McDonald’s Global Rationalization
As my parents loaded my brother and me into the car our shrills of excitement grew louder and louder as we drove down the road that would inevitably lead us to the beautiful golden arches of McDonald’s. The red and yellow signage made me smile a 1,000-watt smile and the play place was like reaching nirvana. This fast-food restaurant was the realization of all my childhood dreams and wishes: tasty food, a toy with every meal, free refills of bubbly soda, and a place to take my shoes off and run and play. Those golden arches were a sign of happiness, relief and comfort when I was a child, it meant it was time to eat and play and have fun.
Looking back I wonder if I would have felt the same way about McDonald’s if I had the capacity too really understand the business model of this place I loved so much. McDonald’s is the global powerhouse of chicken nuggets, Big Macs, French fries, and sweet and sour sauces. The company can be found in over 100 countries around the world with a reported 34,492 storefronts, servicing over a billion customers to date (Chalabi & Burn-Murdoch, 2013). This huge global presence made me wonder about the ethics of such a huge company and the affects it has on its consumers. This paper will further investigate the ethics of McDonald’s and its process of rationalization and how the company can more sustainably feed the millions of little kids who shrill with excitement when they see those iconic golden arches.
George Ritzer blew off the lid on the business model of McDonald’s with his 1983 publication “The McDonaldization of Society”. This work explains how American and global society have become more rationalized and explores the negative effects of such societal change (Ritzer, 1983). Ritzer explains that a society becomes rationalized when it “emphasizes efficiency, predictability, calculability, substitution of non-human for human technology, and control over uncertainty” (Ritzer, 1983: 100). Ritzer further explains how the rationalization of society has brought about many advances that make the lives of people much simpler and more convenient. While those are the positive effects of rationalization it is important to note the negatives outcomes that rationalization has caused. McDonald’s is a leading example of how global rationalization has occurred and can be used to identify the negative outcomes of the simplifying of daily life. It is important to understand that McDonald’s has a vested interest in continuing the development of rationalization. The ease in which people are able to purchase and eat McDonalds’ is the basis of the company’s huge success. The rationalization of society has made these conveniences primary concerns for consumers when choosing what to eat and how to purchase food.
The demand for ease and convenience leads to the first area in which McDonald’s rationalization has negatively impacted society. McDonald’s focuses on efficiency, quantity of sales, predictability of taste and standardization of meal preparation in all of their stores around the world, leading to the demise of local food production (Ritzer, 1983). McDonald’s has created a culture in which food producers have had to orientate their business practices to accommodate huge corporations and line up with increased efficiency (Ritzer, 1983). Examples of this can be seen across the food industry, in chicken and potato production, both instrumental contributors to the McDonald’s menu in which producers are forced to “grow or die”. Small farmers and growers must make a choice to expand and grow into huge agribusinesses or essentially die, as larger farms take their business away (Bob Yoder Interview, 2013; Ritzer, 1983). The growth of agribusiness and transnational corporations are a result of this “grow or die” mentality that rationalization and McDonald’s has created. Transnational corporations have a large portion of the control over how foods are grown, packaged, sold and exported (Phillips, 2006; Llambi, 1993). Many transnational corporations take advantage of cheap labor across the globe while also moving into new regions for increased access to new markets (Bananno, 2004; Kneen, 1999). The focus of McDonald’s on efficiency, sales, and the predictability and standardization of meals has changed the global food market thus destroying many local markets and businesses.
The growth of McDonald’s has not only negatively affected the working dynamic of its producers but also its employees. In order to cook and package chicken nuggets and Big Macs at the pace and consistency McDonald’s rationalized consumers demand the company has employed an assembly line system of meal production (Ritzer, 1983; Vignali, 2001; Levitt, 1972). Much of McDonald’ success is due to the assembly line production model the company has adopted, allowing for “the rapid delivery of a uniform, high-quality mix of prepared foods in an environment of obvious cleanliness, order and cheerful courtesy” (Levitt, 1972: 44). Assembly line production, in combination with McDonald’s control over food production, allows the fast-food giant to control every step in the production of a Big Mac and fries. There is no choice or option for the employee to make when crafting a McDonald’s meal; all the ingredients are prepackaged and premeasured to ensure consistency (Vignali, 2001; Levitt, 1973). This lack of choice and discretion is great for McDonald’s food production but has a very negative affect on the employee (Ritzer, 1983). Psychological research on assembly line employees, like those at McDonald’s, has revealed that employees often feel powerless, dehumanized, and unfulfilled (Inkson & Simpson, 1975; Ritzer, 1983). Not only do employees often face psychological stresses from working an assembly line, research has indicated that workers often face physiological reactions to the assembly line. A study conducted in 1999 found that assembly line workers have notably higher level of stress hormones than workers doing flexible work (Bo et al, 1999). The rationalization of McDonald’s creates a restaurant in which consumers can get a quick meal while the preparers of that meal are facing emotional and physical strain.
Not only has McDonald’s negatively affected food producers and employees, rationalization is detrimental to the consumer as well. Rationalization teaches society that efficiency and predictability are the cornerstones of success, but as seen through McDonald’s the effects of rationalization can outweigh the benefits, literally. McDonald’s has been accused of feeding its customers nutritiously useless food and thus furthering the global obesity epidemic. In response to these accusations Jack Greenberg said,
“The facts are that we’re selling meat and potatoes and bread and milk and Coca-Cola and lettuce and everything else you can buy in a grocery store. What you choose to eat is a personal issue… You can get a balanced meal at McDonald’s. It’s a question of how you use McDonald’s” (Jack Greenberg, 2001).
