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The Most Recognizable Fast Food Chains, Ranked From Most to Least Sustainable

We ranked the most ubiquitous fast food chains, including McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Taco Bell, from best to worst in terms of sustainability.

fast food ranking
Written by
Brightly Staff
fast food chains sustainability ranking
When considering sustainability, fast food isn’t the first thing that comes to mind—in fact, it doesn’t even register. The industry comes with a fairly negative connotation in most of our minds in terms of both health and the environment, but that doesn’t mean it’s not immensely popular.
The $570 billion dollar industry boasts a consumption rate that hasn’t changed in
15 years
due to its affordable and accessible nature. But fast food and environmentalism? Not a common correlation. 
It makes sense, then, that most of us don’t inquire about the sustainability practices of most of these gargantuan (and universal) companies. So are chains making strides toward environmental and social equity? The short answer is yes. 
In recent years, many companies have announced priorities centered on prioritizing the planet and the people on it. But though corporations may claim to be making shifts in these sectors, promises and genuine action are two very different things. 
If you’re wondering which fast food chains are the most sustainable, we’ve got you covered. Read on for Brightly’s ranking of seven of the most popular fast food giants, listed from most to least eco-friendly.
Note: No fast food chain on this list is truly sustainable. With that being said, some are prioritizing sustainability more than others.

Our Methodology

The Brightly team compared seven fast food chains to determine how they fared from a sustainability perspective.
The Chains We Ranked:
Each fast food chain received a rating out of 25 points based on five ranking factors: certifications and sourcing, packaging, waste, dedication to sustainability, and planet-friendly options. Each category is scored from one to five, with one being the least eco-friendly and five being the most eco-friendly.

Fast Food Chains, Ranked in Terms of Sustainability


fast food chains sustainability ranking
Total Score: 18/25
  • Certifications and Sourcing: 4/5
  • Packaging Materials: 5/5
  • Commitments to Reduce Waste: 4/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 4/5
  • Planet-Friendly Options: 1/5
With more than 39,000 locations in 100 countries, McDonald’s is synonymous with fast food. 
McDonald’s is among the most transparent in terms of sustainability aims, promising that
100% of its palm oil and soy products
—the latter used to feed the livestock that becomes the chain’s meat products—come from responsible, deforestation-free supply chains. 
Its site encourages consumers to
get to know
its many food suppliers, listing names and expanding on their connection to the company. All McDonald’s fish is MSC-certified, and 98.7% of said fish came from certified sustainable sources in 2020. Additionally, 100% of the expresso beans used to create the signature McCafe drinks are sustainably sourced and Rainforest Alliance Certified.
When it comes to packaging materials, McDonald’s is reaching its aims, and improving each year. Up from 92% in 2019, 99.6% of paper bags, napkins, food wrappers, cup holders, and other fiber-based packaging items come from recycled or certified sustainable fiber sources. It has also emerged as a founding member of the
NextGen Cup Consortium
a group committed to global reusable packaging innovation. Currently, 20% of McDonald's packaging items are made from plastic. By 2025,
it aims to increase
the percentage of all of its packaging that comes from renewable, recycled, or certified sources from 80% to 100%.
McDonald's announced that it aims to reduce at least 36% of its emissions by 2030, with a goal of
zero emissions by 2050
. As of 2022, the company projects a 27% reduction compared to its 2015 baseline, with a 7.8% reduction in supply chain emissions. In terms of waste, around a quarter of its restaurants provide buyers with the option to recycle. The company does have
to reduce, reuse, and recycle cooking oils and food waste in its restaurants, although it provides less specificity about how it plans to do so.
The McDonald’s sustainability site acknowledges that waste “harms nature and impacts communities” and outlines a few of its strategies to achieve a sustainable future.
include eliminating packaging, making recycling easier for customers, and cutting down waste in their restaurants and facilities. It lists the many items on its menu that are 99.6% "deforestation-free," including coffee, palm oil, beef, soy, and packaging. McDonald’s is also the founding member of the
Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB)
, which works with farmers, suppliers, industry groups, and more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on its supplier farms. These aims, while positive, aren’t moderated or backed by any discernable metrics.
The company introduced its vegan McPlant burger in the UK and Ireland, launched in partnership with Beyond Meat, at the top of 2022. In the States, though, the McPlant is
only available in California and Texas
as of 2022. And, unfortunately, the brand's iconic fries are far from vegan—at least in the U.S.—as they derive their signature taste from "
natural beef flavor
." The brand's menu approach is pretty limiting for vegans and vegetarians, who can choose between the side salad or the apple slices minus some severe item doctoring.
More recently, McDonald’s announced a
15-year agreement
with EDF Renewables North America and the Apollo Solar Project in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint through the implementation of solar energy. 
Overall, McDonald’s is working to prioritize sustainable aims. Given the company’s ubiquity and massive production scale, putting these achievements into context is key—but they remain impressive.

