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What Is Sustainable Catering

As the provider of food and drink for events, caterers’ practices and waste can have a detrimental effect on the planet. They hold the unique power of determining just how damaging a get together can be to the environment. There are countless opportunities to get creative and uptake sustainable catering practices through responsible food sourcing, preparation, commute, and waste disposal. In this article, expect to learn the ins and outs of sustainable catering to elevate your business’ reputation while lowering your carbon footprint.

Sustainable Catering Challenges

The beginning of the journey to an eco-friendly catering business can be overwhelming. There are so many different causes for concern within the process that it is difficult to know where to start, and that is no one’s fault. Catering can cause significant damage to the environment because of the industry’s reliance on transportation, energy-intensive equipment, single-use items, and the difficulty of sourcing sustainably produced food as well as the difficulty in avoiding food waste. All these different aspects result in significant build-up of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and waste build-up in our landfills.

Sustainability Solutions

Here are seven sustainable initiatives a caterer could address to begin their journey:

  • Source Locally or Sustainably
  • Avoid Food Waste
  • Tackle Your Single-Use Items and Sustainable Catering Packaging
  • Electric Transportation and Carbon Offset Commuter Programs
  • Upgrade Your Commercial Kitchen
  • Reduce Water Waste
  • Get Green Business Certified

Business Benefits of Sustainable Catering

There are many rewarding benefits to becoming a sustainable business, especially in the world of catering. A greener business lifestyle can not only benefit the planet, but it can save you money and take your branding to the next level. If you wish to learn more about the benefits of sustainability in business listed below, check out our article, How To Tell Your Sustainability Story to the World and Earn the Benefits of Being a Green Business.  It’s a great read about telling your green story and unlocking the benefits of green business such as:

  • Attracting and retaining customers and employees
  • Elevating your brand and improve your reputation
  • Tapping into various cost savings

Source Locally or Sustainably

One of the biggest attributes to a caterer’s carbon footprint is where and how they are sourcing the ingredients for the dishes they provide. A locally sourced and sustainably grown meal is something a business can feel proud of, a customer can feel grateful to receive, and the environment will appreciate. Launch partnerships with farms in your area, community gardens, or organic growing clubs! This can lower your environmental impact as well as grant the opportunity to celebrate your community and highlight their great work through collaboration.

Create Your Own Garden

Another way you could source more sustainably while saving money on produce is by creating a company garden. If you have access to plots to do so, it can be a great team bonding activity for your staff and being a “seed-to-plate” caterer would be a shining talking point for your sustainability marketing.

Vertical gardens are also a great way of starting a company garden if you do not have the space for a conventional, in-ground one.

Provide Meatless Options for the Menu

It is important to address the fact that the meat packing industry contributes an enormous amount of emissions to the Earth’s atmosphere. Not to mention the consequences of livestock waste, overgrazing and clearing for pastureland.

Offering meatless dishes – or at least those without beef – can dramatically lower your impact (even though it may displease some clients). However, plant-based meals are not always the best option if they are not sustainably sourced.

If local, sustainable meat is available to you, then consider incorporating it into your menu in moderation. The meat is a higher quality than factory produced meats and it requires less “food miles” to get to your kitchen which saves on emissions too!

Whether you are working with your community or growing your ingredients yourself, locally and sustainably sourced ingredients allow your company to celebrate your local farmers, support your community and enjoy a unique selection of seasonal eats.

Avoid Food Waste

Food waste is one of the world’s leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions and it releases tons of methane whilst taking up massive space in our landfills. It can be avoided through careful planning and community initiatives to tackle it once the waste has been created.

Manage Your Portions

It is imperative for caterers to measure out their meal portions before prep begins to ensure that there are not massive amounts of leftover food sent to the landfill when the day is done. Once an event is booked, try to get an estimate on the number of bellies expected to be fed as soon as possible in order to get accurate measurements. This will not only cut down on your food waste, but it will cut down on your ingredient expenses too! Every crumb wasted at the end of the evening is a penny spent.

Recover Leftovers

Another action you could take to address your food waste is to figure out a system to deal with your leftovers. It could be offering them to clients to keep after their events or working with a local food recovery organization. The EPA offers a list of places to bring your nonperishables and even perishable items. Some great examples of digital food rescue programs are Replate and Too Good To Go.

Start Composting

If you have leftovers deemed not safe for donation, then try creating a compost system to turn it into rich soil instead of dumping it in the trash! If you are without a green thumb and find it hard to see the benefits of compost to your business, try partnering with a community garden or a local farm. In exchange for your compost, you may not only be able to make a new relationship within your community but perhaps there could be some discounted produce in it for you as well!

Tackle Your Single-Use Items and Sustainable Catering Packaging

In the catering world, single-use plastics are common on a day to day basis, especially in tableware and packaging. Whenever possible, you should be using reusable ceramics, metals, glasses, or even plastics instead of single-use plates and silverware that get thrown out at the end of an event. The same goes for table cloths! If you cannot afford to purchase reusable materials for all your events, consider renting from an event planning company. In fact, renting can be much more sustainable than buying new if you don’t plan on reusing items often.

