rising from a ‘McJob’ to president, Jan Fields helped turn McDonald’s into one of the shining stars among corporate citizens concerned with the environment. The company’s hiring 50,000 workers, too.

In 1963, my hometown got a McDonald’s franchise. You could get a hamburger, fries and a coke for 45 cents. I now have friendly relationships with hundreds of people who staff the local drive-through windows. I wait for the disembodied voice coming through the speaker box asking, “Do you want fries with that?” Why do they even ask?

I spent some time over the past two days with Jan Fields. She eats McDonald’s food every day of her life. She is a trim woman in training to run her first marathon this year. She started out as a French fry cook at a McDonald’s in Dayton, Ohio, a few decades ago, and she still smiles and says, “Welcome to McDonald’s. Would you like fries with that?”

Ms. Fields has been working at McDonald’s for a long time. It took a couple of decades, but she graduated from the cooking crew to become the president of McDonald’s USA. She says, “I walked into a McDonald’s on my way to a job interview. I saw a sign that said ‘Flexible Hours.’ I had a child, my husband was in the Air Force and if I worked the night shift I wouldn’t have to hire a baby-sitter.” The manager hired her on the spot and Ms. Fields decided to blow off the other job interview.

Jan Fields
Jan Fields

From that beginning, she was elevated to a managing position at the restaurant. It would take some time and a variety of corporate vice presidential positions before being named the chief operating officer. Now she is the president of the largest restaurant business in the world, and insiders say she is on the short list to eventually become the CEO of McDonald’s.

She is proud of what the world has disparaged as a “McJob.” I asked her whether she knows whether McJobs have turned into better things within the company. She said: “I know the exact number. We have 26 hundred franchisees in the United States and 50 percent of the owner-operators started out just like I did.”

‘Super Size Me’
McDonald’s has seen more than 30 straight quarters of growth, but Fields has had to put up with the likes of Morgan Spurlock’s movie “Super Size Me,” in which he tried to eat three meals a day at McDonald’s every day for a month. It didn’t go well for him. It seemed lost on most people who loved the movie that you would have to have a screw loose to try such a thing with any food.

Jan Fields is conscious of good nutrition. She likes the chicken and salads at her McDonald’s, and the 60-calorie yogurt parfait. My wife is fond of the Southwestern Grilled Chicken Salad. Myself, it’s the double-quarter pounder with cheese.

Remember the McLean sandwich? In southern California, McDonald’s featured a veggie burger. They were both failures. But as customers became more conscious of nutrition, McDonald’s began offering more in that vein. Fields is particularly proud of the oatmeal McDonald’s is now offering for breakfast. She thinks more people than ever will be eating healthier because her restaurants are giving customers wider nutritional choices.

But Jan Fields is doing a lot more than providing nutritional labels on her products. She has helped turn McDonald’s into one of the shining stars among corporate citizens concerned with the environment. This year, McDonald’s franchises around the country will be “re-imagined,” to use her phrase. Not only will they get a new look, but she says they will “take advantage of the latest eco-friendly components and energy saving technologies. We will be,” she says, “greener than ever.”

It might come as a surprise that McDonald’s was very green to start with. In fact, McDonald’s has advanced recycling policies. Eighty-one percent of its packaging is renewable materials, and 31 percent of it is from recycled fiber. McDonald’s has some interesting partners. Take its alliance with Greenpeace. It has joined a moratorium on the clearing of the rainforest to grow soya. Soya is a feed. One of the biggest producers of soya is Minnesota-based Cargill. Rather than object, Cargill has joined the moratorium, too.

McDonald’s worked with the World Wildlife Fund to develop the first assessment of sustainable land management and forest policy. McDonald’s partners with the Japanese Ministry of the Environment and has installed LED lighting in 30 restaurants to reduce energy consumption by 44 percent. Conservation International and McDonald’s have joined forces to develop a sustainable fisheries program, and the company works with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce, recycle and reuse materials generated by its restaurants, suppliers and distributors.

The last part of that arrangement may be the most important. McDonald’s is so large, like Wal-Mart, it can require companies throughout its supply chain to comply with McDonald’s green philosophy. Suppliers have done that and have found that not only do they get to claim credit for being good stewards of the earth, but are saving a lot of money that fattens their profit margins.

Looking for new workers
Ms. Fields told me about another green project that will happen in the next week. This green project is the color of money. Say what you will about McJobs, McDonald’s franchises in the United States will hire, next week, 50,000 new employees. According to research conducted by an economist at California State University, the brand new McDonald’s employees will get paid a total of $5.4 million a day, more than $500 million a year. Those employees, Ms. Fields adds, will be eligible to earn up to 50 credit hours for college through the American Council on Education.

Jan Fields has a lot on her plate, even for McDonald’s. She knows she can’t satisfy every critic, but she seems to care about her franchisees, her employees and the earth. She says of her initiatives: “It is the right thing to do. This is about being more trustworthy on the global stage.”

If that is what McDonald’s is serving these days, then, yes, I’ll have fries with that.