Taco Bell

fast food chains sustainability ranking
Total Score: 17/25
  • Certifications and Sourcing: 3/5
  • Packaging Materials: 3/5
  • Commitments to Reduce Waste: 3/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 3/5
  • Planet-Friendly Options: 5/5
Taco Bell—along with KFC and Pizza Hut—is owned by the Yum! Brand, meaning it operates with relatively similar sustainability statistics to the other two brands.
Taco Bell’s extensive menu of ground beef-based items necessitates a large store of meat. In fact, the brand is one of the
largest beef purchasers
in the United States, accounting for 290 million pounds of ground beef consumption every year. Like McDonald’s, Taco Bell is a member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB) and aims to make its beef sourcing more sustainable. In 2016, Taco Bell committed to offering chicken raised without the use of antibiotics, a goal it achieved in 2017. Taco Bell has also used certified-
sustainable palm oil
in its U.S. menu items since 2016.
Taco Bell plans on making all of its consumer-facing packaging recyclable,
, or reusable by
. As of
its paper bags were made from 100% recyclable and renewable materials. As part of its goal to make restaurant cups recyclable by 2021, Taco Bell released recyclable
cold cups and lids
in the U.S. in 2019. Again, thanks to its Yum! Brands affiliation, the company is also part of the
NextGen Cup Consortium
’s global reusable packaging initiative. Currently, the company’s plastic containers for its Mini Skillet Bowls are reusable and dishwasher-safe.
In 2022, Taco Bell launched a
sauce packet recycling program
in partnership with TerraCycle, an interesting multi-step process that asks customers to ship used sauce packets to the latter company for eco-disposal. Taco Bell is in the process of adding recycling and composting bins to branches that can support them. The brand is also working on achieving
less water-intensive
Though its sustainability vision seems less-than-streamlined, Taco Bell is moving toward a sustainable future. Taco Bell’s smaller “
in-line restaurants
” are more energy efficient than its other models, and the brand plans to open 275 of these restaurant types globally
by 2022
. A Taco Bell location in El Paso, Texas, uses solar energy for a portion of its power, and the brand is currently testing parking lot lighting and signage that uses similar solar energy techniques.
Taco Bell has frequently been named the top fast food chain for vegetarians and continues to expand its meatless menu. The brand's “Veggie Mode” setting at in-store kiosks reveals 25 menu items that are
American Vegetarian Association
certified. It also provides a vegan “
Fresco Style
” option for all of its menu items, which replaces all animal ingredients with tomatoes. The company is
currently partnering
with Beyond Meat to integrate plant-based meats into its menu. Its
Cravetarian Taco
is currently being tested at a location in Southern California.
Overall, Taco Bell’s sustainability strategy is present, but limited. The brand has a lot of room to grow in terms of a guided vision and creating cohesive metrics to match it.


