What Is Restaurant Sustainability?
If you own a restaurant, it’s time to get serious about sustainability.
Restaurant sustainability refers to the process of making a restaurant more eco-friendly and socially responsible. Sustainable restaurants minimize their impact on the planet and strive to lower their carbon footprint to address climate change. This includes:
- Running their business more efficiently,
- Using less energy or green energy,
- Sourcing from local and sustainable farms,
- Reducing food waste,
- Reducing packaging,
- Minimizing plastic and styrofoam use,
- Conserving water.
After reading this Green Business Bureau article, you’ll understand the benefits of being green and the challenges you might face on your sustainability journey. To overcome these challenges, we’ve listed eight top tips explaining how you can make your restaurant more eco-friendly. This sustainability guide is a great primer for those just getting started with becoming more environmentally responsible.
Business benefits of restaurant sustainability
A restaurant that’s environmentally and socially responsible will experience benefits such as lower costs, and an elevated brand image, which in turn will attract new and retain current customers. The result is higher sales, higher profits, and improved brand loyalty. Hence the business case for restaurant sustainability is compelling as we explain below.
Aligning your restaurant’s values with your customers will create brand loyalty. The goal of your restaurant is to attract new customers and to create an unforgettable customer experience. With this in mind, a 2020 research study by Zeno Group concluded: Consumers are four times more likely to support a purpose-driven company that’s environmentally and socially responsible over brands that are not.
Once more, the number one concern for younger generations – your new wave of customers – is climate change. Hence, it’s easy to see how adopting eco-friendly practices will align your brand with the values of a consumer majority, creating the exceptional customer experience you seek to create.
The experience your restaurant creates will be unique and can bring a greater sense of enjoyment and fulfillment to your customers, who’ll then spread the word. This word-of-mouth marketing is one of the most powerful forms of advertisement.
As we mentioned above, by demonstrating your commitment to sustainability to the public, people will feel more compelled to give your restaurant a try. By establishing an emotional connection, you’ll appeal to new market segments including younger generations and millennials, climate change zealots, vegetarians, and vegans.
On top of expanding your market reach, elevating your brand, as previously discussed, creates a positive self-sustaining feedback loop for customer growth. That is, new customers are attracted, retained, and will advocate your brand.
Lower costs and higher profits
Energy efficiency and conservation efforts will lower your utility bills, and a reduction in waste will reduce business costs. As such, sustainability will improve your business margins. Once more, with more customers, your sales and profits will grow.
On top of this, sustainable development will boost internal productivity, and create a stronger team by attracting and retaining top talent. That is, 71% of job seekers want to work for environmentally responsible organizations, as reported in 2021.
Sustainability is the right thing to do
Yet sustainability is not only the best thing to do for business, it’s also the right thing to do. The future stability of our planet depends on sustainable business design. Think about it, if a business prospers at the expense of our environment and social systems, does that business deserve to be a business at all?
The challenges: How do restaurants affect the environment?
Despite the benefits, developing sustainable operations doesn’t come without its challenges. It’s important to recognize these challenges and proactively engage with them to find solutions. And to do that, you’ve come to the right place. But before we look at the solutions we must understand the problems.
No one business can go completely green overnight, but there are small changes you can make that aren’t difficult but will have an enormous positive business and environmental impacts.
Step one to making sustainable change is to understand how your business affects the environment, issues include:
- Excessive food waste,
- High fossil-fuel energy demand,
- Extravagant food packaging (including take-out boxes),
- Unsustainable suppliers,
- Defective waste management,
- Lavish water use,
- Poor menu choices.
Sustainable restaurant initiatives and tips
Restaurant owners and workers must come up with a strategic plan to become more sustainable and eco-friendly. They need to understand how operations negatively impact the environment and then prioritize the sustainability initiatives that can make a real positive difference. To help, below we’ve detailed eight top tips you should cover to create a sustainable restaurant.
