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Chipotle’s Ad: Tribute to Sustainable Farming or Slick Marketing Scheme?

September 17, 2013

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American fast food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill is in the headlines again with a viral new animated commercial that is tugging at people’s heartstrings. “The Scarecrow,” produced with stunning visual effects and a voiceover from singer Fiona Apple, is being lauded by The Week as “the most beautiful, haunting infomercial you’ll ever see.”

Featuring a displaced scarecrow in a dystopian fantasy world, the video condemns Big Agriculture food production methods and trumpets humane and sustainable farming. It implies that Chipotle only uses fresh, wholesome ingredients that are good for your body and good for the planet – a revolutionary concept in the world of industrialized fast food.  

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This video comes two years after Chipotle’s first viral tribute to sustainable farming. “Back to the Start” won a Grand Prix at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity and has almost eight million views to date. Both videos powerfully illustrate Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” pledge, which vows to “support and sustain family farmers who respect the land and the animals in their care.”

But does Chipotle’s campaign represent a true commitment to sustainable farming, or is it rather a slick marketing ploy? Chipotle has more than 1,500 stores and generated $800 million in revenue last year. Sustainably sourced ingredients are expensive, and Chipotle is hardly a non-profit, mission-driven organization. Terms such as “natural” and “responsibly raised” are ambiguous at best, so it’s worth taking a deeper look at Chipotle’s Ingredients Statement and examining what matters most to you.

Meat: Chipotle chicken, beef, and pork are “responsibly raised,” a term that Chipotle trademarked. They define it as meaning that the animals are “treated with dignity and respect,” allowed to “display their natural tendencies,” and not treated with antibiotics or added hormones.

Yet many consumers want to know specifically what the animals ate and the details of the conditions they lived in; it is here that Chipotle meat products are lacking. There is no indication that the chickens are cage-free or free-range, and the description of Chipotle beef is vague: “We source 100% of our beef from ranches that meet or exceed our naturally raised standards.” The cattle are neither grass-fed nor pasture-raised. Chipotle’s pigs are raised outside or in deeply bedded pens, but it’s unclear if they are given any area to roam. None of the meat products are organic.

Produce: Chipotle buys a “substantial portion” of the following ingredients organic: avocados, black beans, brown rice, cilantro, jalapenos, oregano, and pinto beans. Everything else on the menu is farmed according to more conventional and industrial methods. Chipotle states, “Organic is great, but it’s not always appropriate for the food we serve.” While it can indeed be difficult and costly for small farmers to gain the “certified organic” label, there’s no indication that Chipotle’s produce is free of harmful pesticides and herbicides.

Locally farmed ingredients: While the commercial heavily implies that Chipotle ingredients are locally grown, the company’s actual position is: “It’s not possible or practical for us to source all of our ingredients locally. Still, we believe that it’s important to do as much as we can.” Chipotle’s oregano, green bell peppers, red onions, avocados, cilantro, jalapenos, and tomatoes may have been purchased within 150 miles of the restaurant, depending on the location and the time of year.

GMOs: Chipotle admirably labels which of its dishes contain genetically modified organisms on its website and is currently transitioning away from genetically modified soybean oil in favor of non-GM sunflower oil. Chipotle even supported proposition 37, a California bill that would have mandated the labeling of genetically modified foods but was defeated.

While Chipotle has a long way to go, it definitely has done more for sustainable farming than most other fast food chains. This latest ad is brilliant marketing and will no doubt line Chipotle’s pockets with the dollars of concerned consumers; let’s hope that it raises awareness that encourages people to do their own research and purchase intelligently, too.

What do you think of Chipotle’s new ad?