Total Score: 16/25
  • Certifications and Sourcing: 4/5
  • Packaging Materials: 2/5
  • Commitments to Reduce Waste: 3/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 3/5
  • Planet-Friendly Options: 4/5
Wendy’s is often grouped with McDonald’s and Burger King when it comes to staple American fast food. So how does this now-global brand fare against the other restaurants in the ranking?
In partnership with the
Progressive Beef
program, which focuses on animal care and sustainability, Wendy’s is striving to improve practices within its beef supply chain. Thus far, the brand has fulfilled a commitment to source 100% of its beef from
Beef Quality Assurance (BQA
)-certified sources. The brand serves Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee, but provides no specific backing for its poultry or palm oil, though the chain does
report its palm oil usage
to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The brand has implemented its own
Animal Care Standards Program
, but it’s difficult to find metrics for sourcing.
Wendy’s has set sustainable packaging aims with the help of the Closed Loop Partners’ Center for the Circular Economy, the better to minimize single-use food packaging waste, and joins many others on this list as a member of the group participating in the NextGen Cup Consortium. The restaurant plans to
sustainably source 100%
of its customer-facing packaging by 2026. So far, it has created a full
restricted substances list
—working with third parties to ensure transparency, as well as to avoid harmful chemicals like PFAs—and is researching strawless lids. In 2020, the company
partnered with
the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio to explore waste diversion approaches. In 2021, Wendy’s donated nearly 7,000 pounds of unused product samples to the Mid-Ohio Food Collective.
Wendy’s is reportedly beginning a process to reduce risks like deforestation in its supply chain, starting with a 2021 lifecycle assessment of its products. It’s also embarked on a Better Buildings Challenge to
reduce its energy use
per square foot by 20% by 2025 (as compared to a 2013 baseline).
Wendy’s plant-based menu items are fairly limited, it has more options than other chains. A meat-free burger called
The Veggie Stack
, baked potato, and a number of sides like salads and apple bites that are vegetarian or vegan-friendly.
Wendy’s achievements and aims are, thus far, relatively disparate. There is a lack of concrete evidence and metrics around many of the brand’s claims.


fast food chains sustainability ranking
Total Score: 15/25
  • Certifications and Sourcing: 2/5
  • Packaging Materials: 4/5
  • Commitments to Reduce Waste: 4/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 3/5
  • Planet-Friendly Options: 2/5
In recent years, Subway has worked to uphold the green tone in its familiar slogan “Eat Fresh” by setting sustainability aims.
Subway’s vendors are assessed using a
Gold Standard Food Safety and Quality Policy
which the company implements itself. Its site assures readers that it integrates “female and ethnic minority suppliers” into its supply chain, but provides no metric or assessment of that goal.
Though it appears to have little in the way of sustainable meat and poultry certifications, the company uses
(aka unlicensed)-certified fish that are
Earth Island
compliant. It also centers on Flordia tomato crops grown using sustainable farming practices like fuel-efficient vehicles, low-till farming, and recycling programs. Subway’s palm oil is sourced from members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and claims that one of its poultry suppliers converts poultry waste into certified organic fertilizer.
In 2014, Subway began distributing salad bowls and lids made from post-consumer recycled (PCR) materials. The brand’s Sustainable Packaging Policy (downloadable as a PDF with a quick web search) outlines aims to design packaging that is “reusable, recyclable, industrially compostable, or
,” as well as to eliminate unnecessary packaging whenever possible. No timeline has been set for this goal.
Subway restaurants in San Francisco and Seattle compost all food waste, and the brand has said that it plans to continue to make recoupling and composting bins available for franchises that are willing/able. While no enforced milestone has been set around food waste, the company did mandate a water pressure standard for new restaurants that saves
182.1 million gallons
of water annually. Back in 2007, Subway added
high-efficiency lighting
in its stores to increase efficiency, and the brand relies on a chiller system in its UK and Ireland stores that claims to save 13% more energy than its counterparts.
According to its website, the chain has reduced its emissions by
292,936 metric tons of CO2
—the equivalent of leaving 57,244 cars parked for a year. In 2019, Subway partnered with Cornell University’s Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion Program, agreeing to work with MBA students to research better ways to reduce waste in its establishments. 
Thus far, Subway's only vegetarian offering is its Veggie Delight sandwich, and its only vegan bread is the Italian option; a variety of its condiments are vegan-friendly.
Though the strides that Subway’s taken to improve its sustainability are worth noting, it has a ways to go in terms of communicating active metrics and milestones to consumers.

