Societal Externalities

Externalities are those things we think about when we actively choose to quit smoking or order a salad over a burger.

They are the health issues that arise over years of smoking, or the rising healthcare premiums for a society due to an increasingly unhealthy population.

This page gives an overview of how Fast Food affects our health, some of the negative externalities, and a more sustainable path forward.

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A single cigarette burning and emitting harmful smoke
Fast Food and Health

The Race to the Bottom

You may have thought the most important impact the assembly-line had was saving a city from drowning under mountains of manure, but you would be mistaken…

Ok, that was probably pretty important….

But what the assembly-line also introduced to American culture was a system for creating mass quantities of food at an incredible rate, and with incredible precision.

Combine that with a lane dedicated solely for your assembly-line produced Model-T to order that perfect burger in less time than it takes to brush your teeth. It’s a recipe for explosive success.

Fast Food and Health

Speed, precision, and affordability turned Fast Food from a family treat, to a cultural phenomenon racing to be the quickest, cheapest meal in town.

This phenomenon has led companies like McDonald’s to reach a market valuation of $167 billion dollars, and now, those golden arches can be found in 120 countries with more than ~39,000 restaurants worldwide.

Cheap, quick, and reliable, it’s a recipe for remarkable success in a free market economy.

But the further down the “cheap and quick” rabbit hole you go, the more missing ingredients you’ll find in this recipe for inevitable success.

External Costs

Nestled between the cost of that cheap and quick combo meal and it’s externalities are the root issues behind consumption, External Costs. These are costs avoided by a producer or consumer and instead externalized onto someone — or thing — else.

It looks like this: Internal Costs + External Costs = True Social Cost

• Internal Costs would be things like the wages for the drive through order taker, and the assembly line prep stations. • External Costs would be things like rising healthcare premiums and mental health appointments.

Imagine it costs a farm $1,000 extra to feed their cows a natural grass diet instead of corn, which in turn boosts the number of Omega-3s in the meat by 5 times. If they sold 1,000 pounds of meat to a restaurant (and they only sold 1 pound burgers), the price at the register would be $1 higher than the corn fed option.

External Cost -> Externality

When these costs are externalized, we see the resulting externality. That looks like this:

Internal Costs = Price at Register

↳ Externalized Cost → Externality

This $1 cost could have produced meat with a lower risk for disease and much higher Omega-3s, which in turn decreased it’s consumers depression, sadness, lethargy, and apathy.

Instead, the animals ate unhealthy diets and produced a mediocre product. It’s consumers were getting sick and not receiving the nutrition their bodies required.

The burger may have looked $1 cheaper on the menu as these costs were initially footed by the animals and consumers (seen as externalities), but eventually society pays the bill in things like tax increases from a growing homeless population (from depression and malnutrition) and rising healthcare premiums (from diseased meat and unhealthy diets). *This is where the “Don’t tread on me” philosophy breaks down. Nearly everything we buy has an unpaid external cost that “treads on” someone — or thing — else.

Here are some common External Costs avoided in our agricultural system and their resulting Externalities



External Costs

• Less Energy
• Rising Healthcare Premiums
• Disease Treatment



External Costs

• Low Income Families Priced Out (sick population)
• Drug Price Increase
• Less Disposable Income



External Costs

• Treatment
• Tax Dollars for Homeless Programs
• Tax Dollars to Prison System

If you’d like to learn more about Externalities and External Costs, check out the following link

the theory of externalities

Rethinking Consumption

Veg heads, vegans, and environmental hippies rejoice, the number of meat substitutes has absolutely exploded over the past few years.

Whether you’re meatlessness is at the request of a loved one, you’re looking to take Meatless Monday to the next level, or for personal health reasons, how can you be sure that meatless alternative offers up what you’re actually looking for?

After all, a BK Impossible Burger with all the fixins has nearly the same amount of calories as a beef burger, whereas Sonic’s ‘Blended Burger’ has far fewer calories, but you’d have to cave for a meat/veg blend.

How can we be sure that progress has the consumers best interest in mind and not just the allure of being the king of the meatless hill?

Tying It All Together

So how can someone with little money or political influence make an impact on a system run by the almighty dollar?

Let’s tie it all together.


From “fat free” to “all natural”, “no sugar added” to “multigrain”, it’s difficult to tell which labels are legit and which are marketing wizardry.

What is for certain is that the massive growth and use of these terms means that our conscious consumption and “voting with our dollar” is working.

Here are a few of the more legit labels.

• Sustainable Food Trade Association
• Animal Welfare Approved
• USDA Organic


When it’s impossible to tell the difference between legit and fluff, you’d expect the government to help out.

Here are some of the organizations holding our government accountable.

• The Good Food Institute
• Partnership for a Healthier America
• FoodCorps


It’s in a corporation’s best interest to avoid all the external costs they can. More money for them and more “affordable” products for us.

But as we’ve just learned, these costs don’t just disappear.

It’s also in their interest to use labels that sell product, whether that’s for the benefit of society or their bottom line.

That’s where it’s our government’s job to step in. With proper regulation, they can force producers to pay for their external costs and use proper labels.

Here are a few ways our government does that.

• Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act
• Food Safety Modernization Act
• Federal Meat Inspection Act


Imagine a world in which you send your spare change from that box of USDA Organic burgers to the Good Food Institute

The Good Food Institute uses your spare change to research new modernized meat alternatives.

They then create an entire new category of cultivated meat that doesn’t require raising cows.

Now, the next time you go to the store you know you’ll have meatless options a plenty. You’ve included the external costs of meat alternative R&D and the externalities you care about most are mitigated.
Imagine, Econus!


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