Green Certifications and Branding – What Can Restaurants Cook Up

No one is arguing the fact that going green and employing sustainable practices in restaurant operations benefits the environment.  For that matter, owners are even aware of the benefits to the pocket book that environmentally friendly practices can deliver.  So, in the hospitality industry taking that to the next level i.e. connecting the branding power of sustainable practice to increased client traffic should be natural.  As a result restaurant owners start going green in droves, and certification bodies attest to it, giving customers a choice as to where they take their dine-out dollars.  And everyone (restaurant owners, and customers) should be happy with the results right? WRONG!

A little while ago USA Today had an interesting article on restaurants and going green.  Statistics abounded in this piece.  Restaurants consume about 5 times more energy on a per square foot basis when compared to other commercial establishments.  Nearly 80% of the $10 billion dollars of energy consumed in the commercial food segment is lost to inefficiencies in cooking and storing.  Recall our blog on ‘it takes 10 calories to create 1 calorie of end product consumed in a restaurant’.  The numbers seem to be adding up so far.  One PG&E estimate pegs the average restaurant as using 500,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, 20,000 therms of natural gas and 800,000 gallons of water annually.  Another way of looking at it comes from the PG&E study ‘Boosting Restaurant Profits With Energy Efficiency’ which really put it in perspective for me.  Consider this – powering a typical electrical, open, deep fat fryer takes about 11,000 kWH per year.  Now that same energy can power the average California home (granted these are not McMansion sizes) for two years.  Or consider this – that same power the fryer uses can power six energy efficient 13W lamps for five hours a day for the next 77 hours.  That is a lot of energy!

So, now that we have established how waste occurs in a restaurant can we do something abut it?  Sure!  For example a restaurant can cut down on water consumption by using low flow or slow flow valves for pre-rinse purposes.  Or, according to the EPA replacing a standard urinal with a waterless urinal can save them about 40,000 gallons a year.  So, next I looked up water rates in the city of LA.  Depending on whether your restaurant falls into the first tier or the second tier category you end up paying roughly $0.005 to $0.007 per gallon.  In essence 40,000 gallons saved a year maps to about $200 to $300 per year .  Now that in of itself may not seem to be much.  But lets say you have four urinals in your establishment.  All of a sudden you are looking to save close to $1,000 or shall we say you wont be flushing $1000 down the toilet in an average year (you might save more if you serve extra chilled drinks!).  Now if you are like me you may wonder what the average life of a urinal is. Lets say its about 10 years if you take care of maintaining your plumbing.  So, now your efforts at conservation pay off in many ways.  You save water a precious resource, your bills go down and you save money, and guess what, you get bragging rights.  While there are many other ways to make a restaurant sustainable in a profitable way, I want to next focus on the last leg of this article – branding and bragging about sustainability.

Does a restaurant’s sustainable behavior give it branding leverage that is measurable?  If I were looking at a choice of restaurants to dine at on a given night, along with the quality of food, the service, and the ambience, the eco-friendliness measure of the establishment would play a big role in my selection.  Turns out I am not alone in my thinking.  Study after study seems to suggest that eco-friendliness can make for a very positive and reinforcing entrapment as far as restaurant patrons are concerned.   This ScienceDaily  article suggests that diners may be willing to pay more to eat at ‘Green’ restaurants.  In a study that was conducted by Ohio State University researcher  Jay Kundampully, that appeared in the Journal of Tourism and Hospitality fully 85% of the respondents (sample size 455) said they would be willing pay anywhere from 10 to 20% more to be able to dine at green restaurants.  Close to 3/4 of the respondents had a positive association of restaurants that adopted sustainability measures.  So wait a minute.  You save money by going green. But you also attract more patrons, who are also willing to pay a premium to dine at your fine establishment!  Wow!

So, whats wrong with this picture?  Restaurants go the sustainable route, save money in the process, brand themselves as green and make customers happy right? WRONG!  Turns out while there are a plethora of bodies claiming to certify a restaurant as green there are no set, standard ways in which these self proclaimed certifiers operate.  Research shows that consumers are becoming skeptical of environmentally friendly claims that establishments are making.  According to new research from EnviroMedia Social Marketing, 65 percent of Americans would prefer just one seal for green products over the hundreds now that are causing confusion amongst consumers.  Further, according to EnviroMedia, today there are more than 350 labels or seals of approval for being green – information overload to the extreme if you ask me. In fact Green Washing Index an innovative site lets users rate the environmental qualities of a company or a product thus making businesses accountable while educating consumers.  When it comes to restaurants dubious mechanisms of recognizing them as being green have been written about in quite some detail.  Sustainablog carried an article not too long ago claiming to expose just such a thing.  In their investigation they were able to create a fictitious restaurant and get it necessary recognition as well as seemingly bonafide marketing collateral in minutes without incorporating a single sustainability action, or purchase!

In closing, what we probably need is maybe an Underwriters Laboratory equivalent for green certification.  A uniform standards based approach to certifying businesses and products as green. Else you may spend your hard earned dollar at the corner restaurant that claims to be green while it dumps oil and grease down the drain.  Beware of those certifications, and be willing to question them! Bon Appetit for now…

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