The National Theatre is one of the UK’s most iconic theatres. Its three restaurants, three cafes, a craft beer pub, performance bars for our audiences and summer pop ups, generate more than £10m a year, employ 300 staff and cater for 1.5m visitors. As a publicly-funded organisation it also has a responsibility to meet high standards of sustainability. With these in mind as well as an acute awareness of the practical challenges facing an operation such as theirs, the National Theatre’s Commercial Director Robyn Lines and Director of Catering George Cardwell, contacted the SRA for help in meeting their goals.
Why did you get in touch with the SRA to pick up the sustainability conversation?
George: Over the past four years we have expanded the Food& Beverage operation a lot at the National Theatre. All our outlets have a different offering and that involves a complex set of procurement issues with a large number of different suppliers. We wanted to get an understanding of where we were from a sustainability point of view, so we could then start to make positive purchasing decisions on the basis of sound information from an authoritative third party.
Robyn: From an organisational perspective, as we receive public funding from the Arts Council and they prescribe sustainability targets, we had to reinvigorate our approach across the whole organisation and F&B was one of the key areas for us.
How did you set about achieving those goals and who was involved in the process?
George: We agreed with Ylva Johannesson at the SRA that the best approach would be for us to engage a wide range of employees from all levels, front and back of house, across the outlets in general workshops related to sourcing. It was really important to reach a large number of staff, engaging them in the process of where we were with our procurement and getting their buy-in as we identified the big strides we could make as well as the small steps that would help us to be more sustainable.
George: As well as wanting to gain a better understanding of our food procurement generally, there were some key areas I wanted the workshops to focus on to help us as a whole team really comprehend what we were doing and what we could improve upon. Fish sustainability was one of these key areas. I wanted the chefs to get to grips with all the different factors, so not just species, but catch areas, catch method etc. This was something of an eye-opener for a number of people. We had a similar experience when it came to meat and animal welfare issues.
Robyn: It became clear that a number of staff have a genuine personal commitment on some of the key issues. Involving them in the decision-making process really helped to embed the changes we were looking to make and was much more effective than a small group of managers sitting in a room making decisions.
Were the workshops a winner?
Robyn: The quality of the SRA team’s preparation for each of the workshops as well as the leadership in the sessions was very impressive, more rigorous and less greenwashy than I had expected. From beginning to end, people were really engaged. This was helped by splitting people into groups to focus on different areas and then sharing out the actions that came out of the sessions. That really helped give people a personal stake in the process. Ylva and the SRA team were pragmatic and understood that not all initiatives would be appropriate for our type of business, but nevertheless steered us towards making positive changes that would work for us and help move us forward as an organisation.
George: For some of the chefs it really was an eye-opener. They realised that if they had just been paying lip service to sustainability and they were now going to have to work hard on what they buy and how they shape their menus. They could see we were serious about this. The workshops really helped them see that as well as designing dishes that are tasty and affordable, from an organisational point of view we now expected them to make responsible choices in their menu planning too.
What inspired you to extend the focus to disposable packaging?
Robyn: As part of the relaunch of NT’s environmental policy we committed to a 70% recycling rate by 2020. That is a challenge for us as we not only have to ensure we act responsibly but that our customers do too. Add to that, our customers aren’t allowed to take glasses or glass bottles into the auditoriums.
Was the packaging workshop rubbish or something you’d reuse?
Robyn: Some of the content of the packaging workshop was a bit idealistic – too challenging and unrealistic for a business like ours. We have complete control over our sourcing, whereas we’re not in the same position when it comes to plastic and packaging. What the workshop did help us do was identify those things we can control and which we can change for the better.
As a result of the work we’ve done with the SRA on packaging we’ve implemented a number of new initiatives and targets. These include:
- A major push to increase recycling, through staff and consumer comms during Recycle Week
- Introducing a 30p discount on coffee ordered in a reusable cup and offering all staff an NT branded reusable cup at cost price.
- Installing new clearly labelled two stream bins front of house.
- Switching from plastic to wooden cutlery.
What practical impact has your work with the SRA had on the business?
Robyn: The impact has been felt in every aspect of what we do, that’s from the organisation’s head of environmental responsibility who came and witnessed how we were implementing their plans at an operational level, to all of the 1,000 staff who we feed on a daily basis, as well of course as our customers. As an example we have managed to remove plastic bottles from the staff canteen, offered staff £3 reusable bottles and saved 7,000 bottles in the process.
George: We now as a team have much better idea of where we are, where we want to get to and how we are going to get there. It’s not about overnight change as much as a cultural shift, changing our own behaviours. A concrete example of that is the chef taking on board new considerations when planning their menus and buying ingredients.
All of our milk is now organic, we have removed all fish rated 3-5 by the Marine Conservation Society, and all of our meat is sourced and produced in the UK. These are just some of the positive changes we’ve implemented.
Robyn: The whole process has been very productive. The SRA have not only helped us understand our own practices, but also formulate solutions – it has been money well spent.
What happens next?
George: We are in the process of answering the SRA Sustainability Rating questions to help in that process of establishing where we are. In 2019 we will complete a rating for real.