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When Arianne Bennett opened the Amsterdam Falafelshop in Washington, D.C., in 2004, she had some ambitious sustainability aims: green products, solar power, composting, community dumpsters. She had a vision of creating her own eco-friendly utopia in a world only then beginning to ride the sustainability wave, an adventure then entwined with environmental stewardship.
“We wanted to be as lean as possible … and we were careful about everything from the packaging we chose to the number of napkins we distributed,” Bennett says.
For many operators in the early years of the 21st century, sustainable and green were synonymous terms. Brown napkins, recycling bins, and LED light bulbs afforded restaurants an opportunity to hop on the sustainability bandwagon and tout their position as a better-for-the-planet enterprise.
That was then.
Sustainability today isn’t quite so simple. While still embracing environmental consciousness, quick-service operators’ idea of sustainability has come to incorporate new industry touchpoints, such as food safety, employee relations, animal welfare, product sourcing, and community involvement. Sustainability has transformed itself into a term more encompassing, more dynamic, and more complex than most could have ever imagined and now weaves its way throughout the restaurant operation. It applies to responsible decision-making throughout the organization and places principles and profits side by side.
“We’re finding an increased level of sophistication when it comes to how people think of sustainability and a definite broadening of the term’s definition,” says Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a six-year-old, Missouri-based organization dedicated to building trust in the food system.
Call it Sustainability 2.0. Quick serves today are investing in the future of sustainability by improving society, the food system, and the earth all at once.
“Sustainability is now a more holistic approach to the entire business, and it covers everything from the ovens in your kitchen to the employees on the floor and the origin of your food,” says Vaughan Lazar, founder and CEO of Pizza Fusion, a Florida-based concept with 15 units across the U.S. Pizza Fusion has incorporated several sustainable practices, including offsetting its energy usage with the purchase of renewable wind energy certificates, using eco-friendly and post-consumer recycled paper and packaging products, and building its restaurants according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.
With concerns over climate change, food costs, energy prices, nutrition, and other social issues mounting, quick-service restaurants of all shapes and sizes are facing steady pressure to run socially sound operations. McDonald’s recently began touting sustainability efforts such as Rainforest Alliance–certified espresso and fish sandwiches with a certification label from the Marine Stewardship Council. It’s been an effort to heighten brand trust and loyalty, McDonald’s leaders have acknowledged, but also a response to rising consumer expectations for sustainable options.
Heightened customer interest hasn’t been the only thing pushing Sustainability 2.0. Corporate philosophies are evolving, and potential cost savings, particularly during the recession, compelled many quick-service leaders to look at the impact of their business decisions both inside and beyond a restaurant’s four walls.
By and large, restaurant leaders realized the hard and soft benefits of adopting sustainability’s expanding tenets.
With more energy efficient equipment, operators discovered, they could reduce their utilities as well as their carbon footprint. With an increased focus on employee welfare, they could better retain top talent and avoid the expenses associated with turnover. And with an enhanced focus on local sourcing, they could tap into the rising industry trend for local fare while simultaneously supporting regional farmers.
“I think a lot of restaurant leaders have become more mindful of our constituents and recognize that everybody along the line has to win,” says Rob Israel, CEO of Doc Popcorn, a snack concept with nearly 100 U.S. stores. “Now people are throwing a rock into the sustainable pond and not just looking at the immediate ripple, but looking across the entire lake to see the full impact of their decisions.”
Sandwich giant Subway formally added Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which includes sustainability, to its company plan in 2007. The vision was to make Subway restaurants as environmentally and socially responsible as possible, says Elizabeth Stewart, who oversees the chain’s CSR initiatives.
Subway’s efforts today address older sustainability issues such as energy efficiency and waste reduction, but also embrace the swelling Sustainability 2.0 definition by tackling areas such as supply chain management, food safety, nutrition, and personnel development.
“We’re still peeling back the onion,” Stewart says. “We believe our guests give us license to operate, but that they want transparency with that.”
Indeed, sustainability’s metamorphosis in both terminology and reality is far from over, particularly as issues such as water availability and obesity’s impact on the healthcare system climb in the national consciousness. In other words, today’s Sustainability 2.0 can quickly become tomorrow’s Sustainability 3.0.
“The expectation here is that the restaurant industry will contribute in some meaningful way to finding solutions,”
To be sure, sustainability’s continued evolution brings some significant challenges for restaurant operators, so many of whom remain stuck in pursuit of eco-friendly changes in the Sustainability 1.0 world. The first and arguably most important challenge, experts say, is making sustainable decisions that are economically viable for the business, backed by credible science, and rooted in shared values such as fairness, compassion, honesty, and respect.
“If these practices don’t make business sense, then you can’t sustain them,” Arnot says.
For instance, when Israel founded Doc Popcorn in 2003, the Colorado-based brand put its devotion to the planet front and center, even to the point of using a costly compostable bag to hold the store’s signature popcorn products.
While the compostable bag proved to be a roving billboard for Doc Popcorn in its earliest mall locations, the packaging weakened margins for the chain’s franchisees and wasn’t completely understood by the concept’s customers.
“Without composting readily available, our bags were just heading to the landfills anyway,” Israel says.
Doc Popcorn responded by replacing the compostable bag with a more cost-effective recycled paper bag. While it wasn’t the pinnacle of environmental sustainability, the recyled paper bag still boasted an eco-friendly vibe and, more importantly, helped the upstart brand’s franchise partners achieve greater profitability.
Arnot says operators wishing to embrace sustainable practices should employ a pragmatic and realistic analysis to any endeavor. He says all operators must have an understanding of what they are doing and why, as well as of the financial realities and consequences of their decisions.
“Everything has to be done in the context of the economic environment,” Arnot says.
Costs, as Israel discovered, can temper restaurants’ sustainability aims—not only in what stores must invest, but also what consumers will tolerate. The truth is that nearly all consumers have a price breaking point that will send them elsewhere for a meal, regardless of the values they share with a business.
“As businesses, we have to survive. We can’t let the drive for sustainability pull down our restaurants,” Amsterdam Falafelshop’s Bennett says.