Just how ‘sustainable’ are sustainable restaurants?

By Ben McMenamin

One of the core challenges in sustainability today is cooperation and cohesion. While there are a range of different people and organisations working on sustainability issues, they often work in isolation and do not communicate with each other well. This means that the actions people take might inadvertently undermine others, even when they hold the same values.

This is particularly the case when looking at sustainable restaurants. We know that restaurants can be a power for good, sustainable practice; innovating on food waste, educating consumers, engaging with local producers, championing seasonality. But at the same time, restaurants can contribute to the obesity epidemic, price themselves for only wealthy clientele, and have been called out for poor working conditions.

My name is Ben McMenamin, I’m a chef of 15 years’ experience, and I have recently completed an MSc in Food Policy at CITY, University of London. I have spent the last year researching sustainable restaurants, seeking to understand how they align with broader food policy goals, if industry and academia are operating coherently, or are in fact contradicting each other.

To do that, I used the ‘Sustainable Diets Framework’, a tool designed by food policy guru and Raymond Blanc’s Sustainability Hero, Tim Lang which outlines 40 goals that together make up a sustainable food system. This comprehensive framework covers a range of aspirational goals from quality, social values, environment, health, economy and governance. I then went on to survey 29 UK restaurants who have some kind of sustainability accreditation such as Food Made Good, using the sustainable diets framework to assess how restaurants valued each goal, and how well each goal was being implemented in their restaurants. The survey results can be seen in the graph below.

The graph shows the 40 goals of the Sustainable Diets Framework, broken into the 6 main categories. The blue colour represents the ‘importance’ score from the survey, or how important each restaurant considered the goal, and the orange colour represents the ‘indicator’ score from the survey, or how well each goal was being implemented in participants’ restaurants. There was a total of 116 points available for both indicator and importance questions, so the higher the score the more important and well implemented each goal was considered to be. Scores that were positive were considered to support sustainable diet goals, and scores that are in the negative were considered to undermine sustainable diet goals. 

The results revealed that while many areas of sustainable diets were being addressed in restaurants, there is a significant gap between values and actions; restaurants found many sustainable goals important but were not necessarily implementing them in their venues. Research shows that sustainability was largely led by inspired managers – people who personally value sustainability – and even these changemakers had found it hard to make sustainable choices in their restaurants. This gap between intention and behaviour could be due to a lack of time, sustainability expertise or financial incentives available to balance out the additional costs.

Similarly, the research showed that the way that sustainability is defined and understood varies a lot between restaurants and academia. While restaurants regularly consider taste, seasonality and freshness, they do not consider equity, education or affordability within the scope of their work, even though these are essential parts of what makes up a sustainable diet. This is not surprising considering only 37% of British universities delivering hospitality programmes teach sustainability as a stand-alone module, and lack coordination between cooking and sustainability in the curriculum.

The study also looked at restaurant accreditation schemes around the world to see how well they aligned with the goals of sustainable diets. Not surprisingly, the Food Made Good scheme scored very well and addressed nearly two-thirds of the goals outlined in the framework. Accreditation schemes from the US and Australia scored far less well, addressing less than 10 out of 40 goals, highlighting the valuable resources that Food Made Good and the Sustainable Restaurant Association bring to the UK hospitality industry. There are lots of ways in which sustainable restaurants and food policy are currently working together for mutual benefit, but there are also opportunities to reduce conflicts and create greater cooperation. The research demonstrates that food policy experts could help support sustainability in restaurants by subsiding sustainability training to hospitality managers, offering educational materials and advice, incentivising restaurants to serve healthier food, and creating centralised recycling facilities that promote circular economies. Likewise, if sustainable restaurants better understood some of the big picture food policy goals, they could better align their restaurant activities for the mutual benefit of UK consumers, businesses and governments.

You can read the full report here.

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