McDonald’s decision to sue two activists in the 1990s meant that all its business practices were laid bare in court, which changed the company for ever

McDonald’s decision to sue two activists in the 1990s meant that all its business practices were laid bare in court, which changed the company for ever

By Judy KuszewskiHappy Meals, World Cup tie-ins and Extra Value Combos are the main messages on walking into any of McDonald’s 32,000 restaurants worldwide. However, all manner of controversies – everything from the obesity crisis and “supersize me” debate, through to allegations of litter creation, employee mistreatment and factory farming – have dogged the golden arches over the decades.

But perhaps none of these controversies has been more damaging than the notorious McLibel case of the 1990s – dubbed by the UK’s Channel 4 news as “the most expensive and disastrous public relations exercise ever mounted by a multinational company”. It is a tale of David and Goliath, an unusual legal climate, Pyrrhic victory and unintended consequences.

The case involves Helen Steel and Dave Morris – the so-called McLibel Two – both activists involved with a campaigning collective known as London Greenpeace (no relation to Greenpeace International) in the 1980s.

Steel and Morris were taken to court by the burger chain for their role in publishing a fact sheet – What’s Wrong With McDonald’s? – in 1986 that levelled a wide range of allegations against the company. It included claims of promoting unhealthy food, animal cruelty, anti-union activity, bad working conditions and contributing to starvation in the developing world.

Most disturbing of all to McDonald’s was the claim that the company’s beef was implicated in loss of tropical rainforest.

However, as Matt Haig argues in his 2003 book Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time, “very few people would now know about the contents of that pamphlet if McDonald’s hadn’t taken the matter to court”.

Through the 1980s, allegations of the company’s complicity in rainforest destruction were aired by the BBC2 Nature programme, as well as appearing in articles in the Independent newspaper’s magazine and in the Sunday Correspondent.

In all of these cases (and others), the company’s response was to have its law firm send a demand for an apology and retraction of the allegations, or face the threat of a defamation lawsuit under Britain’s famously strict libel laws, which require defendants to prove the truth of their allegations. In the cases of Channel 4, the BBC and many others, the recipients of the legal threats gave in to McDonald’s demands, rather than face the expense and uncertainty of prevailing on a libel case in a British court.

Deforestation suggestion

Also caught up in the controversy were John Elkington and Julia Hailes, co-founders of London-based consultants SustainAbility. In 1987 Elkington and Hailes co-authored The Green Consumer Guide, the bible of environmental consumerism, which included a mention of McDonald’s beef having been accused of involvement in tropical deforestation.

This prompted McDonald’s to threaten an injunction to remove the book from sale. Elkington says: “I understand McDonald’s didn’t initially notice the book coming out, but noticed increasing numbers of young people coming into restaurants and asking questions.” The legal advice was not encouraging. He says: “We were told by a very senior lawyer in London we were very unlikely to prevail – unless, that is, we wanted to ‘play poker’. We looked at the legal situation and felt, in fact, we could prevail.”

When McDonald’s leaned on Elkington and Hailes to retract the rainforest allegation, the pair put forward two conditions. First that McDonald’s implement a well-thought-out environmental policy across its operations. And second that the company develop a means to be able to tell, through the supply chain, whether its meat did or did not come from areas that had recently been forested.

Elkington and Hailes eventually met with McDonald’s, but before their meeting, Elkington says, the company sent its director of purchasing supply around critical markets to get sworn affidavits from key suppliers. “They showed us they had an environment policy, though it looked stitched together. They did try to show that following the controversy they’d looked at the issues. I wasn’t totally persuaded, but at least they’d made the effort.”

The tendency of most recipients of McDonald’s legal threats to acquiesce created a certain momentum that favoured McDonald’s in future legal battles. Fiona Donson wrote in Legal Intimidation, published in 2000: “By invoking the law in support of its reputation, McDonald’s has been able to create an impression that any criticism that is withdrawn as a result of the threat of a libel action must in some way have been ‘unlawful’.”

What set Steel and Morris apart was their refusal to do likewise, even with no legal representation and no means to support themselves through the long process.

Writs blitz

And long indeed it was. Writs were served in September 1990, the case went to trial in July 1994 and ended in December 1996, with the court judgment handed down in June 1997. After over 100 witnesses, and millions of pounds spent by both the British courts and McDonald’s – the company’s costs were estimated at £10m – the McLibel trial was the longest trial of any kind in English legal history.