Tip #1: Minimize food waste
Food waste is responsible for 6% of the world’s harmful greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). With restaurants accounting for 22-33 billion pounds of food waste annually, it’s easy to see how this industry contributes to this wasteful and energy-intensive problem. Once more, 85% of food that isn’t used in a typical American Restaurant is thrown out instead of donated or composted.
Here are three great ways your restaurant can limit food waste:
Establish an effective composting system
Granted, composting does pose a challenge for restaurants. Due to the extra time and effort required to maintain a healthy compost system, the practice tends to not be a priority for many restaurant owners. However, establishing an efficient and effective composting regime is arguably the most important aspect of a restaurant’s waste management program. For more information on how you can create an effective composting system, read:
Sustainability Guide For Restaurants: Commercial Composting Solutions.
Develop a food rescue system
Donate food to homeless shelters and charities. For instance, Replate, a GBB member, is a tech-driven nonprofit that combats food waste by connecting food donors and food rescuers. Replate works with restaurants, caterers, food distributors, offices, and other organizations to directly deliver their surplus food to those in need using a mobile app.
Institute inventory and food waste management practices
Efficient food and inventory management will limit the amount of unused food at the end of each day. Without regularly scheduled inventory checks to monitor the number of perishable goods in stock, restaurants will be left with spoiled products. Poor monitoring of buying trends and selling trends also leads to waste. Another simple but important concept to use is first in first out, meaning food with the nearest expiration dates should be used first.
When it comes to inventory and food waste management, ClearCOGs, another Green Business Bureau member, is revolutionizing the food industry. This business uses innovative forecasting and machine learning processes to give an exact amount of food ingredients to restaurants, supporting a sustainable restaurant design while also saving businesses money. To achieve their aim, ClearCOGS uses historic restaurant data and custom machine-learning models to predict how much of each ingredient or menu item needs to be prepared each day. By using these accurate food-prep forecasts, operators can prepare only what they need, reducing the amount of food they waste at the end of each day.
Tp #2: Reduce energy usage
Restaurants demand a significant amount of energy to operate, and those who evaluate ways to improve their energy usage can uncover substantial cost savings.
Roughly 3-5% of total operating costs for restaurants are spent on energy. Large amounts of power is needed to run the kitchen and to heat and light the building. Restaurant owners can target these energy saps to boost energy efficiency, conserve energy and ultimately reduce operational costs, as we discuss:
Update restaurant appliances
Restaurants in the US are found to have the greatest energy intensities of any type of commercial building, demanding 38 kWh of electricity and 111 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot. 80% of the demanded energy is used for heating water, refrigeration, and space heating. The first two processes rely on kitchen appliances.
Finding places to save energy in this sector, unfortunately, can be more difficult than simply changing a bulb. Some savings can be realized by updating old kitchen appliances with newer, more efficient appliances. Investing to update equipment is key to reducing your energy demand. Again look for ENERGY STAR appliances.
Thinking about refrigeration, ensure your fridges and freezers are located away from the hot kitchen. Make sure the refrigeration temperatures are set correctly and doors are appropriately sealed. You could even set alarms on doors to prevent staff from accidentally leaving them open.
Reduce the energy demand of lighting
Switching to energy-efficient bulbs, such as LED light bulbs, is an easy and inexpensive place to start improving energy efficiency in your restaurant. Studies show that approximately 90% of the energy used by traditional iridescent bulbs is given off as heat – wasting energy and money. LED bulbs on the other hand, waste 75% less energy than their incandescent counterparts.
You can also reduce your energy demand from lighting by switching to motion-activated switches, especially important for rooms that don’t need to be lit during all hours of operation, such as bathrooms, walk-in fridges, storage rooms, and even offices. With this in mind, in some states, the government will subsidize the switching out of lights or give you a tax credit. For example, Massachusetts has a program called Mass Save that will provide free bulbs or rebates.
Lower the energy demand from your air-conditioning (A/C) systems
In hotter climates and during the warmer months, keeping guests cool and comfortable makes running your A/C a necessary expense. The best way to manage A/C costs and lower their environmental impact is to purchase an ENERGY STAR-certified A/C unit. The Federal Energy Management Program has found that purchasing an ENERGY STAR model can save you over $1000 across the life of the unit.
