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The National Restaurant Association: Green or Greenwash?

| Monday May 17th, 2010 | 5 Comments

How is it that an imaginary restaurant called “Green Wallace Wash” can get a Greener Restaurant certificate from the National Restaurant Association? Read on…

This story comes to Triple Pundit exclusively from TheGreenWashingBlog.com series “A Greener Shade of Greenwash”

Triple Pundit readers are sophisticated in matters of sustainability and the now overused term “green.” To a certain degree, that sophistication has “trickled down” to the great unwashed masses of consumers. There is greater awareness concerning problems of sustainability and the increasing vulnerability of environmental resources.

We all know that marketing to people’s fears, concerns, and desires is how business is done. There is no inherent ethical dilemma in this; it is an intrinsic aspect of human interaction. But problems arise when this process is manipulated through deception or false claims. This can mislead sincere businesses and consumers interested in sustainability, it can also provide a tool for the unscrupulous who are looking to use “green” as nothing more than a marketing ploy.

When green turns into greenwash

As publisher of TheGreenWashingBlog, I was contacted a few weeks ago from an anonymous person seeking contact about an issue of concern developing in an industry of which he (or she) is a part. We’ll call him (or her) Greenwash for our purposes here. It was all very mysterious, and I wanted to know more.

When we made contact, Greenwash told me of a program started by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) called Greener Restaurant, part of the NRA’s Conserve intuitive. Conserve is essentially a high-end multimedia website, presenting a well-crafted and entirely accurate message advocating the advantages of adopting sustainability best practices. Advantages for both the traditional bottom line as well as a good citizen in the community and the planted. If not explicitly named, the idea of the triple bottom line is the message. Nothing wrong with that.

But after we spoke several times on the phone, exchanged numerous emails, and I learned more of the Greener Restaurant program, I agreed to tell the story and show how the NRA is engaging in a particularly insidious from of Greenwash, misleading both businesses and consumers.

And show we did, I believe. Videos clearly show “Green Wallace Wash” — an imaginary restaurant — sign onto the Greener Restaurant program’s website, after paying an annual $250 membership fee, make a few selections on the online form, and produce not one, but three separate Greener Restaurant certificates, each verifying membership in the National Restaurant Association’s Greener Restaurant program and claiming from one to dozens of environmental and sustainability best practices claims. All for a restaurant that doesn’t even exist.

In the original series on The GreenwashingBlog I also discuss the Conserve Solutions Center, a pavilion planned for the exhibit floor at the upcoming National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago on May 22-25. The Conserve Solution Center stated purpose is for “restaurateurs looking for ways to ramp up environmental efforts and find greener business solutions” to “find the information, products, services, and contacts they need…”

When one prospective exhibitor (actually my source, Greenwash) presented four items for display as “green business solutions,” an NRA representative said the products were a “great fit” for the Conserve Solutions Center. The most innocuous of the four products presented for consideration was a Styrofoam cup. One proposal was a cleaning product made from 100% Chlorine and Ethyl Cellusolve – which is considered a hazardous chemical in California.

Green is as green does

Following here is a portion of the four-part series on TheGreenWashingBlog showing the entire online process of Green Wallace Wash obtaining the Greener Restaurant certificates from the National Restaurant Association. To paraphrase Bubba Gump, green is as green does…

Scenario 1: One step (30 seconds to an NRA certified Greener Restaurant)

The following video shows Green Wallace Wash logging in, then choosing an option indicating the restaurant is creating a “green marketing plan.” Within seconds a certificate is available for downloaded on their computer. With that certificate also comes additional marketing materials, such as a handy decal to display on your front door (if you have one), and a listing in the NRA’s “Green Dining Finder.”


Scenario 2: Upping the ante – claiming assessment of energy and water use (90 seconds to a Greener Restaurant)

This video shows Green Wallace Wash taking the story a bit further. Five items are clicked, claiming that local utilities have done an assessment of energy and water use. Remember, this restaurant isn’t real. There is no requirement to verify that such assessments from the utilities were actually done. It took 90 seconds in this case to get a Greener Restaurants certificate from the National Restaurant Association.


