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Why Can’t Taco Bell Tell You It’s Actually Trying To Be Sustainable?

Paul Hagopian
|October 14, 2022

Last week Taco Bell announced that they would like you to collect your used sauce packets in a cardboard box and then ship them to a recycling facility. Here’s the graphic from its website:

Nothing quite says “committing to sustainability” like asking your customers to download an app (annoying), collect sauce packets in a cardboard box (strange), find a printer (impossible), use a printer (challenging), then drop off a ‘Diablo’ crusted package at UPS (criminal).

But, let’s not make fun. Taco Bell is, in fact, trying. This is a welcome improvement from its initial packet recycling program, in which customers were asked to collect spent sauces so that one day those packets could be turned into a picnic table. Here’s the graphic used for that campaign:

I’m not sure what’s worse: the hashtag “RecycleYourSauce” or that Taco Bell is likely using Microsoft Word to design sustainability graphics. In its press release, the franchise stated that the sauce recycling program exemplified “doing [sustainability] in a disruptive and truly Taco Bell way.”

What Taco Bell hasn’t so publicly shared is its impressive efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and implementing renewable energy at its restaurants. Yum Brands — the owner of Taco Bell — has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 46% by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. Since 2017, restaurants within the Yum Brands portfolio have cut emissions by an average of 18%.

None of these emissions-based sustainability initiatives are included on the Taco Bell website. Instead, its sustainability content includes: both iterations of the sauce packet program and a web page titled “Our Purpose” that highlights the brand’s adoption of recyclable cups, sustainable packaging, and “sustainable palm oil.”

While switching to recyclable cups, improving packaging, and using the most environmentally sustainable ingredients are all legitimate sustainability initiatives that deserve public recognition, Taco Bell should do better to highlight its more meaningful environmental improvements.

In emphasizing auxiliary sustainability initiatives — like the sauce packet program — Taco Bell  does two things: 1) trivialize environmental sustainability by suggesting a customer-led program will make a significant impact 2) miss an opportunity to educate its millions of daily consumers on what will truly “make a fiery difference” in saving our planet.

So why can’t Taco Bell tell you what matters?

As far as I can see, sustainability doesn’t yet fully fit into the “Live Mas” lifestyle. Taco Bell, as a brand, has long relied on its lack of seriousness as a cultural identifier. At Taco Bell, they put Doritos in tacos and serve “Mexican pizza” and have special edition Mountain Dew. Taco Bell thrives in its lowbrowness.

Sustainability’s worst career move was to rub elbows with elitism. While conversations about environmental impact have made their way to the Yum Brands board room, Taco Bell’s lack of substantive public facing sustainability content suggests that sustainability cannot yet coexist with lowbrowness.

Sustainability initiatives should not be made accessible on account of whether or not they fit with a brand’s lowbrow identity. Operationally, Taco Bell has no issue decoupling brand identity from sustainability. If Taco Bell can hold two thoughts in its head at the same time, so can its many loyal fans.

Show me the real, substantive sustainability work first and then who knows — I might mess around and start collecting a few thousand sauce packets.

Paul Hagopian is a student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program.

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