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What is Restaurant Sustainability?

Last updated on 20th April 2023

The lack of sustainability in the restaurant industry is a pressing issue that more restaurants and food businesses are becoming aware of. Restaurants in the UK produce nearly 200,000 tonnes of food waste every year, costing the food industry a huge £682 million annually. The equivalent of 320 million meals is thrown away every year by restaurants in the UK, which is five times the population of the UK.

In fact, a third of all food produced worldwide is wasted. This food ends up in landfills and accounts for up to 10% of man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, food waste is just one aspect of sustainability.

Restaurants in the UK are becoming more aware of the importance of sustainability. When the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) began 11 years ago, it only partnered with 52 restaurants. The SRA now has more than 12,000 member restaurants across the UK.

In this article, we are going to look at what sustainability is, why it is important, and what steps restaurants can take to become more sustainable.

Chefs in a restaurant kitchen

What does sustainable mean?

Sustainability is something that can be maintained. It is actions, practices and processes that can be maintained at a certain level. In relation to the environment, sustainability is the processes and actions that help to maintain an ecological balance and avoid the depletion of natural resources.

Sustainable actions should meet our needs whilst also not compromising the capability of future generations to meet their needs.

These actions and processes should cause no harm, or less harm, to the natural world and should enable ecosystems to continue working effectively. Sustainable practices should be able to be maintained.

Sustainability has four main types, also known as the four pillars of sustainability.

1. Human Sustainability

This refers to maintaining and improving human capital in society. It aims to balance continual growth with the achievement of economic wellbeing and the wellbeing of communities and society. Investments should be made in health and education systems, access to services, nutrition, knowledge and skills.

2. Social Sustainability

This aims to preserve social capital and future generations. Social sustainability acknowledges that our actions impact others and the Earth. It focuses on the investment and creation of services and the maintenance and improvement of social quality. Sustainable development, particularly social and economic improvements that protect the environment and support equality, is the key focus of social sustainability.

3. Economic Sustainability

Economic sustainability aims to improve the standard of living and maintain capital intact. Economic growth should not cause harm to the environment. The focus should not solely be on the quantity of growth, but also on the quality.

4. Environmental Sustainability

This focuses on the protection of natural or environmental capital, such as land, air, water and natural minerals. The needs of the population should be met without compromising the risks to future generations and without causing any short-term or long-term harm to the environment.

Sustainable restaurants and food businesses should incorporate all four pillars of sustainability equally.

Restaurant sustainability buying locally sourced foods

What is restaurant sustainability?

Restaurant sustainability is when businesses in the food industry minimise their impact on the planet. Restaurants should operate in a way that protects, preserves or restores the natural environment. Sustainable practices should also enhance the lives of individuals and communities whilst still contributing to economic prosperity.

Contrary to what many people may think, restaurant sustainability does not simply apply to food waste.

To become a sustainable restaurant, food businesses must consider:

  • How is the food produced?
  • How is the food packaged?
  • How is the food distributed?
  • How is the food consumed?

As well as considering these factors there are several other things that restaurants can focus on to improve their sustainability:

  • Achieving resource efficiency – Currently, resources are consumed faster than they are being produced. This includes water and energy.
  • Using products that are not damaging to the environment.
  • Reducing waste production.
  • Improving recycling practices.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Why is sustainability important for restaurants?

Climate change, damaged ecosystems and the devastating effects that are being seen on the environment are pressing issues being discussed around the world. People are now more aware of how their actions are impacting the planet and what changes need to be made to prevent permanent damage to the environment.

Restaurants and other food businesses have an obligation to consider the impact their practices are having and to implement sustainable actions that can be maintained. As mentioned earlier, food waste accounts for 10% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and the majority of this waste comes from restaurants and other food businesses. This is just one of the reasons why achieving sustainability is so important for restaurants.

As people become more aware of sustainability, they are looking towards restaurants and other businesses to see what steps they are taking to protect planet Earth. A publicly sustainable restaurant is likely to be viewed more positively than a restaurant with bad practices.