You can also use natural temperature cycles and seasonal changes to manage the use of your A/C system. Plus, consider moving your guests to different locations within the restaurant as a means of controlling the temperature their exposed to. For instance, during the summer months, if you have the capacity, move your guests to outside seating areas.
Tip #3: Use eco-friendly take-out packaging
Restaurants should consider using sustainable eco-friendly food packaging and take-out boxes, and look for suppliers who share similar packaging values. Switching to sustainable packaging will not only reduce landfill waste, but it’s also cheaper, meaning you can used saved money on other resources like furthering your green initiatives.
Eco-friendly packaging can be grouped into three categories: Compostable materials, recyclable materials, and reusable materials, each of which we explain below.
This option is more complex and confusing for people to comprehend. If your packaging is labeled as compostable it must be disposed of the correct way. Most people think if something is compostable, then they can just throw it away with the rest of the trash. That’s not the case. Compostable items are specifically designed to break down in a commercial compost facility that provides the right environment for them to compost in a short amount of time. This means customers must dispose of the packaging correctly for this option to be an eco-friendly solution. With this being said, you should research accessible compost facilities in your area. Some examples of materials that are compostable are paper, polylactic acid (PLA), and of course, food waste.
This one is probably the easiest to understand. Products like aluminum and plastic – such as number 5 plastic (polypropylene) or number 1 (polyethylene) – are the most common recyclable materials. Number 5 plastic is better for keeping food warm compared to other choices, which most restaurants should think about when choosing which packaging to use. Restaurants should stay away from styrofoam. Although Styrofoam is technically plastic, there are issues when it comes to recycling this material meaning most recycling centers will not accept it.
This option is the most sustainable choice as, by reusing resources, you’re not spending money on new containers and nothing will go to waste. You can even ask your customers to bring their own containers to take uneaten food home. For instance, Just Salad, a fast-casual restaurant chain, sells a $1 reusable bowl for customers to bring back and forth instead of using plastic containers. And as an incentive for customers to continue to use the bowl, Just Salad offers free toppings.
Tip #4: Buy Locally
Often touted as the best way to be environmentally friendly and support your community, buying local means just that – purchasing items grown or manufactured near you. There are 5 benefits to buying food locally:
- You support your local communities: By purchasing food locally, you support your local economy. Jobs are created and retained, and the community earns money in taxes. By bolstering your local economy you can watch other organizations thrive and grow.
- You gain a better understanding of how your ingredients are sourced: Purchasing locally also helps to educate you in aspects of quality control; by working closely with your suppliers, you know what foods have been grown or refined in a way that meets stringent US requirements. When purchasing food from outside the country, it can be difficult to know the quality of the food, plus the types of chemicals (pesticides and herbicides) used, which have a direct impact on the food’s healthfulness.
- You minimize food transportation: When you buy locally, you minimize the transportation of goods, pollution (including GHGs), and financial costs associated.
- You preserve land: When sourcing ingredients, your ideal suppliers are local farmers that use less-intensive, organic, and possibly smaller-scale farming practices. Such farming methods preserve the land. By supporting sustainable agricultural practices, you’re keeping arable land away from commercial grocery stores that use intensive, environmentally damaging operations.
- You elevate your brand: Buying local is a great way to let your customers and employees know you’re committed to sustainability and that you support the local community. It will also help you build solid community relationships, which can present valuable business opportunities With an improved reputation and image, you’ll see new and repeat customers.
Tip #5: Recycle and reuse
You want to limit the amount of garbage your restaurant produces that ultimately ends up in landfills. A large amount of garbage waste that’s created by restaurants includes materials that can be recycled such as glass bottles, packaging, and wooden crates acquired through delivery. Use the tips below to bolster your recycling efforts and reduce waste:
- Optimize recycling efforts: Use proper handling of packaging. This can be done by applying some thought as to where you place your recycling bins throughout the restaurant, to ensure staff can easily sort recycling while keeping the business running smoothly.
