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Food without integrity: Chipotle and social responsibility

By Alex Mitchell

Section: Opinions

September 2, 2016

It is no secret that college students love Chipotle. I frequently find their discarded burrito boxes and trademarked elaborately decorated soda cups littered across common areas and even on campus grounds, a testament to the brand’s popularity. Chipotle seems to represent what our generation wants most in food, something quick but not too quick. Something delicious but something that won’t break the bank. “Fast Casual,” insiders call it. Chipotle portrays itself as a quirky and unconventional chain restaurant, from decorating takeout bags with pseudo-profound quotes to unnecessarily moody lighting. But behind the artsy design patterns and clever advertising, Chipotle is still a multinational corporate behemoth, with all the trappings of modern corporations: haughty board officers, grumpy stockholders and, of course, ethics violations.

 

Eating Chipotle leaves a bad taste in my mouth. While the food can be appetizing, the company’s business practices leave much to be desired. Firstly, the company mistreats its workers, to the point that they have been dragged before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for punitive attacks on workers. For example, Chipotle’s employees face termination for ridiculous and trivial offenses, even outside of the workplace. According to the NLRB, Chipotle’s policies ban employees from discussing “politics or religion in public” or from disclosing information about their wages to co-workers. On top of this, Chipotle commits the usual sins of low pay, low advancement and capricious management that are all too common in the fast-food industry.

 

Chipotle advertises their food as healthy and environmentally sustainable, but this is far from the truth. Chipotle’s health scares have made headlines many times over the past few months: Norovirus and E. coli outbreaks have led to dozens of hospitalizations and federal investigations into the company. At the same time, the “healthy” moniker conceals the fact that the average Chipotle meal has more than 1,000 calories and 75 percent of the daily recommendation for saturated fat, more than double that of McDonald’s Big Mac sandwich and 25 percent more than the average Chick-fil-A meal. To put it simply, Chipotle is not a healthy alternative to “traditional” fast food. It is merely the same fast food, albeit in a faux Mexican iteration.

 

Chipotle’s environmental claims are dubious at best and dangerous at worst. Much of their food is grown in drought-stricken California, where high demand for their products has exacerbated the water shortage. Chipotle’s reliance on “natural” foods has increased this effect. While some of their initiatives are beneficial, such as reducing harmful pesticides and animal suffering, many others exacerbate environmental damage. Chipotle’s adamant stance on traditional agriculture has prevented the company from adopting newer varieties of corn and soybeans, even though many of them use fewer chemicals and critically, less water. Furthermore, Chipotle has used its market leverage and ad campaigns to discourage research into more sustainable crop strains, further jeopardizing the environment.

 

Put simply, Chipotle, like many burgeoning corporate fast-food chains, has a terrible record on even the simplest business ethics. Its policies treat workers unfairly, harm the environment and represent dangers to public health. Given the energy that was shown in the Chick-fil-A boycott, where thousands protested outside restaurants, mayors banned new restaurants and universities threw out franchises, one would expect similar actions by college students.

 

I do not think I am the only student at Brandeis who believes that companies have certain responsibilities to their employees and the public good, and as students, we need to decide if we are spending our money in the right places. As Brandeis students, we ought to take the lead in conducting our lives and business in a way that supports both social justice and sustainability. Unfortunately, this means taking our business elsewhere. Conveniently, the Waltham Chipotle is flanked by a Five Guys and a Panera Bread. Either one of those restaurants will give you a more satisfying and less expensive meal, and each behaves (comparatively) ethically as a company. So the next time you go out to Chipotle, just head over next door instead. It is a small step, but one that demonstrates a personal commitment to social justice.

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