As well as helping to save the planet, becoming more sustainable can also improve your business’s reputation, widen your customer base and improve your profits.

Restaurant sustainability planting own food

How can restaurants be more sustainable?

Sustainability in the food industry refers to a combination of different factors.

Some ways restaurants can become more sustainable include:

Consider how food and ingredients are produced

Restaurants should aim to only use food and ingredients that are produced as a result of sustainable farming practices. This aims to maintain or increase output whilst increasing the benefits to the environment. Sustainable farming meets the needs of the farm whilst also protecting the diversity of native plants and animals. Protecting biodiversity is paramount, as is protecting soil fertility for future farming.

Sustainable farms usually produce organic food with low carbon production. They also avoid using artificial fertilisers or pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Farms should also ensure that they protect the health and wellbeing of their livestock, treat the animals with care and respect and allow them to move freely. Some other ways that farms can increase their sustainability include planting varied crops, crop rotation, using natural predators to manage pests and ploughing their fields less frequently.

Consider how food and ingredients are packaged

Improving your food packaging can be a great way to improve your restaurant’s sustainability. Restaurants typically receive at least one delivery of food and ingredients every day. Using transit packaging that is returnable or re-usable can be a great way to improve the way your food is packaged. You can also request that products have a minimal amount of packaging and packaging that is recyclable.

Move towards zero waste

Not only can food waste have a detrimental impact on your business’s finances, but it also has a detrimental impact on the environment. Restaurants and other food businesses can develop a zero-waste management plan. To qualify as zero waste, restaurants must prevent at least 90% of their waste from being thrown away.

Some ways that restaurants and other food businesses can reduce the amount of waste they produce include:

  • Compost any food waste.
  • Recycle all waste correctly.
  • Conduct an audit of food waste to determine which foods are being regularly wasted.
  • Keep a waste management log.
  • Order perishable ingredients in smaller amounts to reduce the likelihood of spoilage.
  • Do not overprepare food.
  • Give customers the option to take leftover food home.
  • Store and label food and ingredients correctly.
  • Follow the First In/First Out – FIFO method – to reduce spoilage.
  • Donate any leftover food to homeless shelters or food banks.
  • Dispose of cooking oils, grease or fat correctly or look at ways to reuse it. Visit Cater Oils for more information.

Reduce your energy consumption

Restaurants should use an Energy Management System (EMS) that enables them to track and monitor energy use in real time. An EMS allows restaurants to identify any energy waste and implement policies, change behaviours and make upgrades that result in a reduction of energy use. Restaurants can also make energy efficiency upgrades and invest in renewable energy. Using energy-efficient lights, reducing heat usage and turning off equipment that is not being used are other ways to reduce energy consumption.

Reduce water waste

Reducing water waste has multiple benefits including saving money on the water bill, saving energy that is used to pump and heat the water and saving on the water treatment process. Restaurants can develop water management plans that help them to calculate their total water use and set achievable and effective water reduction strategies and targets.

Restaurants could employ water waste reduction strategies such as:

  • Installing low flow nozzles and fixtures.
  • Monitoring pipes and faucets for leaks.
  • Investing in eco-friendly dishwashers.
  • Only running the dishwasher when it is full.
  • Replacing boilers with closed system steamers.

Improve recycling practices

As well as the importance of managing food waste, restaurants also need to ensure they are recycling all other products to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and ending up in the ocean.

Some ways that restaurants can improve their recycling practices include:

  • Separate and recycle all materials correctly.
  • Put clearly labelled recycling bins in customer or public areas.
  • Ensure staff members are educated and invested in the recycling programme.
  • Place recycling bins in easily accessible areas of the kitchen.
  • Stop using polystyrene and other non-recyclable materials.
  • Refrain from using single-use items such as plastic cutlery and straws.
  • Buy products made of recycled materials.
  • Limit the number of individual condiments and sauces that are given to customers.

Reduce your carbon footprint

A restaurant’s carbon footprint is related to greenhouse gases. A restaurant’s electricity production, natural gas, embedded energy, employees’ commutes and cooking strategies can all result in greenhouse gas emissions. Restaurants cannot reduce their current carbon footprint until they understand the size of their current greenhouse gas emissions and what parts of their business are contributing to it.