- Coordinate with your suppliers: Collaborate and coordinate with your suppliers to have products delivered in less packaging. Plus, look for suppliers who are willing to switch to eco-friendly packaging alternatives. Don’t forget to contact your local recycling facility to confirm which materials are accepted to ensure you‘re following proper recycling practices. Your aim is to implement an effective recycling procedure to reduce your restaurant’s waste and process it appropriately.
Tip #6: Offer healthy food options
As a restaurant owner, it’s your social responsibility to provide healthy options for your customers. Plus, many of these healthy options can help diminish your carbon footprint. Foods that are in season and local demand less transportation and energy to grow.
Meatless food options will also reduce your carbon footprint. Compared to vegetable production, livestock farming and the manufacturing of animal products requires more water, land, and energy. On a global scale, this contributes to a higher carbon footprint and resource scarcity.
For example, let’s compared the CO2e emissions of beef with that ofeggs. 100 grams of beef protein emits 49.89kgCO2e, which is a staggering amount compared to the emissions from 100 grams of egg protein – 4.21kgCO2e.
Furthermore, meat and dairy intensive diets can lead to several different health problems such as cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. Hence, excessive meat consumption negatively impacts public health and wellbeing and puts a strain on medical services and resources. Unfortunately, meat and dairy industries continue to raise and process livestock and animal products in a way that focuses on the bottom line and not on the health of people, communities, and the planet. A sustainable restaurant should not support such an industry.
Tip #7: Reduce water usage
Water is necessary for cooking, washing dishes, running the dishwasher, providing drinks in restrooms, and serving. Yet, restaurants can consolidate their resources to save water, and the tips given below are some simple ways restaurants can do this:
- Implement water-efficient faucets in restrooms or low-flow faucets,
- Ensure the dishwasher is full before running it,
- Serve filtered water only on command,
- Use air-cooled ice machines.
Tip #8: Do not greenwash
Do not exaggerate or lie about your green accomplishments. This is known as greenwashing and can hurt your reputation and business.
Today’s consumers care about the planet and where their food is coming from now more than ever. 88% of consumers reported that they are willing to switch to brands that stand for a good cause. And so, restaurants have a window of opportunity to show that they care for the environment, and are up to date with current information. Actions speak louder than words, restaurants need to truly commit to being greener and be transparent while they do so.
Customers dining out will see your shift from plastics to paper, can observe your efficient recycling processes, and spot your use of local food suppliers. Yet, the best way to get the credit you deserve, while avoiding greenwash is to audit and certify your business.
One option to consider is the Green Business Bureau. Our online EcoAssessment and certification program provides a user-friendly and inexpensive means of verifying your green achievements. As a member, you can then share your certification level and score using the Green Business Bureau’s green business seal. GBB also hosts each member’s EcoProfile to the public, helping you communicate your sustainability mission, commitments, and accomplishments. You can sign up for the Green Business Bureau here.
Restaurant sustainability makes a difference
Being a green restaurant is good for the planet and good for business.
Restaurants that practice sustainability have realized very tangible benefits, including cost savings and sales growth.
With this in mind, in this article, we’ve presented eight useful green tips to help you create a sustainable restaurant. These tips include lowering the energy consumption of your organization through energy conservation and efficiency measures; buying local to support your community; minimizing waste by switching to sustainable packaging alternatives, and accurately communicating your achievements using green business certification tools (plus more).
It must be noted that sustainable design is not limited to the methods given in this article. There are a plethora of green initiatives your business can implement to become purpose-driven, socially, and environmentally responsible. For instance, GBB’s EcoAssessment and EcoPlanner list over 400 green initiatives that will drive a successful sustainability program.
GBB’s simple yet effective green initiatives should be promoted internally and externally as a commitment to sustainability, attracting customers, and keeping your employees happy.
CJ is currently pursuing an undergraduate business degree, with a minor in entrepreneurship at the University of Connecticut. He enjoys learning, problem solving, business, teaching others and sustainability. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball, being outside in nature, having fun, and making people laugh.