Scenario 3: Going all out – taking every step possible (5 minutes to a Greener Restaurant)

Nothing is spared in our third example. Green Wallace Wash is the greenest restaurant possible in the eyes of the National Restaurant Association. In this video, every option is checked: 40 items for Energy Efficiency, 11 for Water Conservation, 18 in Waste Reduction, 10 in Building/Construction, and 11 for Program Administration. Whew! That was exhausting. Five whole minutes to certification – and not one of the 90 items checked are verified, accomplished, or even planned for our imaginary restaurant.

As we plainly see in these three examples, all that is required for endorsement by the National Restaurant’s Greener Restaurant program is payment of a fee and basic computer skills. And with such endorsement comes an assurance from the NRA that a restaurant is planning, pursuing, and implementing sustainability best practices. In fact, it doesn’t even require an actual restaurant. Nonetheless, we see how easy it is to get an instantly downloadable certificate, a listing on the NRA’s “Green Dining Finder,” and other marketing materials, including use of the Greener Restaurant logo on a decal to put on your door informing your eco-minded customers just how green you are — even if you aren’t.

And what if you really are a restaurant owner, interested in actually doing what you — and the NRA — say you’re doing? Good for you. You are doing the right thing.

The problem is that not every owner is as honest as you are, unfortunately making the Greener Restaurant certificate from the NRA all but meaningless.

Recognition vs. certification

By calling Greener Restaurants a “recognition program,” the National Restaurant Association seeks to shift responsibility for benchmarking and verification, while at the same time claiming to retain the authenticity and legitimacy that comes with an honest and transparent green practices program. How can this be?

When pressed on the issue of verification, NRA spokesman Chris Moyer said in telephone conversation that the “push-back” from some complaining there are no benchmarking and verification requirements is answered by the expectation that such methods will be employed “every day by the customer.”

My guess is that many or most of the steps in the Greener Restaurants program are out of sight of average customers, who would have neither the knowledge nor the tools to understand if best practices were used or not, even if they did have access.

The customer relies on the very sort of endorsement that is both explicit and implicit in an official looking decal pasted on a restaurant’s front door confirming the establishment is a member in good standing of a major trade organization’s green restaurant program.

The NRA can’t have it both ways, “recognition” in this context should minimally imply endorsement, sanction, certification. Some assurance that the statements and claims made are verifiable and real.

At best the argument of recognition vs. certification from Moyer and the NRA is naive, at worst disingenuous and detrimental to the very cause it professes to support.

There are trusting people among us, some own restaurants and some patronize them. You might be one of those people. Once trust is violated, trusting people can become a bit less trusting. Greenwash is eventually exposed for what it is. So when the next green program comes along, no matter how worthy, it is seen as suspect. You’ve been burned before. “It’s all just greenwash.” The result is real change, a transition to real sustainability, becomes that much more difficult.

I don’t think the National Restaurant Association is being naive.


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  • mcoc

    these green eateries may be green by name only…

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  • Dave Shires

    Sheesh. That's kind of hilarious. But – do you think this is just an oversight? I mean, do you think there's ill will at work here? Are they really trying to fool people, or are they just doing an amateur job of checks and balances?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Schueneman/1165550193 Thomas Schueneman

    Hi Dave. No, I don't think this is an oversight, nor an amateur job of checks and balances, since there are no checks and balances at all. When you go methodically through the evidence provided by “Greenwash” it really becomes evident that the NRA isn't even trying.
    Now, they will say (have said in some responses to some media outlets in Chicago that have picked up my original story) that this is a pilot project and they are making a “good faith” effort. Again, a look at the evidence casts such a “good faith effort” into doubt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thomas-Schueneman/1165550193 Thomas Schueneman

    Hi Dave. No, I don't think this is an oversight, nor an amateur job of checks and balances, since there are no checks and balances at all. When you go methodically through the evidence provided by “Greenwash” it really becomes evident that the NRA isn't even trying.
    Now, they will say (have said in some responses to some media outlets in Chicago that have picked up my original story) that this is a pilot project and they are making a “good faith” effort. Again, a look at the evidence casts such a “good faith effort” into doubt.

  • http://www.systemfiltration.com Tim mcnelis

    I am a distributor of a product that helps kitchens reduce waste and save energy; I put a lot of time into developing a statewide certification program in MN and IA (a number of states already have their own programs); I put on the brakes when our local restaurant assoc. told me the NRA was putting a program together. Thank you for the above article, although frustrating, maybe certification programs by city or state should gain momentum again.

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