There are several steps food businesses can take to reduce their carbon footprint. This includes using renewable energy systems, upgrading to more energy-efficient equipment, improving recycling practices, and using electrical or hybrid vehicles for deliveries.

Shop seasonally and buy locally

This helps to reduce food miles and reduces the environmental impact of your food – cutting down your carbon footprint. Food that is not bought locally usually travels thousands of miles, on different modes of transport. Local food is also usually hormone- and pesticide-free as it is fresher. It may also be organic.

Shopping seasonally also helps to encourage crop rotation and reduce the likelihood that you are purchasing food that needs to travel long distances because it is out of season in the UK. Offering a seasonal menu is a great way to become more sustainable.

Add vegetarian and vegan options to the menu

Livestock farming and fishing practices around the world are often unsustainable and are causing damage to the environment. Raising livestock and fishing can result in higher greenhouse emissions, deforestation, pollution of the oceans, and water contamination. Including more vegetarian and vegan options can reduce the amount of meat your business needs to buy, as well as attracting a new customer base.

Change your cleaning supplies

Using environmentally friendly cleaning supplies is recommended. This includes cleaning products, soaps, sanitisers and pest-control products. Restaurants should also use biodegradable bin bags and cloth towels and cloth napkins instead of paper ones.

The sustainable restaurant association

The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) provides restaurant owners with guidance on how to make their restaurants more sustainable. The SRA helps restaurants and other food businesses to work towards and achieve sustainability. It aims to make a positive change across the food sector. The SRA believes that restaurants and other food businesses can have a restorative impact on the planet.

The SRA created the largest food service sustainability programme in the world. Previously, both customers and restaurant owners were unclear on what makes a restaurant sustainable and how a restaurant can sustain good practices. The SRA created a framework that can help food businesses become more sustainable.

The framework is divided into three sections:

1. Environment.

2. Social.

3. Sourcing.

The SRA now rates restaurants based on this framework and awards them either one, two or three stars – based on their sustainable practices. Restaurants who are looking to be more sustainable can go to the Sustainable Restaurant Association for help and guidance.

Vegetarian and vegan options in the restaurant

What are the benefits of sustainability in restaurants?

There are many benefits to becoming a sustainable restaurant, including:

  • An increase in profits
    A survey conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme – WRAP found that when a restaurant invested £1 into reducing their food waste, they saved £7 on average in operating costs. This represents a 600% Return on Investment (ROI). Reducing food waste and becoming more sustainable can increase your profits.
  • You can save money
    By planning your menu better, preparing food more efficiently and throwing away fewer ingredients, you can save money. By spending less money on food that is thrown away, you are going to save money overall. You may also save money on labour costs. Improving kitchen operations, storing and labelling food correctly, and fine-tuning your menu will reduce the amount of time that your kitchen staff will have to spend on this work and will improve your overall productivity.
  • You can improve your reputation in the community and grow your customer base
    A restaurant that shows they care about their impact on the environment, and also tries to help their local community by donating food and meals, is likely to develop a positive reputation in the community. New customers may be more likely to visit your restaurant and you are also more likely to experience customer loyalty.
  • Improve your employee engagement
    Restaurants that include their employees in every step of their sustainable practices and processes are more likely to see increased engagement. Employees are more likely to remain working for a business that they are engaged with, feel loyalty towards and are committed to. This can improve their motivation at work and encourage staff retention.
  • Have a positive impact on the environment
    As we have seen today, sustainable practices in restaurants can have a significant positive impact on the environment. Reducing your greenhouse gas emissions can help to reduce your carbon footprint. Improving your recycling behaviour, reducing food waste and considering how your food is produced, transported and packaged can have a significant positive impact.
  • Improve awareness in your community
    Setting an example to other restaurants and food businesses of how to be a sustainable restaurant can help to raise awareness of the importance of implementing sustainable practices. Informing your customers of actions you are taking may also inspire them to improve their recycling habits or reduce their food waste.
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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.

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