Invest in Eco-Friendly and Compostable Single-Use Items

If it is just one of those circumstances where it requires speedy clean up and reusables may not be possible, stick to recycled and compostable single-use items for your needs. These can be found online, in some grocery stores, and there are even digital retailers that specialize in such eco-friendly products to meet your sustainable catering packaging needs.

It is also important to take your to-go system into consideration when cutting down on single-use plastics. At all times, it is imperative to avoid using styrofoam packaging and seek alternative materials made from recycled plastics, paper, or consider launching a reusable to-go container system.

Check out Let’s Go Green and Green Paper Products for more information on sustainable products for all your single-use needs!

Use Electric Transportation and Carbon Offset Commuter Programs

Caterers often have to drive several cars to transport all their meals, equipment, and staff to events. Despite the initial high cost, switching to electric or hybrid transportation for you and your staff can offer substantial long-term cost savings and emissions reductions.  This is a drastic and expensive change and it is way easier said than done.

If upgrading to an electric fleet is not in your budget, then settle for renting an electric van for equipment and/or having your team carpool whenever possible. The drive together will save hundreds of miles of unnecessary emissions and even wear and tear on your cars.

Consider Switching to Biofuels

Innovations to biofuels are in constant progress and while it is exciting to know that it’s possible for a vehicle to run on cooking oil, it requires a lot of modification to a vehicle and still fails to run cleanly. The oil is so thick that it gives the engine a difficult time while burning and is really only an option in diesel vehicles.

However, there are ways to change the chemical makeup of cooking oil to gain access to the benefits of biofuel without the harm. Research to see if there are oil recycling facilities like SeQuential near you!

If switching to electric isn’t an option for you but you still wish to do more to account for your transportation emissions, you could launch a carbon offset program. For every mile driven, you could plant one tree or make a donation to an environmental organization.

Upgrade Your Commercial Kitchen To Make It More Efficient

Majority of the energy used in a catering business can be found in their commercial kitchen. It can feel daunting trying to decide where to start when attempting to make your kitchen more efficient, so why not start with the easiest switch: lighting.

Adjust Your Lighting

The best kind of lighting you could provide your kitchen to reduce its environmental impact comes from LEDs. Not only is it better for the environment, but it is better for your wallet. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, LED bulbs use 75% less energy than incandescent ones and they last 25 times longer. That means less trips to the store and less trips up a ladder for you to change them out!

Update Your Appliances

It is also important to keep all your appliances routinely maintained and up to date. If possible, try to upgrade them to EnergyStar certified appliances. They are the most energy efficient models on the market to date. Check out their website to learn more about their products and their energy efficiency guidelines.

There are lots of ways to go about improving your appliances’ energy efficiency. For more information on managing commercial refrigeration specifically, check out our article that talks all about it!

Reduce Water Waste

The quickest step you can take to reduce your water waste is to start providing water in bulk at events as opposed to plastic water bottles. In the case of larger events where this isn’t feasible, ensure there are an adequate amount of recycling bins in place to collect plastic bottles.

If you do not have a commercial dishwashing system, you could invest in one or outsource your dirty dishes and linen to a company who does. When cleaning a large amount of dishes and linens, a commercial set up is largely more water and energy efficient compared to run-of-the-mill sinks and dishwashers. Auto-Chlor is a great example of one such company and they operate all across the U.S.

Get Green Business Certified

When it comes down to the bottomline, the most important action you can take to make your catering business more sustainable is to identify where there is room for improvement and to develop a plan to make change where change is needed. If this feels overwhelming for you, consider tackling this through a trusted third-party sustainability assessment like Green Business Bureau’s EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner. As a trusted third-party assessment, its sole purpose is to identify areas where your sustainability performance needs improvement and help you develop strategies and goals for moving forward in your green mission.

Not only does an assessment and certification like this help you stay on track and keep consistent progress recorded through your sustainability journey, but it also provides you with an easy and attractive way to communicate your efforts to your clients and stakeholders.

Endless Opportunity

The catering industry can be highly resource-intensive and environmentally exhausting, but it does not have to. A greener planet starts with greener habits by all of us together. It can be rewarding, challenging, and overwhelming to launch a sustainability program in your business. But once you do, it opens up a world of creative problem solving, marketing opportunities and growth for you, your team, and your community.

About the Author

Jessica Bugh

GBB Green Ambassador

Jessica Bugh is a content writer for Green Business Bureau who recently received a degree in Design and Innovation Management at Oregon State University with a focus on Sustainability. She is passionate about sustainability in the world of business and hopes to begin a career in it for the future. In her personal life, Jessica loves to explore video game development, botany, and enjoys traveling to the east coast to visit her family whenever she can.

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