While Greenberg is right that you can buy any of the elements of a McDonald’s meal at a grocery store he fails to see the affects rationalization and McDonald’s have on eating habits. The global powerhouse that is McDonald’s was not reached by accident or through a series of lucky breaks for the company. Richard and Maurice McDonald started the company in 1948 in San Bernardino, California and with the help of Ray Kroc began franchising the business in 1953 (James, 2009). The move to franchising changed the path that McDonald’s would walk down and is responsible for the massive success of the company today. With the use of franchises McDonald’s is able to employ a “think global, act local” marketing and business strategy (Vignali, 2001). This enables McDonald’s to relate to consumers around the world and create the impression that the company is a local business, when in reality it is a global organization with different regionalized marketing strategies. This marketing strategy has a profound affect on the relationship consumers have with the restaurants (Vignali, 2001; Liz Miele Interview, 2013). Research conducted in the UK that compared eating habits from 1975 to 2000 showed that families with young children spent more time eating and drinking at restaurants in 2000, a reversal of eating habits in 1975 (Cheng et al, 2007). This trend was not just specific to young families:
“Overall, everyone has increased the amount of time spent eating out, confirming its increasing significance in the final quarter of the twentieth century…with less distinction between weekdays and weekends. In 1975 eating and drinking out mainly occurred as extended bouts of convivial dinging at the weekend, but by 2000 had become more ordinary aspect of daily life, a mix of convenience and special occasions” (Cheng et al, 2007: 51).
Studies conducted in China have revealed that with the introduction of McDonald’s and KFC Chinese lifestyles have changed. Consumers are now more concerned with “speed and convenience”, two vital attributes of rationalization. In conjunction with changing eating habits the prevalence and success of McDonald’s has had many negative health effects of consumers; “The introduction of fast food overseas has been accompanied by a similar increase in obesity in these countries” (DeMaria, 2003). With the modernization of the food industry in China, childhood obesity rates have doubled since 1990, approaching rates similar to developed countries (Cheng, 2003).
It can clearly been seen that the golden arches of McDonald’s are not a sacred place where children’s dream come true and everything is made better by Ronald and a Happy Meal. McDonald’s is a prime example of a corporation that embodies the principals of rationalization and has had negative affects on society. In order to operate as a more ethically sound company it would benefit McDonald’s to think more about social sustainability. McDonald’s can focus on three areas of social sustainability: development sustainability, bridge sustainability, and maintenance sustainability (Vallance et al, 2011). Development sustainability is concerned with “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987: 40). This is a useful ideology for McDonald’s because it reminds the corporation to consider future generations and their well-being. McDonald’s has had issues with the treatment of their employees in the past and a move toward being more developmentally sustainable promises to help future generations of McDonald’s workers and consumers. By improving the working lives of employees McDonald’s is sure to see an increase in consumer loyalty thus drive larger sales and revenue.
Bridge sustainability promotes “eco-friendly” behavior and stronger environmental ethics (Vallance, 2003). Not only does this element of social sustainability have positive impacts on the environment it would also be beneficial to McDonald’s global image. In recent years there has been an outcry from the global community for organizations to behave more responsibly and with stakeholders in mind. If McDonald’s would commit to increasing their environmental ethics not only would their brand gain strength but also actors such as local farmers would benefit greatly. For example, the rationalization of McDonald’s has had negative affects on local food production, as noted above. In order to create a sustainable system of development McDonald’s could invest in local farmers and food producers. These investments would allow small famers to continue to produce their goods while also supplementing McDonald’s inventory needs. While this may cost McDonald’s a bit more it is in the company’s best interest to keep growers and farmers in business as they play a prominent role in the economy, especially in developing regions.
The final element of sustainability that is important for McDonald’s to acknowledge is maintenance sustainability, which “speaks to the traditions, practices, preferences, and places people would like to see maintained or improved” (Vallance, 2003). Eating habits over the past thirty years have changed drastically and much of that has been an affect of rationalization. While these changes have certainly benefited McDonald’s it is important to remember the home cooked meal and eating at home. These types of interactions further social development and teach social skills that cannot be learned at the drive-thru window of a fast-food joint. McDonald’s should value these social lessons because they create social capital amongst potential consumers. A study conducted on 34 countries and social capital has revealed that social capital is a powerful driver of economic growth (Whiteley, 2002), which would most certainly benefit McDonald’s.
As a child I truly loved everything about McDonald’s, from the red and yellow color palette, the fun toys that came with my Happy Meal, the tasty French fried that burned my tongue, Ronald and running care-free through the play place. McDonald’s was a weekend sanctuary where my brother and I could run free without a care in the world. Now when I walk into a McDonald’s I see the golden arches as the foundation of a corporation that has lost sight of its social responsibly to the consumer. McDonald’s is a leading example of how global rationalization has occurred and the negative affects this ideology can have on society. It is now time for McDonald’s to take a step back and look at the global world in which it operates and make moves towards creating a more sustainable global food market. Hopefully with the implementation of the above sustainable actions McDonald’s can return to its place of nirvana in my psyche.
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