Restaurateurs’ Search for Sustainability

Kari - headshotBy Kari Morales, Green Seal Winter 2014 Intern

During the thirty years I have spent working as a cake decorator, baker, and chocolatier, I have watched rising food and transportation costs and increased consumer demand for healthier and more sustainable menu choices create new challenges for restaurant owners and managers.

These restaurateurs, working long hours and with notoriously small profit margins, are faced with increasingly complex purchasing decisions and questions about how to prioritize sustainability efforts. 

No longer are they simply responsible for putting out a menu that is both delicious and visually appealing, but because consumers are demanding, they must consider the environmental impacts of the foods they serve, the energy they use, and the waste they create.

While pursuing an MBA in Sustainable Business Management, I had the opportunity to delve more deeply into sustainability in the food business.  I interviewed ten owners and managers of small sustainable food businesses, and found that, while the issues faced were fairly universal, each had a unique perspective and differing priorities as they worked to increase the sustainability of their operations.

They grappled with decisions about sustainable packaging, ingredient sourcing, and recycling logistics but had very little time and resources for researching their options.  While conducting my research I noticed that there are many articles on “greening” a restaurant, but they contain differing advice and often do not have any guidance on prioritizing efforts.

A recent National Restaurant Association survey of 1,300 chefs found that eight of the top twenty trends for 2014 involve local and sustainable sourcing, environmental sustainability, and the reduction of food waste.  Many of those surveyed believe that the issues contributing to these trends will continue to be relevant over the next ten years.

So, how can restaurant owners make decisions with confidence that they are choosing the truly sustainable option?  Where should they focus their limited time and financial resources?  And how can they communicate their sustainability efforts to their customers without being accused of greenwashing?

Although Green Seal is best known for its product certifications, it has been busy developing standards for services too. Green Seal’s Pilot Restaurant Certification Standard was based on the life-cycle analysis of six Chicago restaurants and 8 Chicago restaurants have participated in the pilot standard for the past year.

The life-cycle analysis divided the environmental impact of the six restaurants into four areas of impact:

  • Food Procurement – the environmental impact of the production of food and the associated waste from field to processing through delivery to the restaurant.
  • Food Storage – the energy used to store food at the restaurant
  • Food Preparation – the energy and water used in food production
  • Operations – energy use for lighting and climate control, water use, packaging and supplies.

The study looked at seven categories of environmental impact, including land use, fossil fuel use, acidification/eutrophication, respiratory inorganics, carcinogens, ecotoxicity, and contribution to climate change.  The results showed that food procurement is responsible for almost 95% of the environmental impact of restaurants, food preparation and storage for 1.2% and 0.7% respectively, and daily operations are responsible for the remaining 3.3%:

Breakdown of the Environmental Impact of a Restaurant:

Restaurant Graph

(Baldwin et al., 2011).

Green Seal used this solid scientific research to create its standard, which includes specific practices designed to reduce the impact of the restaurant’s purchases and operations, engage staff and customers, track progress, and work on continual improvement. The standard offers busy restaurateurs a clear guideline for navigating the complexities of sustainable decision-making.

One great example is the relative sustainability of compostable packaging. When I first heard about compostable packaging made from corn or potatoes, designed to break down into compost after use, I thought it was a great idea!   But it’s not that simple.

Compostable packaging will not break down in a backyard compost pile, but requires the controlled conditions of a commercial composting facility.  In the many areas that don’t have access to commercial composting facilities, this packaging ends up in the garbage.  Additional research uncovered the fact that many compostable products are not recyclable, and when they get into the recycling stream, they contaminate it.  While using less fossil fuels in the manufacture of plastics is desirable, there are also significant environmental impacts associated with agriculture.

Green Seal sorts through the issues by clearly stating:

All takeaway items shall be:

  • made with recovered-content

OR

  • recyclable,

OR

  • compostable where composting is available.

Green Seal’s nationally recognizable certification lends credibility to a restaurant’s claims of green practices, and prominently displaying the Certification Mark is a great way for certified restaurants to communicate their commitment to sustainable business practices.

References

Baldwin, C., Wilberforce, N., & Kapur, A. (2011). Restaurant and food service life cycle assessment and development of a sustainability standard. International Journal Of Life Cycle Assessment, 16(1), 40-49. doi:10.1007/s11367-010-0234-x.

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