Social responsibility to go, please

Social responsibility to go: Consumer perceptions of prominent fast food restaurants explored.

Social responsibility to go, please

For most people, a trip to pick up fast food probably doesn’t involve high level moral deliberation. However, as consumers continue to demand more value from their food, many fast food companies have been trying to meet expectations for social responsibility in the products they offer. McDonald’s, for example, now aims to “make sustainability the new normal” for their business practices. As an industry giant, the corporation is consistently at risk of criticism for contributing to human health problems, such as obesity because of their menu offerings. The company has also recently experienced the fallout of criticism over animal treatment at farms that supply to them and over worker wages. Yet, McDonald’s also provides significant philanthropic support of child health and set the precedent of establishing scientifically-grounded animal welfare standards that their suppliers must meet, that has become the model for virtually all of their competitors and other food animal industry sectors. Are these efforts to contribute to “public good” well recognized and impactful enough to influence public perceptions of their corporate responsibility, and thus, customer support? Similarly, Panera Bread emphasizes “food as it should be,” highlighting the quality and simplicity of their ingredients, providing customers with enhanced menu information and attempting to responsibly source the products they use. Panera’s widespread marketing is likely to resonate with many consumer segments, but does it really translate to improved public perceptions of the company? Both examples raise the question, is it possible to be perceived as both “good” and fast when it comes to food? If so, who is perceived as most socially responsible and by whom? Because the extent to which people actually view fast food brands as associated with socially responsible behavior is unclear, answers to these questions were sought by Purdue University researchers in a recently published study.

Adapting an established model for “best-worst” choice experiments where participants are forced to make tradeoffs in a series of options, Purdue University researchers surveyed US adults nationally and asked participants to rank their choices for “most” and “least” socially responsible fast food restaurants. Relationships between people’s perceptions of social responsibility in 11 fast food restaurants, which included McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Subway, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle and Panera Bread, demographic factors, consumption practices, and their reported knowledge of fast food operations’ practices were analyzed.

Of the restaurants studied, Panera Bread was ranked as most socially responsible, followed by Subway and Chick-fil-A. Over 60% of people participating ate fast food one or more times per month. McDonald’s, KFC, and Taco Bell were perceived to be the least socially responsible of the fast food restaurants studied. Surprisingly, there were few significant correlations between how frequently people visited fast food chains and their social responsibility rankings.

While the study design did not allow the researchers to directly examine why people perceived some fast food chains as more responsible than others, several interesting associations were found. For instance, there were significant relationships between being female and (reportedly) having knowledge of fast food business practices with the rankings of the social responsibility. Income level also was a factor in some perceptions. Having a high household income bracket was associated with a higher share of rankings for Starbucks as being socially responsible and a lower percentage of such rankings for Chick-fil-A.

While it might seem counterintuitive to study public perceptions of social responsibility in relation to consumption of fast food, this research underscores that even when it might seem minimally relevant, people are evaluating the value and merits of companies involved in food production and distribution. It also suggests the benefits of marketing geared toward educating consumers as a way of both informing consumer decision-making and potentially creating public goodwill towards a brand. More details of the research are available in Modern Economy (

This article is based on the following published research findings:

Morgan, C., Widmar, N., Yeager, E. , Downey, W. and Croney, C. (2016) Perceptions of Social Responsibility of Prominent Fast Food Restaurants. Modern Economy, 7, 704-714.

About the Author(s)

Nicole Olynk Widmar

Nicole Olynk Widmar is Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University.

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