Two of the best-known public companies, Ford (NYSE: F) and McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD), are working on a major sustainability partnership that starts with coffee waste.

Ford is using coffee chaff from McDonald’s to create auto parts. Chaff, husks of the coffee bean, is a byproduct of McDonald’s massive coffee-roasting process and is typically turned into mulch or other plant-based material such as animal bedding. But through the magic of chemistry, Ford aims to turn a "significant portion of that material" into vehicle parts such as headlight casings and potentially others as the partnership develops. The parts are 20 percent lighter and require 25 percent less energy to mold than traditional plastics, according to the company.

So what’s the financial impact? Well, McDonald’s will see some minor savings on waste, but according to Catriona Harris, CEO of Uproar PR, this kind of messaging is much more about goodwill.  

"Sustainability is a hot topic today for most people and is a major priority for the coveted millennial audience, who currently have major spending power. For example, the National Restaurant Association found in their most recent State of Restaurant Sustainability survey that just over half of millennial customers said they would choose one restaurant over another based on its ability to provide sustainably grown, raised and manufactured foods," said Harris.

That’s been a focus across the QSR spectrum with moves toward cage-free eggs, sustainable meat and plant-based protein, but cross-industry efforts like this can help raise the profile even further.

"Third-party validation also goes a long way; award or certification opportunities are a great way to get recognition for the hard work you’re putting into sustainable efforts," said Harris.

And getting Ford to push out the news helps save on that marketing budget. But as to the ROI question, the answer is murky.

"While an increase in sales is always the ultimate goal, it may not happen immediately. The main points of sustainability efforts are to have a positive impact on the environment and help build brand awareness and affinity, so your restaurant is top of mind when the consumer is looking for somewhere to eat," said Harris.

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