|Greening Your Foodservice Business|
|Written by Bruce McAdams & Michael von Massow, University of Guelph|
|Friday, 01 June 2012 00:00|
A University of Guelph survey shows foodservice operators need to integrate green ambitions into company culture
Sustainability: it’s more than a buzz word, but many restaurateurs struggle to identify opportunities to leverage it. Although many operators believe greening is important, they aren’t always sure where to start.
That’s a key finding from a 2012 survey of senior Canadian foodservice executives conducted as a special project by University of Guelph student Nicole Greer under the auspices of the Sustainable Restaurant Project (UGSRP) and sponsored by Foodservice and Hospitality magazine.
The survey was formulated based on a 2011 MIT/Sloan research paper in which more than 3,000 global organizations were surveyed on commitments to sustainability and innovation. By modelling the Canadian survey on the MIT paper, the researchers were able to benchmark foodservice operations against a broader industry perspective. And, despite the common perception that foodservice lags behind other industries, the findings show the commitment of foodservice operators to sustainability and innovation is comparable to other industries around the globe.
The findings show senior management in the broader industry and the foodservice industry understand the importance of committing to sustainable practices. And, it turns out, 70 per cent of respondents felt sustainability was permanently on management’s agenda. Further results showed organizations are making it a priority, because it’s what customers want. But, while the industry is keen to make progress, it doesn’t always know where to start.
Change starts here
But, perhaps the most significant difference in the survey and MIT/Sloan paper is how much value Canadian foodservice businesses associate with the cost-control aspect of sustainability. In the survey, ‘reduced costs due to energy efficiency’ was recorded as the best way to address sustainability, perhaps due to foodservice’s significant use of resources. Additionally, conservation programs provide early and easy fixes for businesses. The most important driver of this trend is that its success can be measured by a return on investment (ROI) calculation, something often seen as a barrier when adopting other sustainable principles. Many utility companies have also become aggressive in promoting conservation programs, offering such services as complimentary energy audits and retrofit incentives. One of the first companies to implement energy conservation in its restaurants was McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, which has reduced its electrical consumption by 27-million kWh since 2005.
Meanwhile, the survey shows attention to water conservation has also risen in recent years. According to the U.S.-based Green Restaurant Association, the average foodservice facility uses almost one-million litres of water per year. With the cost of this resource doubling every six years, operators should be motivated to improve their water-conservation practices. As part of ongoing research at UGSRP, the research team collaborated with the City of Guelph to audit the water-use practices of its student-run restaurant, PJ’s. The audit results showed potential for $10,000 in annual savings through minor retrofitting of fixtures and equipment and the introduction of basic conservation practices. Most municipalities offer water audits to help companies identify opportunities.
Reducing costs due to materials or waste efficiencies is also on the radar of half of the survey respondents who see the practice as one of the greatest benefits of sustainability. Many factors could account for this growing commitment, including the increased cost of waste removal, public governance concerns and increased media coverage of practices perceived as detrimental to the environment. While some operators hope these issues will be forgotten, other companies, such as TDL Group Corp. (Tim Hortons), responded to pressure and increased its commitment to reducing waste through innovation. In October 2011, TDL announced the testing of its ‘cup-to-tray program’ in Nova Scotia. Hot beverage cups are now recycled and transformed into beverage take-out trays that can be reused at more than 150 participating locations. The initiative reduces waste and helps create a positive brand image.
The missing link
With that in mind, respondents to the Guelph survey showed a commitment and desire to do more. In fact, 75 per cent have increased sustainability efforts in the last year, while 80 per cent plan to do so in the coming year. Perhaps a more powerful finding was that 47 per cent of respondents think pursuing sustainability-related strategies is necessary to be competitive. While this shows the industry has lofty aspirations, the truth is increased competition and slim margins may impede change. Unless senior leadership incorporates sustainability as a core business principle, good intentions may fall flat as front-line leaders get bogged down in day-to-day operations. Incorporating sustainability into an organization’s strategic planning process is one way to become more sustainably focused.