Burger King

Total Score: 14/25
  • Certifications and Sourcing: 3/5
  • Packaging Materials: 3/5
  • Commitments to Reduce Waste: 2/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 2/5
  • Planet-Friendly Options: 4/5
Burger King has long been seen as a McDonald’s equivalent, sharing similar menu items and the same reliable ubiquity. But the BK brand doesn’t quite measure up in terms of sustainability.
Burger King’s parent company, Restaurant Brands International, doesn’t supply much information around its supplier certifications, though Burger King is a partner of the previously mentioned Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. The brand claims a commitment to working with suppliers to expand traceability and reduce the use of antibiotics in its supply chain. Unlike other restaurants on this list,
no guarantees are made
about the sustainability of its palm oil or chicken products.
Burger King launched
reusable packaging
in select restaurants in the UK this year, and plans to source all of its packaging from renewable, recyclable, or certified sources
by 2025
. The brand is aided in this endeavor through a partnership with TerraCycle called the
Loop Initiative
, which aims to help companies implement zero-waste strategies for reusable packaging. Restaurant Brands International plans to phase out expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam from all guest packaging globally by the end of this year, noting that some BK restaurants still have foam packaging items in its inventory. By 2025, Burger King hopes to phase out all plastic toys from its global system.
Burger King’s sustainability page mentions that the brand measured its greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, but doesn’t set any explicit goals, except that it plans to
refine its emissions reduction strategy
. Burger King’s 2020 Deforestation Policy includes a “forest commitment” that claims it will stop deforestation in areas of high conservation value, high carbon stock, and primary forests by 2030 or sooner. However, no metrics are placed to measure these sustainability aims.
Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, created in partnership with
Impossible Meat
, was one of the first vegan burgers on the fast-food market. It also implemented a “non-broiler cooking method” that
customers must request
so that their patty is cooked in a separate meat-free zone. The chain also tested Impossible Nuggets in October 2021 at
select locations
, which no longer seem to be available. Its hash browns, fries, and French toast sticks are other popular vegan items.
While we give them points for the vegan Whopper and the reusable packaging attempt, BK joins many others on this list in its need for visible (and measurable) metrics.


fast food chains sustainability ranking
Total Score: 13/25
  • Certifications and Sourcing: 2/5
  • Packaging Materials: 3/5
  • Commitments to Reduce Waste: 3/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 3/5
  • Planet-Friendly Options: 2/5
As with its competitors, KFC has made an effort to make sustainability a priority in recent years.
Though no specific certifications seem to be cited, KFC assures consumers that all of its chicken is USDA inspected for quality and is hormone-free. As another brand under the Yum! umbrella, KFS follows a set of self-sanctioned
Sustainable Animal Protein Principles
, a guide that dictates qualities like environmental stewardship, responsible suppliers, animal health, and food security.
In 2019, KFC’s plastic use accounted for 15% of its total operational waste, which amounted to about 885,000 tons. The brand has since
worked to divert
about 25% of that waste. Though it hasn’t reported much more on its current material use for in-store packaging, KFC’s website notes that it committed to sourcing
of its palm oil and paper-based packaging from sustainable outlets by the end of 2018, and then 2020. This commitment has since been updated, with KFC promising that all plastic-based consumer-facing packaging will be recoverable or reusable by 2025. With locations in over 135 countries, this is a somewhat complicated goal. However, KFC has partnered with
NextGen Cup Consortium
to help further innovate packaging. 
Over the years, KFC has set a number of goals around restaurant waste. By the end of 2020, the company planned to
divert 50%
of its operational waste is U.S. restaurants, though it’s difficult to confirm if that metric was met. The brand plans to
cut water consumption
by 10% (but only in areas where the resource is “particularly strained”) by 2025.
According to its own metrics, the company’s commitments to a sustainable future are being carried out today. KFC reports
integrating 40,000
energy and water-saving technologies in 2017. These include anything from improving exhaust hoods, lighting, and ovens to integrating solar energy to help power
some restaurants in Australia
. KFC also plans to reduce average restaurant energy and greenhouse gas emissions by 10% by the end of 2025.
KFC was the first fast food restaurant to create a plant-based fried chicken, thanks to its partnership with Beyond Meat—its
Beyond Fried Chicken
sold out at its first launch in Atlanta. In January 2022, the option was launched at all KFC locations nationwide, but was only available for a short time and is no longer on the
. That leaves very few planet-friendly options, ranging from green beans and corn on the cob to apple turnover and apple sauce.
While KFC’s short partnership with Beyond Meat and self-proclaimed commitments are a step in the right direction, many of the metrics would benefit from additional visibility.


