In a fossil fuel economy, every material action has embedded CO2 emissions. Whether purchasing food from a grocery store and loading the items into your car, or sending a basic email (a minor energy load for individuals, but impactful at scale!), pollution accompanies modern activities like a faint shadow. This makes greening restaurants—with their infinite variables, inputs, and outputs—extremely difficult. To lower their carbon impacts, a restaurant owner must consider how they source their energy, the efficiency of their appliances, the materials with which they furnish their interiors, and the ethics of their supply chains. A holistic definition extends beyond these numeric vectors to incorporate issues like worker treatment, community impacts, and animal ethics. Carbon emissions impact every business venture, local or multinational, and this makes greening the private enterprise incredibly complex. But over the past few decades, a burgeoning network of green associations has been gathering low-carbon expertise. The Green Restaurant Association, which provides qualifying restaurants a Green Certification badge, is an international organization expediting the path to a sustainable private sector.
The Green Restaurant Association has built meaningful infrastructure to undergird an ethical restaurant industry. A non-profit operating since 1990, the GRA has pioneered a Green Certification Standard, by which the ecological impacts of a restaurant’s daily operation are measured on a numerical scale and points allocated when low-carbon techniques replace energy-intensive practices.
The Green Certification Standard is broken into eight distinct categories: Water Efficiency, Waste Reduction and Recycling, Sustainable Durable Goods and Building Materials, Sustainable Food, Energy, Reusables and Environmentally Preferable Disposables, Chemical and Pollution Reduction, and Transparency and Education. Under the Energy category, for example, a restaurant gains 3.75 points for using an Energy Star Furnace, or a meaningful 10 points for spurning AC or heating throughout the entire restaurant. Points are tallied across all eight categories, and restaurants receive a star rating to reflect their overall sustainable ethics, the highest designation being a 4 Star Certified Green Restaurant®.
The GRA’s system for ethical businesses extends beyond inward-facing tallies of material usage and energy efficiency. Baked into their practice is a theory of how consumer knowledge and transparency percolate through public consciousness and become competitive advantages. Beyond raw inputs and outputs, the GRA has incorporated a marketing strategy that draws local media attention and deepens a restaurant’s social media presence, renewing their public façade. Restaurants gain points for transparency (including both their ethical successes and shortcomings), and for advertising their Certified Green Restaurant® status in-store and online. The GRA’s system reveals that public awareness is key to accelerating the adoption of sustainable business practices.
I was curious about the public-facing nature of GRA’s certification and reached out to the company’s CEO, Michael Oshman, for a brief conversation over the phone. Oshman is a passionate ambassador for the sustainable restaurant industry, and was direct and forthright in his responses. When I asked whether the Certified Green Restaurant® status produced material benefits for restaurants, Oshman argued that sustainability has become a key organizing principle behind contemporary consumer activity. Ethical consumption is now a prime motivator behind many shopper’s buying habits, competing with the pillars of price and convenience. Of course, a Green Certification may not save a struggling business, or elevate a restaurant when its competitors offer better food, but it is a valuable dividend for drawing a burgeoning crowd of ethical consumers. Oshman directed me to a series of client testimonials displayed on dinegreen.com, GRA’s website. The Windows Catering Company, for example, claims to have accrued over $100,000 in a three-month period thanks to their public-facing sustainability efforts. These verified experiences help erode the idea that greening one’s business means lowering their profit margins.
GRA’s system feels poised against the practice of “greenwashing,” by which restaurants make unsubstantiated claims about their ecological footprints to gain media clout. In Chicago, I’ve witnessed a few restaurants advertise their own carbon neutrality. This claim is—from my basic understanding of localized carbon emissions—almost impossible to verify, unless the business owner somehow gathered direct measurements of their CO2 output (keep in mind that even governmental bodies like the EU struggle to gather accurate carbon data). Oshman framed this issue around the ethical disjuncture between substantiated and un-substantiated claims. A substantiated claim refers to a climate action with obvious and well-studied benefits. If a restaurant replaces their incandescent bulbs with LEDs, they will lower their energy consumption; as a society, we no longer require independent verification of the efficiency gains of LED lighting. But, to claim that a restaurant is “net-zero” requires considering all the immeasurable impacts of a business’s daily operation. If one customer takes a compostable container home and places their waste in a recycling bin (compost should not be recycled, a mistake I have made in the past), there is a causal string connecting land-fill carbon emissions to a supposedly “net-zero” restaurant. Only if every impact is measured in a complex web of energy and materials can a restaurant accurately deem themselves carbon neutral. Therefore, focusing on meaningful changes at the source—such as installing solar panels, or improving insulation—is a more honest approach to sustainability. This is why GRA’s green certification allots points for specific ecological improvements, rather than allowing flashy blanket claims.
Once my conversation with Oshman ended, I considered the role of private non-profits within the sustainable restaurant industry. GRA’s detailed certification process and industry-leading data provide an unparalleled service for business owners concerned about the climate crisis. My only remaining question is what kind of restaurant industry we envision for our collective future: a place where the fundamental power structures that define service work are left intact, or a space in which we seed a deeper reform of our food system. This could imply things like returning power to workers, rethinking global supply chains to prioritize local food sourcing, or addressing food deserts and subsidies that aid conglomerates like McDonald’s. As we anticipate these deeper shifts, organizations like the Green Restaurant Association are our best stop-gap to fundamental change.
At Green World Alliance, we’re gathering expertise on food manufacturers, restaurants, and the sustainable manufacturing industry. To read about food waste, follow this link, and you can learn about Chicago’s urban farms here. The Green Restaurant Association has a vibrant online presence, and can be discovered at dinegreen.com.