Respondents identified a lack of information about what to do and how to do it as a key challenge, but sometimes the best solution is to ask an expert. One great sustainability success story of the last decade involved the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW). In 2004, RMOW hired sustainability consultants from the international-based Natural Step to help embed sustainable practices in the community. Continued focus and a strong strategic plan have resulted in the Whistler 2020 framework, which helped the resort meet many of its sustainability goals while gaining worldwide recognition.
But, green thinking reaches beyond company policy and into human resources. In fact, ‘attracting, retaining and motivating talented people’ was one of the top three challenges respondents anticipate in the next two years. Foodservice employers understand a large portion of its workforce is more conscious of the company’s corporate values. A survey on the career website Monster.com recently asked college students what they look for in a prospective employer. Ninety-two per cent of respondents said they want to work for a green company. Sustainability clearly goes beyond environmental issues and includes attracting and keeping good people.
It is also clear senior leadership understands sustainable products and practices and what customers want. According to respondents, the customer is the biggest influence in driving an organization’s attention to sustainability. As far as current practices, Canadian foodservice operators also rank ‘brand image’ as the second-biggest reason they’re involved in sustainable activities, followed by ‘improving efficiencies’ and ‘reducing waste.’ While many companies are actively promoting sustainability initiatives there are also a large number of foodservice organizations that have yet to embrace change.
Surprisingly, a significant number of foodservice businesses in Canada don’t yet have a basic corporate social responsibility plan. However, similar to other industries, the Canadian foodservice industry has operators that have built sustainability into their brand promise. Two industry examples are Borealis Grillhouse and Pub in southwestern Ontario and Good Earth Coffeehouse and Bakery, with more than 30 locations in Western Canada. Both companies incorporated sustainability into their brand as a reflection of the values of ownership, and, perhaps more importantly, as a point of differentiation in the marketplace. Both concepts have moved past basic conservation programs and have dedicated themselves to purchasing energy from wind-powered sources. On the product side, Good Earth’s focus on coffee moves beyond fair trade and sees them partnering with farmers in Guatemala to import direct-trade coffee. Drop into one of their stores, and you can buy a bag of roasted coffee with a photo of the farmer who grew the beans on the package. Meanwhile, at a Borealis location you’ll see four-by-six-foot photos of farmers on the wall. Local canola oil is used in cooking instead of imported olive oil and only local, micro-brewed beers are offered from the bar. Management feels this has differentiated them in the marketplace and fuelled growth.
While the verdict is still out on the value of the commitment to sustainability shown by operators such as Good Earth and Borealis, the results of the Canadian survey point to the popularity of a relatively easy way to ‘green’ a brand. Third-party certifications are easy to implement, relatively inexpensive, and they send a clear message to the consumer. In fact, 61 per cent of respondents stated their organizations had some sort of environmental certification. Initially spawned by the fair- trade coffee movement, there has been a recent shift to the certification of sustainable seafood with close to 50 per cent of the industry adhering to Ocean Wise or Marine Stewardship Council standards. Larger companies, such as Sodexo, have created sustainable seafood policies, leveraging buying power to incite change on the supply side. Sodexo has already eliminated the use of at-risk species as it aims to have all its contracted seafood sustainably sourced by 2015.
In short, by surveying senior executives in Canada’s foodservice industry, we have generated a more accurate view of where the industry stands with regard to sustainability and innovation. And, while progress is being made, there are barriers to the adoption of more sustainable practices. For example, like most industries, foodservice workers gravitate to the tangible issues of sustainability such as cost reduction through energy conservation and waste reduction. Those are easy to measure, but the real work is in addressing the intangible initiatives by creating a sustainability plan.
The industry has a long way to go when it comes to green initiatives, but there is some reassurance in knowing many organizations are making great strides and have a clear desire to do more. Information on what and how to do it can only bring more sustainability issues to fruition.
For more information on the University of Guelph Sustainable Restaurant Project, and to access the survey results, visit restaurantsustainability.wordpress.com.