The New Three R’s
Most operators don’t have the experience or training necessary to decipher every environmental claim on the market, so it is safer to not assume anything when it comes to claims of sustainability. Researching a product before purchase time is key.
Resources such as the National Restaurant Association’s conserve.restaurant.org and the education section of the GRA Web site can provide background knowledge about common green claims, but further research is often necessary.
“Any time there’s an environmental claim on a product that you’re thinking about purchasing, you need to ask for proof,” Georgia-Pacific’s Pounder says. “You ought to be asking, ‘How did you come to that conclusion? Did you run tests? Do you have any certifications?’”
All of the above information should be available online or directly from the supplier upon request.
“If someone can’t support the claim with data or test results, then you ought to be skeptical,” Pounder says.
For restaurants that are unwilling or unable to do the necessary research on their own, Holly Elmore, founder of the Green Foodservice Alliance, recommends approaching other operators who have already made steps toward greater sustainability.
“Look in your community and see who has taken the time to take the lead,” she says. “Go to that person and ask them, restaurateur to restaurateur, which products they use. I would be shocked if that person didn’t share the information.”
Certifications also can be helpful tools in determining whether a product lives up to its claims, so long as operators have verified that the certification is a credible one. Some seals require only payment and a vague promise to try to uphold green standards while others use unreliable methods of assessment, such as self-evaluations.
In TerraChoice’s 2009 report on greenwashing, 23 percent of the products examined committed what the report dubbed “the Sin of Worshipping False Labels.”
“At some point in the future, there might be federal legislation to help consumers,” Case says. “Right now it’s every restaurant owner for himself.”
He recommends verifying what standards must be met for certification, who develops those standards, and who determines whether or not they were met.
“If you ask those key questions, you will quickly discover there are some products that make an environmental claim without referring to any standard at all,” Case says.
In some cases, a product meets green standards that the manufacturer created for itself. This leads to a conflict of interest.
“There’s this temptation to exaggerate,” Case says. “What you’re looking for are really tough standards that were developed in an open, transparent process and that an individual third party has reviewed to determine they meet those standards.”
Once you’ve made the switch to something that genuinely is environmentally friendly, make sure you do your part to ensure the product reaps its environmental benefits.
“Compostable products have to go to compost facilities; same thing with recycling,” Pounder says. “There are a lot of products out there that are recyclable, but if you don’t have curbside pickup, if you don’t have a recycling center where you can take those products, they’ll end up in a landfill.”
And if eco-friendly items end up in a landfill, they’re just as bad for the environment as the ones you replaced them with.
The Opposite of Greenwashing
The dangers of greenwashing don’t end after operators make decisions that are, in fact, sustainable. If, when, and how brands market those decisions also plays a key role in maintaining a good reputation.
Take Starbucks, for example. The company knows that environmental issues are important to its customers, so it conducts research to find out exactly what they are most interested in.
“We know our biggest environmental impacts are related to the energy used in our stores, but many of our customers care more about our paper cups and in-store recycling,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in an e-mail. “In this case, we have made communicating about our cups and our recycling efforts a priority because they are important to our customers, while also continuing to communicate our progress to make all our new company-owned stores LEED-certified. If we don’t do this, the other great work we are doing to address our bigger impacts will not be heard.”
Since 2001, Starbucks has issued a Global Responsibility Annual Report to communicate clearly to customers the company’s environmental performance.
“The report is intended to provide transparency on issues that are important to Starbucks and our stakeholders,” the spokesperson said.
The GRA’s Oshman says that kind of openness is the best strategy to avoid misleading customers.
“Transparency is the opposite of what you see in greenwashing,” he says.
“If you are going to make a public environmental claim, provide public truth to back up that claim,” Case says.
When drafting public environmental claims, double-check that the language you’re using accurately describes the strides the brand took. Use specific terms with precise meanings, and don’t overgeneralize.