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Burgers, fries, CO2 count share the menu at Max's

Wander into a Max restaurant in central Stockholm and you'll find all the usual trappings of a fast food chain: bright plastic furniture, strips of neon lighting, cashiers in matching uniforms.

The illuminated menu board is there too -- with one notable difference. Next to every burger, a large number indicates the carbon dioxide emissions associated with its production.

This is the most visible aspect of a sustainability program that has drawn international attention to Sweden's Max, which claims to be the first restaurant chain to publish carbon emissions data on its menu. Though critics question how much the information compels customers to make climate-friendly choices, the family-owned company believes it is crucial to its current and future success.

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"It differentiates us from the competition and makes us more competitive," said Par Larshans, chief sustainability officer at the firm. "And we are convinced in the long term we will have a change in customer behaviour. It doesn't happen overnight."

The program began when CEO Richard Bergfors asked his management team to determine the size and source of the firm's carbon footprint. The company recruited consultants to analyze every aspect of the chain's operations, from the cattle farm to the plate. The results were "an eye opener," Mr. Berfors said.

"When you think about the environment, you think about packaging, waste, transportation. What we found out was that yes, these have an impact, but by far the most important issue is the beef."

Ruminant livestock, including cattle, sheep and goats, produce about 80 million tonnes of methane annually or 28 per cent of global methane emissions from human-related activities, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Add that to the emissions produced by abattoirs, the machinery used on cattle farms and the trucks used to transport the meat, and the average cheeseburger leaves a heavy carbon footprint.

At Max, beef production alone accounts for 70 per cent of the firm's total emissions. Packaging, on the other hand, produces just 1.6 per cent of emissions.

"The easiest thing would be to take away the beef," said Mr. Larshans. "Then we would be automatically more sustainable but then we wouldn't have the customer either."

Max opted to offset all carbon emissions -- including those released during the beef production stage -- by planting roughly 89,000 trees in Africa each year. It began running its restaurants entirely on wind and solar power, eliminated unnecessary packaging like plastic lids and straws, and invested in ecological milk and coffee. But the chain's most unconventional tactic has been its effort to entice its customers away from its biggest seller: beef burgers.

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It introduced a line of non-beef products and now encourages its customers to choose these over their usual hamburger.

The results have been mixed. The program hasn't hurt the company's bottom line -- revenue was $220-million (U.S.) last year and is rising at an annual rate of 15 to 20 per cent. However, while sales of the climate friendly products have increased, "people are not changing as much as we want them to," Mr. Larshans said. Non-beef items account for just 8 per cent of sales at Max.

Still, Larshans is convinced the strategy will eventually pay off. Environmental costs aside, the cattle industry is highly dependent on fossil fuels and as those prices rise so will the cost of beef, he argues.

"We are taking necessary steps to change our business now because in the long run this will be a big problem. It's better to do it now than to have to do it with a knife against your throat in ten years."

The program has its critics. Though carbon labeling is a "positive start" it is unclear how much of an impact it's having on consumer understanding, said Susan Sweet, professor of marketing and strategy at the Stockholm School of Economics. While Max's menu allows customers to compare the emissions of various burgers, the average person likely wouldn't understand the real impact of the various emissions levels on climate change, she says.

"Within their industry they have had a big impact and I think everyone is aware of it," said Sweet, who has completed a case study on Max. "But I'm not so sure about customers. Without digging deep it can be hard for customers to understand these numbers."

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