This past week, Panera Bread announced it would begin labeling climate-friendly options on its menu. Earlier, in mid-September, 40-unit Just Salad introduced a seven-item “Climatarian Menu” that also allowed customers to calculate greenhouse gas emissions of build-your-own salads.

While there were some key differences between the two (more on that shortly) the broad goal was like-minded—restaurants should pay more attention to how a plate of food affects climate change. And to educate guests so they have a chance to help out. It’s up to the consumer whether they want to participate or not. But the current issue, the brands said, is not even giving guests the option. As always, it starts with awareness and systems that don’t create friction along the way.

At the center of this is the seldom-stated fact that roughly 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions stem from food production. And, according to Pew Research, six in 10 Americas say they have seen impacts from climate change in their communities, but many don’t know what they can do to help.

Just Salad and Panera want to change that. And they want other restaurant chains to join in.

Sandra Noonan, Just Salad’s chief sustainability officer, chatted with QSR about the company’s efforts, how it compares to Panera’s, and where the industry as a whole can go from here.

Let’s start with Panera’s recent announcement it was going to begin labeling climate-friendly items on menus. What are some key differences in the way Just Salad is approaching this versus Panera?

We are excited to see other brands getting in on the carbon transparency movement. Overall, this is a win for planetary and human well-being. We’re proud to be the first national restaurant chain to display carbon footprint labels on our entire menu. When you order an item on, you’ll see the item’s estimated carbon footprint compared to that of a quarter-pound beef patty, for context. Plus, our Eat for the Earth campaign, which coincided with Climate Week last September, introduced a Climatarian menu featuring our seven lowest-impact items in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. So if you’re in a rush and you want to eat climate-smart, the Climatarian menu serves as a shortcut. 

The research on this is pretty clear: people are smart and want to understand their impact. So our approach is to display the estimated emissions and to help people make sense of that information, just as they would the information on a nutrition label. We’re building trust by being completely upfront and transparent.

Here’s some additional context: The average carbon footprint of the typical American diet is 4.7 kg CO2e per person per day, and the entire Just Salad menu average is under 1 kg CO2e. G20 nations must reduce their diet-related emissions by half by 2050 if we are to feed 10 billion people within safe planetary boundaries. For these reasons, we embrace carbon transparency in the same way we embrace nutritional transparency. Naturally, we’re excited when other restaurant brands acknowledge the impact that our dietary choices have on climate change.

Naturally, there are big differences between your menu and Panera’s, and the carbon-footprint aspects of it. But you could say this about a lot of chains. Is the real challenge educating the industry so they can be transparent about climate change’s impact, and, in turn, educate the customer and allow them to see the comparison for themselves, on a broad scale?

That’s exactly right. The unit of measurement we use, kg CO2e, transcends industry. Our friends at Allbirds use the same metric for sneakers as we do for salads. We believe that “normalization” of this measure will start to take root once people are able to make a regular comparison. And that’s why we’ve labeled every item on our menu instead of using a badge. It’s a way for people to start to internalize and use the metric when they can make those comparisons and see it in their own choices.

We’re also using creative marketing tactics to give people a benchmark in understanding this new metric. The day that our Eat for the Earth campaign launched we changed the price of our Climatarian menu items to reflect their individual carbon footprints. For example, a salad with a carbon footprint of 0.41 kg CO2e cost $4.10. It was a great way to incentivize climate-smart choices and help people internalize this way of thinking at the same time.

What inspired Just Salad to take this step? Is it something customers were asking for?

According to a recent survey by the International Food Information Council, 67 percent of people are at least somewhat concerned about the impact of food production on climate change, and 34 percent are very concerned. The ask couldn’t be clearer.

But it’s certainly not the first step we’ve taken in running a sustainably minded business. We’ve undertaken climate-smart initiatives since the inception of our brand, starting with our signature Reusable Bowl program. It’s a part of our ethos, and we took on carbon labeling because there is an urgent need to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions drastically within the next decade, partly by shifting to plant-based diets. We’re motivated by the real impact we can make.

How is Just Salad sharing the climate story and food’s role in it with guests beyond just labeling on the menu?

In a number of ways. Our Eat for the Earth campaign used social media, email—even taxi tops!—to spur discussion about the significance of our carbon labels and Climatarian menu. The reactions, reshares and comments demonstrated to us that people have been waiting for restaurants to show this kind of leadership.


Carbon counts ????

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Food’s role in climate change also extends to packaging. We’ve taken a bold stance on that since our founding in 2006, when we introduced our now EPA-award-winning Reusable Bowl Program. The Reusable Bowl has diverted hundreds of thousands of pounds of single-use plastics from landfill and is now the restaurant industry’s largest reusable program.

And earlier this year, we also launched Sustainability Champions, a program that selects one employee at each of our locations to receive in-depth training issues so they can engage more deeply with fellow colleagues and guests about sustainability topics.

How do you see this evolving at Just Salad? What’s the next step?

We’re looking to partner with academic researchers on a controlled behavioral study that would quantify the effects of our carbon labels on purchasing decisions. It’s important to measure the impact of what we’re doing and subsequently adjust, iterate and innovate accordingly.

Is there a way to inspire other restaurant chains to take an interest in climate change and labeling? How do you advance that conversation?

Well it seems we already have! We celebrate the initiative that Panera is taking to bring awareness to the climate impact of food choices. So far the reaction to carbon labeling has been overwhelmingly positive, and we’re glad to see that other restaurant chains are starting to take notice.

We’re also regularly in talks with our partners about creating a “new sustainable normal.” Recently, we partnered with our third-party delivery partners on a plastic utensil opt-in program whose aim is to reduce plastic waste. Under the opt-in program, customers have to opt-in to receive utensils with their delivery order, and the app or online ordering channel defaults to include no utensils. This initiative has been especially meaningful because it involves a change within the larger restaurant ecosystem and consumer behavior at the same time.

Should restaurants take a more active role, in general, in issues facing our planet and socially?

Absolutely. We have to look ahead and take responsibility for the health of our planet because we are facing a climate crisis here and now. Now more than ever, consumers are looking to support brands that align with their values, and a large part of those values are centered on planetary stewardship.

The world’s food system is responsible for one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that humans generate each year, and we have a responsibility in the restaurant industry to lessen our impact and help customers do the same.

Why is this critical to Just Salad’s ethos?

Just Salad’s stated mission is to make everyday health and everyday sustainability possible. We focus on providing our guests with great food, while reducing our waste and carbon footprint. We refuse to see the two as mutually exclusive.

How has Just Salad’s Climatarian Menu been received so far?

Our Climatarian menu has been a huge win for Just Salad. Not only did our sales increase, but we also successfully encouraged our guests to try new menu options, make lower-impact choices, and begin to utilize carbon labeling in a real way. The week we launched our Eat for the Earth campaign we saw a 126 percent increase in week over week sales for our Climatarian options. But what’s more, this volume has remained high, and now we’re seeing that climate-smart menu options are quickly becoming some of our most popular.

Has COVID-19 conditions heightened customers’ desire to connect with brands that share their beliefs? How does this menu further Just Salad’s trust with guests? 

COVID has certainly impacted consumer attitudes. People are rethinking their habits and routines, and trust has become a core driver of our buying choices. That’s why we’ve chosen to be completely transparent with our carbon labels. It’s empowering, and people acknowledge and reward that trust.

Fast Casual, Story, Sustainability, Just Salad