Defining sustainability in the restaurant industry, let alone measuring it, has proven to be an incredibly difficult task.
A range of new businesses have emerged to help analyze a restaurant’s sustainability as well as provide certification for businesses to stand as a visual indicator to their customers of a restaurant’s ethical values. Growing in number, organizations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom are offering a variety of innovative methods for restaurants to work towards sustainability.
Sustainable restaurants in the UK
Launched in Spring 2010, the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) in the UK is a non-profit organization that provides what SRA’s Tom Tanner described as a “virtual sustainability consultancy.” The SRA does this by offering a membership that includes an in-depth annual analysis of a restaurant’s sustainability, connection to a network of businesses and vendors that aid restaurants in the areas in which they seek improvement, and even a sustainable star rating system to present to their customers.
Mr Tanner commented on the growing need for a sustainability consultancy, noting that, “A large number of people working in the restaurant industry, while they understood the importance of sustainability, found it quite a daunting prospect to take on sustainability.”
“Particularly if you are just running a single restaurant and maybe cooking as well, time is of the essence. So rather than tackle it in small stages, which would be the obvious thing, people just kind of think, ‘It’s too big and scary, how do we do it? There’s nobody there to help us do it.’ And it just gets left on the backburner and nothing ever gets done.”
Indeed, for a restaurant owner to sit down and consider the environmental integrity of his business is an arduous task. The topic of sustainability requires a systemic analysis of such diverse aspects as waste disposal, energy usage, take-out packaging, food miles and so on. The detailed assessment is only the beginning; sourcing alternative methods to act on the findings is an endeavor that takes both time and money.
Organizations like the SRA provide constructive and practical support for businesses by working with them to make steps towards sustainability. Any restaurant may apply for membership, whether they are planning a complete overhaul or a few modest changes.
“Sustainability keeps evolving and keeps changing; different priorities emerge so that even for restaurants who already are very sustainable there is more for them to do, and there will be more for them to do going forwards as well. Our view about sustainability is that it is about continuous improvement—there isn’t a kind of summit that you can reach and then just take your foot off the gas and relax and carry on with life.”
Tom Tanner, SRA
Apart from providing an analysis of the areas in which a restaurant could improve, the SRA also offers a directory of businesses that can outfit a restaurant with more efficient energy and waste systems, and provides a network of local vendors, produce distributors, and farmers who meet standards of food production and packaging set by the SRA.
The SRA has created a three star rating system to measure a restaurant’s sustainability, helping promote their efforts to the public while serving as an indicator to customers who specifically seek out restaurants actively working toward sustainability. The certification covers a wide spectrum of issues—restaurants answer a 70 question survey which breaks down sustainability into three main categories: how the food is sourced (free range, local, organic); environment and energy efficiency (electricity, water, waste management etc.); and society. The category of society addresses how a restaurant treats staff, customers, and the community in which they do business.
Alongside the SRA’s consultancy practice the organization also employs special projects to engage restaurant patrons. In conjunction with Orange, a phone service provider, the SRA has taken a part in the Do Some Good app which allows smart phone users to review restaurants that utilize sustainable practices, as well as allows users to submit restaurants they would be happier to frequent if they took steps to improve.
“They [restaurants] recognize that sustainability is the way forward,” observed Mr Tanner.
Bridging the gap in the United States
Looking for a dinner reservation that’s lighter on the planet? If you are in the US or Canada, you can try the The Green Restaurant Association’s (GRA) Dine Green search, where conscientious diners can enter their location to find a Certified Green Restaurant®.
“Consumers want to dine green, they want it to be real. They want it to be convenient and transparent. We are here to help restaurants make the environmental changes in an integrity-filled and profitable way.”
Michael Oshman, founder and CEO of the GRA
Founded in 1990, the GRA is a non-profit in the United States that has gone beyond sustainable restaurant consultancy to cover a much larger portion of the restaurant industry’s sustainability needs. In addition to offering sustainability certification to restaurants that meet its standards, the GRA has gone a step further—evaluating and certifying manufacturers that supply the restaurant industry with items such as to-go containers. Turn over a paper to-go box from a GRA certified restaurant and you may find a well recognized GRA eco-label. GRA endorsement helps restaurants navigate the sea of eco-product claims, while indicating to patrons the restaurant’s commitment to sourcing sustainable products.
A notable feature of their restaurant search is the Green Label, which is a study in transparency. Resembling a nutritional label, it details all of the restaurant’s environmental accomplishments and points. It’s one example of what all products and services could do to relate their environmental merits.
Magnolia Bistro, the first GRA certified restaurant in Vermont, diverts 90% of its waste from landfills, not only by composting and recycling, but by making mindful decisions when purchasing products to reduce packaging from the start.
Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice
Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice (LEAF) is a sustainability program and certification for restaurants and foodservice in Canada. Janine Windsor, founder of LEAF, commented on her background working in the foodservice industry when asked what her motivations were for developing a sustainability certification.
“I was always bothered by the amount of waste that I saw and it didn’t seem like there was anything really addressing that. When I looked into that area, I saw the Green Restaurant Association in the States but there really wasn’t anything in Canada.”
It was through her research and discovery of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program in the US, which focuses on setting the standards for sustainability certification of buildings, that Janine drew the inspiration to create an unprecedented program in Canada that focused specifically on the issues of the foodservice industry.
LEAF issues restaurants one of three levels of certification based on how many points they rate over ten categories–ranging from food sourcing to waste and energy efficiency. LEAF develops the criteria for certification with which independent auditors, who are situated locally in each city that LEAF operates, conduct an on-site evaluation. An external advisory board reviews and approves applications for certification. Janine commented that having such an extensive reviewing process, which is both thorough and objective, upholds the integrity of the certification.
“From early on we’ve seen restaurants that are quick to be early adopters and get on board because they see the value in this. They’ve been doing a lot of these types of things on their own already and they are really excited to have a program recognize that, or someone to help them take it further.”
Janine Windsor, Founder of LEAF
LEAF is looking to extend the applications of their certification by creating their own list of approved suppliers who meet LEAF’s sustainability requirements.
Grassroots sustainability projects
Have a look around your own community and you might find a homegrown, grassroots initiative at work. Margot McNeeley started just such a program in Memphis, Tennessee, called Project Green Fork. Margot, a yoga teacher who moved to Memphis over a decade ago, was disturbed by a dining culture using Styrofoam and lacking any recycling options. Her research led her to some shocking statistics: the average restaurant meal generates 1.5 lbs of waste, and that 95% of restaurant waste is recyclable or compostable.
While very rewarding, it hasn’t been an easy road. The city of Memphis offers recycling collection to its residential citizens, but does not offer a commercial option. Compostable to-go containers can cost twice as much as Styrofoam. While some local restaurants have been keen to make changes, there were practical hurdles. Margot has worked with local restaurants and community members to find creative, workable solutions.
Project Green Fork does an onsite assessment of restaurants, and assists them in making changes in the following areas:
- Composting organic kitchen scraps.
- Sourcing local, sustainable food and using compostable take-out packaging.
- Recycling glass, metal and cardboard.
- Taking steps to reduce energy and water consumption.
- Replacing toxic cleaners with non-toxic, low impact products.
- Preventing pollution.
To date Margot estimates her program has helped local restaurants recycle 920,000 gallons of plastic, glass, and aluminum, and 430 metric tons of cardboard and paper. Participating restaurants have also returned roughly 132,000 gallons of food waste to community gardens and local farmers–to be composted and turned into nutrient rich soil.
Read our interview with Margot here.