Saturday, March 10, 2012

Chipotle's CSR

Since taking on a full-time internship in November that sadly for this blog has little connection to food and travel, my bandwidth for writing about these topics has been constrained. Of course, my appetite, both figurative and literal (get it? Literal? I made a double pun!), has not waned.

Chowing down on a puka dog in Hawaii

My internship deals with sustainability and corporate social responsibility communications, and one of my interview questions was, predictably, "What large company's sustainability efforts do you admire?" I say that the question was (or should have been) predictable, but clearly unemployment had hampered my clairvoyance, and I froze, afraid to mention a brand name that had some horrible environmental or social practice known only by true CSR experts. Or worse yet, that I might incriminate one of their clients as a bad example of CSR. Luckily a week-long temp gig a few weeks earlier got me through: I said something about admiring companies that fully integrate sustainability principles into all aspects of their activities, and cited National Geographic's zero-waste policy in their headquarters as an example of an organization expressing its mission -- conservation of the world -- through every little detail of its work.

It occurred to me recently, however, that if someone were to ask me the same question today, I would say Chipotle.


Of course, I'm no stranger to writing about Chipotle (see here and here). I've been a fan of Chipotle since first trying its burritos as a wide-eyed undergrad exploring the exciting culinary options of Evanston, IL (I somewhat jest, but in reality, Evanston was the proving ground for Michelin-award winning, Ferran Adria protege Grant Achatz, had a Whole Foods back when it had more hippie granola rather than rich yuppie connotations, and is also home to some of the best pad thai ever -- IMHO). Chipotle's cilantro-rice was a revelation to me back then, and as a poor student living thousands of miles from home I appreciated that one Chipotle burrito could easily sustain me through both lunch and dinner. Like cold pizza, half the pleasure of getting a Chipotle burrito was in the knowledge that I had a second delicious meal to look forward to.

Back then, the big news about Chipotle was that McDonald's was a major investor, and yet the subsidiary was oh so much cooler than the golden arches. Chipotle had yet to establish a national presence, and as it started to expand (notably in California right around the time I graduated college and returned to the Bay Area), there was a certain cool factor in being able to say, "Oh yeah, Chipotle. I know them."

Fast forward a couple of years: McDonald's has since cut off its ties and Chipotle has been making a name for itself in its own right, as both purveyor of good, delicious food, and forward thinking, conscious corporate citizen. I especially loved this ad campaign, where Chipotle distinguished itself as an independent company of integrity, committed to its ethical food sourcing principles, and trusting its customers to value those principles as well. The campaign showed that not all advertising has to be dumbed down, and that not all fast food is solely about convenience and price.


And then came the "Back to the Start" video, delighting foodies and sustainability advocates alike.

Aired during a particularly heavily watched Grammy's (RIP Whitney), the deceptively simple video features a Willie Nelson rendition of Coldplay's "The Scientist" as it traces a farmer's journey from pastoral family farm through increasingly industrialized and mechanized processes, and "back to the start." Even though the video has been available since September, this was its "breakthrough" moment, so to speak, with lots of write-ups and (that currency of the 21st century) social media buzz.

The video even prompted a counter op-ed in the New York Times by Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. And in an odd reversal of former parent-subsidiary influence, the day after Chipotle's video aired, McDonald's announced that it would ask its suppliers to phase out gestation crates for pigs. (Of course, such an announcement clearly had to have been in the works for a while before the video, but the timing definitely reinforced Chipotle's position as an influencer).*

What really clinched things for me in terms of seeing Chipotle as a CSR leader, though, was finding this "Making of" featurette, wherein you see the enormous scale of work involved in creating the video.

It is astounding to think of how much time, manpower, and money went into making this video which, at two minutes long, can't really be mobilized as a mass marketing tool like a commercial. But there is something gratifying about seeing a video about valuing traditional processes produced through traditional processes. It also speaks to a corporate commitment to not cutting corners, and to choosing the method, whether in food sourcing, filmmaking, or advertising, with the most integrity. Sure, they're still using mechanized processes, like 3-D printers and I'm guessing they shot on digital rather than film. But we're not talking about Luddism here (nor are eco-agricultural methods anti-technology, by the way). I just appreciate their choice to embrace the imperfection and textural quality of live models.

I hope that I'm not coming across as overly nostalgic or romanticizing the past in applauding Chipotle for its vision of a good food system, as well as Johnny Kelly and his team at Nexus Productions for using live models. (I may cop to romanticizing Johnny Kelly though. Hello adorable!). While I admit that a certain romanticism of the past is part of the allure of less mechanized food processes for me, we can't talk about feeding a world projected to hit 9 billion people by 2050 by convincing everyone to return to the earth take up a plow. Rather, what I see in Chipotle's strategy is recognition of the value of food and filmmaking, the value of work that it takes to feed people in a way that goes beyond a myopic focus on profits and selling more food (Taco Bell's fourth meal anyone?). I see Chipotle as a vanguard in restoring the humanity of food production on a large-scale. It's a strategy worth starting over to pursue.

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