Investigative Dining: Navigating New “Green” Restaurant Standards

By Lesley Lammers for the Green Chamber of Commerce

With the recent formation of organizations such as the Sustainable Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry currently finds itself in a paradigm shift, as pressure for transparency in business practices increases. So it’s no surprise that more tools than ever before are becoming available, aimed at helping consumers make the most sustainable choices when deciding where to fill their bellies.  With this new proliferation of green restaurant guides and certifications, consumers have to get savvy in order to navigate the varying definitions of what constitutes a “green” restaurant.

Attempts to aggregate this type of data and make it available to the public should be seen as a positive sign that consumers’ demand for more sustainable restaurants is being heard. However, conscientious consumers need to be aware that not all guides and certifications are created equal.  Here is a rundown of what’s out there and how consumers can act as their own best resource with just a pinch of research know-how…

The Rise of Voluntary Standards…

Some programs are voluntary, which make it easier for businesses to join up, since their owners are not required to implement environmental improvements. One such program, the National Restaurant Association’s Greener Restaurants, is case in point why it’s imperative for consumers to pay close attention; After being criticized recently for greenwashing, they made sure to clarify that Greener Restaurants is not a certification, but rather a pilot program “based on self-reporting and encouraging an open dialog with restaurant guests.”

The Eat Well Guide uses Standards for Inclusion that seek to lead patrons to restaurants that serve what they deem as local, sustainable and organic food.  For sustainable seafood choices, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has an initiative whereby restaurants that have pledged not to serve fish on their “avoid” list are displayed on their website.

These well-intentioned projects are useful aids to the eco-minded consumer, but they are not to be confused with certification programs which are more stringent.

Certifications Also on the Rise

Recently, the Green Seal Certification added environmental standards for “Restaurants and Food Services” to their list of industry certifications. This certification requires restaurants to comply with a list of vigorous criteria overseen by environmental scientists and trained auditors before the restaurant receives certification. Similarly, the Green Restaurant Association, which has been certifying restaurants for 20 years, has a certification program where operations have to earn points based on meeting six out of their seven category benchmarks.  These restaurants are listed for consumers on their Dine Green guide.

If you know the standards to which these certifications are holding restaurants, you can make a more informed decision as a customer.  Of course, there are many restaurants making a sincere effort to reduce their environmental impact, but who can’t afford to pay the fees that some certifications require or they might not think certification is necessary, but these certifications represent a handy shortcut for consumers to measure a restaurant’s sustainability.

Be Your Own Guide

While the load shouldn’t weigh solely on the consumer to verify the claims of these aforementioned certifications and guides, you yourself are the most trustworthy judge of information.  Give the restaurant a ring and ask a few questions – those who are most genuinely working toward sustainability should be more than happy to openly discuss their practices.  And if they haven’t thought about adopting more “green” practices, consumer inquiries will most certainly make them think again.  Here are the most critical qualifications to consider during your research:

Food Sourcing: Is it local — usually defined as within a 150-mile radius – and do they support area family farms?  Is the meat sustainably raised (think grass-fed, free-range, non-GMO feed) and the seafood sustainably harvested?   Is the produce grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers?  Are they cooking in season or growing any of their own food onsite?

Energy & Water Efficiency: Does the restaurant run on some form of alternative energy or use energy efficient appliances that comply with EnergyStar standards?  Are they making a concerted effort to conserve and reuse water?

Waste & Chemical Reduction: What is the extent of their recycling program?  Do they go the extra mile by composting food waste or reusing cooking oil for biodiesel?  Are their cleaning supplies chemical-free and non-toxic such as homemade remedies like baking soda, lemon juice and vinegar or products with naturally derived ingredients?

Building Material/Method: If newly built or remodeled, did they strive for LEED certification? Were any reclaimed materials implemented for their structure or interior décor?

To give you a reference point, a few places that pass muster for me are Farmstead, Gather, and Franny’s.  Know of any sustainable restaurant guides, certifications, resources or advice not mentioned here? Drop a comment…

Related 3P Articles:

The National Restaurant Association: Green or Greenwash?

Nominate A Pioneering, Successful, Green Restaurant!

The Evolution of Eco-Fast Food

Lesley Lammers is a freelance food and environmental writer and regular contributor to the Green Chamber of Commerce. The Green Chamber of Commerce represents the NEW voice of commerce, one that can envision the future – a future where businesses work to protect our planet.

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