The Ethical Burrito: Chipotle Makes Fast-Food Nation Sustainable

The Mexican chain changes consumer expectations, one free-range barbacoa taco at a time.

Erica Grieder's weekly series explores how businesses are responding to consumers, governments, and markets to make their practices and their products more sustainable.

When my friend came to visit Austin from her home in Spain, I took her out for the finest gourmet fast-food burrito available within a mile of my house. She had never been to a Chipotle Mexican Grill.

A placard touted the chain’s commitment to respectable food sourcing: happy pigs, healthy chickens, local produce, etc. When I asked, the three women working assured me that people care about that campaign. Customers, one added, ask about it all the time. My friend, peering over the counter, wasn’t one of them. She was excited about the brown rice. If you eat corn, rice, and beans together, she said, you get exactly the right amino acids to make a perfect protein.

Good food is a complicated topic. As is often the case, the best approach depends on your ethical priorities and personal constraints. Some animal-rights advocates emphasize the need to eat humanely raised meat; others hold out for vegetarianism or veganism. Environmentalists worry about pesticides, soil depletion, and the energy used in producing ingredients. Grad students get curious about plant-based proteins.

The interesting thing about Chipotle, the burrito and taco chain, is that it has tried to tackle all these goals and more. Its “Food with Integrity” philosophy calls for free-range meat, hormone-free dairy, and locally sourced produce when practical. For more than ten years, Chipotle has bought its pork through Niman Ranch, a sustainable farm based in California. As of last year, for example, all of the beef in its barbacoa is naturally raised, meaning that the cows are not treated with hormones or antibiotics, and they are fed an entirely vegetarian diet.

Steve Ells, the co-founder and CEO, has explained that he was first moved to go green in the quest for better flavor. But the idea, as the company describes it now, is to use ingredients “raised with respect for the animals, the environment, and the farmers.” No other fast-food chain has tried that, although most have tweaked their menus to accommodate various consumer concerns, at least superficially—McDonald’s, for example, now offers apple slices in its Happy Meals.

And in recent years, few chain restaurants have been as successful as Chipotle. In the third quarter of 2011 the chain’s revenue was $592 million, up 24.1 percent from the third quarter a year ago. Some of the extra money came from new restaurants—Chipotle opened 32 new spots during those three months, bringing its national total to 1,162. The revenue increase also reflects a rise in sales, up 11.2 percent.

Chipotle is not the fastest-growing fast-food chain in America. That would be Five Guys Burgers and Fries, according to a March analysis of chains with more than $200 million in sales from research firm Technomic . But it may be the most notable, precisely because of the fuss it makes over food issues. The Food with Integrity philosophy commits Chipotle to higher input costs and supply-chain risk. Premium meat, for example, costs more than the factory-farmed kind, and there are fewer people supplying it.

Chipotle’s approach has attracted admiration and irritation. “They tell the customers the story of where the food comes from,” philosopher Peter Singer said in a 2006 interview with an Australian television program, “whereas the typical fast food chain does exactly the reverse—it tries to hide where it comes from.”

But it can all become a little sanctimonious for a burrito chain. In August, Chipotle released a lushly animated ad, set to Willie Nelson’s cover of “The Scientist,” that seems to imply that the chain, in its role as a big buyer of sustainable food, can solve the problems of factory farming, highway congestion, air pollution, water pollution, and, if I’m following this correctly, 21st-century malaise.

The debate is inevitable. Chipotle is still a fast-food company, not a locavore bistro. Nobody is cuddling the chickens; the carnitas pigs aren’t like their pampered Spanish cousins that only eat acorns. If the avocados from California aren’t available, Chipotle will buy them from Chile or Mexico. It can only be as green as its business model allows, but to the extent that it is green, it might as well talk it up.

The marketing campaign might actually have some positive externalities. Setting aside the integrity chatter, a more parsimonious explanation for Chipotle’s success would be that it’s selling good burritos in a country where good burritos are widely appreciated but occasionally scarce. In some cities, Chipotle could credibly claim that it has the best burrito in town. In others, it could at least claim to be better than Taco Bell, which was sued earlier this year by an Alabama law firm claiming that its “taco meat filling” is only 36 percent beef. Even in Austin, which has plenty of Mexican and Tex-Mex food—not to mention enough local, organic, vegan, and macrobiotic options to placate the most virtuous eater—the market supports several bustling Chipotles.

That matters because Chipotle clearly thinks its customers care about hormone-free cheese. Even if most of them don’t, Chipotle is the first big fast-food chain to make food quality an integral part of its branding. As such, it’s helping to buoy the market for ethically sourced food—and if that’s what the burrito fans are getting, they may be getting used to expecting it.

Photo courtesy of Chipotle

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less