When it came, the judge’s verdict was something of a victory for McDonald’s. Judge Rodger Bell found the defendants had not proved some of the allegations in the pamphlet – including those relating to rainforest destruction – but had proved others. Steel and Morris were ordered to pay the company £60,000 in damages, later reduced to £40,000.

But the victory was hollow. Perhaps magnanimously, the company stated it would not seek to collect the money – but in truth, the damage done to McDonald’s reputation was already so overwhelming that to chase a pair of penniless, well-meaning activists over such modest damages would have hurt the company far further. And, McDonald’s was not awarded costs, so had to cover its £10m legal expenses.

In the process of taking the pair to trial, McDonald’s ensured that every allegation against the company was examined in minute detail in open court. Witness statements, documentary evidence and legal arguments were open to the light of day – and to the general public through the media and the famous McSpotlight website – like never before. In addition to having been found to have proved some of the pamphlet’s allegations, this reputational damage gave Steel and Morris a substantial moral victory.

The case is a European example of the so-called Slapp (strategic lawsuit against public participation) phenomenon – lawsuits designed to squelch criticism of a company or government agency on an issue of public interest. Traditionally, the Slapp suit, as applied in the US, is never expected to reach trial, much less prevail. It is only designed to intimidate critics and would-be critics.

While the British libel suit is still alive and well – with new manifestations such as the Trafigura superinjunction – such actions seem to be on the decrease in the US, where the courts have proved increasingly hostile to Slapp actions.


And what is the legacy of the McLibel case? Elkington says: “Though I think McDonald’s are in the wrong business – meat consumption will be a major flashpoint over the next 10-20 years – I think they’ve made a lot of progress. They were very early into the effort to drive out antibiotics from the meat supply. I do think the McLibel incident is part of what sensitised McDonald’s to the wider agenda. Things were accumulating, and this is one of those instances that added up, rather than being a defining moment.”

More recently, in 2006, McDonald’s was a key player in a campaign spearheaded by Greenpeace International to remove rainforest soya from chicken feed in the company’s supply chain. This time, instead of arguing with activists, McDonald’s emerged an unlikely champion.

Daniela Montalto of Greenpeace’s forest campaign says: “In this instance, McDonald’s immediately recognised the nature of the problem and sought not simply to put its own house in order, but to use its might to push a multimillion dollar industry towards a more sustainable future.”

McDonald’s very quickly agreed to get soya from the Amazon out of its chicken feed. But it did more, Montalto says, forming an alliance with other retailers that put pressure on agribusiness interests operating in Brazil to stop destroying the rainforest. The resulting moratorium on Amazon soya is still in place.

Montalto argues that the “action taken by McDonald’s and other companies to tackle deforestation for soya in the Amazon, and their current engagement on the issue, continues to send a strong and clear message to the soya sector that their customers want to contribute to solutions, not deforestation”.

The McLibel trial’s postscript came in 2005, when Steel and Morris won a judgment against the British government in the European court of human rights for denying the pair legal aid – as was government policy in libel cases – even though the defendants were of very limited means. The court found the two were denied a fair trial and ordered the government to pay the pair £57,000 in damages and costs. New criteria have been instituted which may help defendants in a similar position in the future.

McDonald’s then issued a statement saying: “Although the so-called McLibel case came to court in 1994, the allegations related to practices in the 80s. The world has moved on since then and so has McDonald’s.”

The company wouldn’t give an interview to Ethical Corporation about the case, but did comment: “It isn’t a decision we would make today. We learnt from our experience, and understand why it is often used as a CSR case study.”

Despite the heroics often attributed to Steel and Morris, the McLibel Two tend to keep a low profile. In a McSpotlight webchat in 2005 Morris said: “[We] are nobody special – the McLibel case was only successful because of the voluntary work of so many people helping out behind the scenes in so many heroic ways.”

Morris argues that the focus should not be on the McLibel Two, but “to appreciate all the good people around you and get something going to change the world where you live”.

Judy Kuszewski is a UK-based independent corporate responsibility adviser.

The McLibel verdict

The judge in the case found the McLibel Two had proved some of their allegations, and failed to prove others.


  • Child exploitation via company advertising 
  • Falsely advertising McDonald’s food as “nutritious”
  • McDonald’s food represents a health risk to long-term customers
  • Cruelty to animals
  • McDonald’s is “strongly antipathetic” to unions and pay low wages

Not Proved:

  • Complicity in rainforest destruction 
  • McDonald’s food causes cancer and heart disease
  • Implicated in starvation in the developing world
  • Bad working conditions

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