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Sustainability in Foodservice: Where We Stand Today

Sustainability has become a standard part of the foodservice industry's lexicon. Individual members of the community have long embraced the concept. But actually putting it into practice? Well, that's been a different story. Until now.

Sustainability in Foodservice: Where we stand nowThe concept of sustainability started off years ago in a cloud of green talk, marketing initiatives and abstract, far-off notions of environmental responsibility and friendliness. But the good news is that the foodservice industry has come a long way since then. A growing number of foodservice operators now understand the real, measurable business incentives behind adopting sustainable practices, such as energy, water and waste management.

"Nowadays, it's less about tree hugging and more about Wall Street, metaphorically speaking," says Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education at the Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) in San Ramon, Calif. In short, he notes, "It seems like in 2013, sustainability initiatives came back to life and gained some traction in the industry. There were a lot of positive indicators, and in fact, sustainability has become more of a standard practice among companies and industry leaders. People are beginning to see the dollars associated with sustainability and know that it makes good business sense."

Despite this progress, the industry still has plenty of opportunity to grow its sustainability efforts. Leaders making headway with sustainable initiatives and/or LEED building certification represent the minority of foodservice operators. But as the foodservice industry slowly inches away from those large-scale economic challenges and cutbacks of the last five years, there's optimism on the horizon.

"When business is good, it's easy to say, 'Hey, let's be green,'" Young says. "When business is tough, it's easy to turn your back. But more companies are beginning to look at sustainability as part of a bigger picture." While the notion of sustainability may have blossomed from the focus on climate change and businesses doing their part to reduce emissions and not deplete resources, saving costs wherever possible in a postrecession world represents the core of this concept today. As a result, a growing number of foodservice operators now incorporate sustainable initiatives as part of their standard operating procedures and business plans.

The Industry Has Responded

To the need for long-term sustainability, that is.

In September of last year, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) launched the Conserve Sustainability Advisory Council to help restaurateurs understand environmental awareness and become more resource efficient. Led by industry co-chairs John Mulcahy of Georgia-Pacific and Jim Hanna of Starbucks Coffee Co., the council consists of 14 foodservice and allied industry members and sustainability experts, including Young. The council's mission is to research and provide best practices for the industry at large, the association's members and its Conserve Sustainability Education Program (CSEP) for operators. This past year, the council took up a special focus on sustainable packaging, Young points out.

The industry now pays increased attention to the sustainability of packaging materials, from compostable disposables to what foodservice products arrive in, Young notes. Buying in bulk, encouraging customers to use reusable mugs and switching to compostable materials are all part of the effort to reduce the harmful landfill waste that predominantly plastic-based packaging can cause.

Aside from this new focus, the NRA's Conserve program has a few other initiatives in the works for the coming year, says program manager Jeff Clark: relaunching the website for easier access to the council's best practice findings, tips and videos; the development of an "Ask the Expert" column throughout the year to share viewpoints from industry voices in the sustainable space; more new sustainability education sessions at the NRA Show in May; and how-to toolkits on recycling and minimizing food waste for members. "We are also continuing to grow the Food Waste Reduction Alliance as we hope to decrease food waste nationally," Clark says.

Like packaging, the beverage portion of the industry has entered the sustainability equation as of late. Young points out that the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCA), for one, has taken strides to educate the industry about coffee bean growing and sourcing and its impact on climate change. The SCA and other beverage associations have launched several of their own "guides for greenness" to get operators on board with sustainability.

LEED Catches On

After some years of slow growth and occasional obscurity, LEED is finally reaching its heyday in the foodservice community. The November 2013 release of LEED Version 4 fully integrated foodservice equipment and kitchen energy and water loads into the criteria. Now, kitchen energy and water use can no longer be left out of total building energy modeling.

"In the past, if you were developing a standard LEED building you could ignore the process loads and all the energy and water use in the kitchen," says David Zabrowski, director of engineering at the FSTC. "It was a great way for businesses to simply experiment with new technologies and cherry-pick things. People would build a green restaurant or building and do everything but use energy-efficient equipment, or just put in a piece or two. Now, they can't skirt around this. The new criteria specifies that you must model all process loads, including those in the kitchen." Operators can do that by using the baseline list of suggested energy-efficient equipment pieces developed by the FSTC.

Again, sustainability has business incentives, especially in LEED design. "People are beginning to see returns on their investment in LEED from a few years ago and incorporating aspects of LEED into their business as standard practice," says Young. "They can identify real dollar savings by cutting waste, water and energy, and as a result, those that take the leap toward LEED don't want to go back." For many chains, new prototypes incorporate the lessons and designs learned from existing LEED stores, and the number of newly certified buildings has increased.

For chains developing in overseas markets, LEED-style design plays an important role in the concepts' growth. "Energy management is even more expensive in other parts of the world, and certain governments require higher levels of sustainability," Young says. "Many companies realize that if they build more efficiently they will make more money by saving on costs here and abroad."

Young explains, "The foodservice world has become more accepted by the LEED world." As a result, he adds, "we're not an oddity anymore. They now recognize that some buildings have big kitchens and that they matter and there is a huge opportunity for energy and waste reduction."

An influx of energy- and water-saving equipment items hitting the market is a direct result of the demand for new technology and stronger performance rates, Zabrowski says. "These new technologies and products are driven by a heightened awareness of energy costs and also partially due to younger generations who are more technically savvy. Finally there is more of a market for innovation and more efficient equipment."

For example, as demand increases, the cost of energy-efficient fryers continues to decrease. Charbroilers and ovens now feature more advanced thermostatic controls and lids to reduce energy use. Dishmachines rely on heat-recovery systems to reduce energy consumption. And demand-controlled ventilation has become must-have technology for most kitchens.

Consumer Drivers

On the food side of the business, consumers remain powerful drivers of sustainability. This includes consumers showing a strong interest in foodservice concepts that source their ingredients from local providers and those that use on-site gardens. "When it comes to food, people are always more interested," Young says. "They're also willing to pay more for fresher, more sustainably produced food that's healthier and tastes better."

On the efficiency and design side, again LEED has a draw. "People like to be in nicer, brighter, cleaner buildings, and that's what LEED buildings are like," Young says. In fact, some chains report higher rates of comparable store sales among LEED-certified locations as compared to locations without LEED certification.

A growing number of municipalities continue to develop regulations around Styrofoam, waste and water management, but despite their good intentions, some skepticism about the actual effectiveness of these efforts remains. For example, Young asks, will a ban on Styrofoam truly reduce carbon emissions? Or does this simply represent one of many measures that will work together to make a difference? "I think people would rather have intelligent scientific answers and move forward with that information than just have blanket restrictions and laws telling them what to do," Young says.