Fortunately, hundreds of vendors entering the sustainability space, particularly on the environmental and energy side, have helped decrease costs and made things like composting and waterless urinals more accessible to restaurant operators. In addition, many entrenched industry players covering food distribution, waste disposal, utilities, and packaging have also embraced an earnest adherence to sustainability with innovations, reconfigured operations, and operator support systems.
These developments, in particular, encourage leaders of growing, sustainable-minded brands like Amsterdam Falafelshop, Doc Popcorn, and Pizza Fusion that sustainability will become more mainstream and accessible in the years ahead.
“With more competition in the field, the costs should continue to go down and sustainability should be within the reach of more restaurants,” says Bennett, whose brand has three units in the Northeast and another dozen in the development pipeline.
There is also a growing wealth of resources helping restaurant operators navigate the future of sustainability, including food distributors like Sysco and US Foods, third-party auditing agencies, nonprofits, and organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Restaurant Association (NRA).
The NRA, in particular, announced in September the formation of its Conserve Sustainability Advisory Council (CSAC). The 14-member CSAC panel features foodservice and sustainability experts committed to helping restaurateurs become more
“With the advisory council’s input and real-world advice, practicing sustainability will be easier to implement, result in long-term cost savings, and benefit the environment,” said Jim Hanna, Starbucks’ director of environmental affairs and CSAC co-chair, upon news of the CSAC’s formation.
Moving forward, Arnot says, restaurant leaders will be consistently challenged to discern the sustainability practices central to their business before laying out a path for continuous improvement. Sustainability, after all, isn’t an all-or-nothing equation.
“We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Arnot says. “Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you should do nothing.”
Subway provides an example of this pragmatic, one-step-at-a-time approach. For years the sandwich chain has been serving skipjack tuna, the most abundant of the major commercial tuna species.
While that practice in itself would grant the Connecticut-based company the freedom to publicly champion its sustainability, Stewart says, the company’s next step will be to purchase the tuna only from certified sustainable fisheries that employ responsible fishing practices.
In doing so, Subway will not only continue being kind to the planet, but will also step into Sustainability 2.0 territory by employing more responsible food sourcing practices.
“We’re just moving down the continuum,” Stewart says.
Subway has notably accomplished much of its sustainability work in a massive franchised system with more than 40,000 stores across 100 countries.
The company has consistently run potential sustainability decisions through its franchisees and adopted a position in which it points and nudges operators toward more sustainable options rather than setting rigid, all-or-nothing directives. As one example, Subway’s corporate office worked with its suppliers to make recyclable and compostable packaging readily available to franchisees.
“We didn’t just tell our franchisees they had to change, but we did the heavy lifting with our suppliers so that our operators would have a sustainable practice that was easy to implement,” Stewart says.
She adds that Subway also distributes best practices and tips on various internal communications platforms to help its operators make more informed sustainability decisions.
For Subway and many other quick-service chains, one thing has become clear as the 21st century’s second decade wears on: sustainability is here to stay. The drum keeps beating, louder and louder, with increasing force and power.
“This is a long haul for us and, I imagine, many others in the industry, too,” Doc Popcorn’s Israel says.
Sustainability will maintain its roots in environmental consciousness, the operators say, but continue deepening its reach into other social issues, such as employee welfare, sourcing, and food labeling.
“There’s this wave of awareness that just isn’t going away,” Pizza Fusion’s Lazar says. “Sustainability isn’t about left or right, but about making responsible decisions in your business.”
To succeed in today’s marketplace as well as in the years ahead, Subway’s Stewart says, restaurant companies will need to be economically viable as well as socially responsible and environmentally sound. That’s the reality of Sustainability 2.0 and any subsequent iterations of the “green” movement. “We don’t think of sustainability as a fad, but rather a cost of entry into the marketplace,” she says.
Israel, in fact, calls sustainability a “line item” and something restaurant operators cannot ignore.
He thinks it’s possible that cash-starved governments—local, state, or federal—could begin taxing businesses as a way to force greater efficiencies in purchasing, waste disposal, employee welfare, and other operational areas.
“It’s all about making choices that save money, improve business, and help the world,” Israel says.
By ignoring sustainability and failing to employ responsible practices in the restaurant, a business could expose itself to criticism from any number of stakeholders, be they activists, investors, or customers. And in the competitive world of quick-service restaurants, that ignorance could prove deadly.
“If you’re not being conscious about sustainability, then I think you’re going to be the dinosaur in this industry that doesn’t understand how people expect these things,” Bennett says. “And we all know what happens to dinosaurs: They eventually become extinct.”