Total Score: 11/25
  • Certifications and Sourcing: 2/5
  • Packaging Materials: 2/5
  • Commitments to Reduce Waste: 2/5
  • Commitments to a Sustainable Future: 3/5
  • Planet-Friendly Options: 2/5
restaurant chain in the U.S. by sales, Chick-fil-A is attempting to enter the realm of sustainable fast food.
Though no official certifications are listed, Chick-fil-A’s site guarantees that its chickens are antibiotic-free and meet its Animal Wellbeing Standards—no mention is made of sustainable poultry sourcing. A Georgia-based group called Athens Earth Strike has presented a number of claims against the Atlanta-based corporation. According to the group, the structures that house Chick-fil-A’s chickens are responsible for
high rates of greenhouse gas
emissions in the
Athens area
. Because sustainability is as much about social equity as it is the planet, AES called for a Chick-fil-A ban on the University of Georgia campus, as it is known for breaching a number of ethical concerns, including donating to discriminatory
anti-LGBTQ+ groups
Chick-fil-A’s signature Styrofoam cups aren’t a particularly sustainable choice. However, the brand has developed
a partial solution
, turning them into blocks of polystyrene that are used as frames for benches outside its locations, as well as pens and name badges for employees. Though it doesn’t appear to have a specific packaging materials plan in place, Chick-fil-A has reduced its nationwide plastic use by
8.5 million pounds
each year thanks to its new recyclable plastic bowls.
Chick-fil-A’s blog, The Chicken Wire, champions the restaurant's commitment to limiting food waste through its
Shared Table program
which began in 2012. 1,200 of its 2,697 restaurants participate in packaging and sending surplus food to local shelters, soup kitchens, and charities. 20 of those restaurants participate in Chick-fil-A’s
composting program
. The company has partnered with a group called Let Us Compost to address food waste, reportedly diverting
132,000 pounds of food waste
from landfills to be composted in 2019. However, this summer, a
viral TikTok
posted by a Chick-fil-A employee exposed food waste at their branch, depicting another worker dumping into a wastebasket full of discarded chicken product.
Chick-fil-A’s central initiative seems to be sustainable restaurant development. The company is working on refining usage, energy efficiency, air quality, and waste production in some of its branches. Noting that the global volume of annual construction waste will reach 2.2 billion tons by 2025, the company strives to comply with
“Lean Construction” principles
to comply with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED standards. The restaurant has since seen a 50% reduction in construction waste, according to its website. Chick-fil-A’s Fort Worth, Texas location received a
LEED Gold certification
in 2012.
Though Chick-fil-A hasn’t developed any plant-based meat alternatives, it provides a number of vegan sides, including its hash browns, fruit cup, and potato fries. Its Grilled Cool Wrap can also be prepared without chicken or cheese.
Chick-fil-A’s concrete sustainability metrics are difficult to identify, and it has a lot of work to do to offset its impact and contribute to a sustainable future.

The Takeaway for Conscious Consumers

Fast food is certainly not the first place we’d look to find groups spearheading green initiatives, but it’s a significant, unavoidable constant in many American diets. Access to affordable, healthy food is an important environmental justice issue, as low-income neighborhoods feature a
high volume
of fast food restaurants. None of the brands on this list have made a concerted effort to address a role in this unsustainable cycle.
While some of these popular names have made an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, this list confirms one thing: fast-food companies are a strain on the environment. Most of the restaurants on this list have ambitious recycling and packaging materials plans in place, but few have made an effort to expand their plant-based menus or integrate specific sustainable certifications into their sourcing.  
Exploring how the restaurants we frequent are contributing to (or detracting from) a sustainable future is a beneficial practice, especially because these brands center their decision-making around the trends of consumers. Though ditching your Crunchwrap or Happy Meal won’t make as much of an impact as one of these giant fast food chains going zero-waste, directing your dollar toward brands that prioritize people and the environment can help to inspire real change.