“Unless we fix food, we cannot fix climate change,” says the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s (SRA) most recent report. In its Tastiest Challenge on the Planet, the British non-profit urges food businesses in the United Kingdom to lower the environmental footprint of their meals and pull their weight in tackling climate change and shaping consumption trends.
So far, about 7,500 food businesses across the U.K. are stepping up their game working with the SRA to shift the way they operate, produce, and serve food. “We define what sustainability means for them, audit how well they’re doing, inspire them to do more, and then reward them for doing so,” Andrew Stephen, CEO of SRA, explains to Food Tank.
The report calls for reducing meat from menus, eliminating single-use plastics, and preventing wasted food—the biggest social and environmental villains in U.K. hospitality, but also with the biggest potential to improve. But SRA members—from independent cafés and highbrow restaurants to office and university caterers—have been acting on different fronts to solve their sourcing, social, and environmental issues.
Getting the sources right
Sourcing counts for 40 percent of restaurateurs’ sustainability mission. “It’s also the most challenging,” Stephen points out because it can sometimes require fundamental changes. “Doing sourcing better means coping with a lot more complexity and costs; serving more sustainable fish and ensuring farmers are treated fairly are more expensive than not caring.”
And businesses are still cautious about 100 percent sustainable sourcing, Stephen explains. He adds that restaurants face fuzzy, complicated data, including when choosing between flown-in produce and energy-intensive food grown nearby, but out of season. “We can keep it simple and say shortening food miles and more awareness of where food comes from is better,” Stephen argues to Food Tank.
But some SRA members ban food coming from farther than 15 to 50 miles away, and a lot more celebrate ‘local’ dishes. The steady demand gives suppliers a clear signal they can expand capacity, the SRA lead says, “creating more interconnected, stable food systems.”
The U.K. is also reconsidering food sourcing in its 2020 request for tenders, with more local producers and shorter supply chains for school, hospital meals, and other institutions. “In the past, that was an incredibly value-driven exercise, favoring the largest wholesalers, often the longest and least efficient. Now the collapsing pound, import prices, and political uncertainty make it a pretty good time to be buying British,” Stephen explains to Food Tank.
Almost 90 percent of SRA members track their food waste; a quarter of them use technological fixes, reducing their waste by 15 percent on average, the report claims. Over 90 percent train their staff to produce less waste. But businesses can get more ambitious, the report claims; the U.K.’s current environmental costs caused by food waste are around 20 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent carbon footprint of about 3.5 million cars, points out the SRA. And raising the stakes shouldn’t hurt, as a recent report from Champions 12.3 argues that every pound invested in slashing food waste saves about seven times as much.
“Not every piece of plastic is a problem,” Stephen says to Food Tank. “Take tupperware: it can keep food airtight for 25 years.” The SRA calls on the entire British food industry to cut single-use plastics; Stephen stresses that businesses are stuck in the middle of a problematic plastics supply chain they have no power over and receive clashing information. To guide them, the SRA’s 2018 Unwrapping Plastic toolkit sheds light on the confusing world of good versus bad plastic. It doesn’t cover just chopsticks and cling film, but also tricky plant-based polymers and key questions to ask suppliers and waste contractors.
Tracking the change
In 2018, 17 individuals and food businesses received a Food Made Good Award, which the SRA gives to those leading the change for better food systems. Tracking that change mixes audits with businesses’ honest feedback. “But diners should also realize the impact they can drive and hold the sector accountable by asking more questions about what’s on their plates,” Stephen says to Food Tank.
To nudge them in that direction, the SRA’s One Planet Plate campaign offers them the chance to vote with their forks. Chefs showcase their most sustainable recipes, creating a database of dishes that cut waste, celebrate local produce, and go low on carbon and easy on the meat. Any food business around the world can join the campaign.
Is there an end to the sustainability challenge for restaurants? “We’ve never seen somebody that’s finished in the last 10 years,” Stephen says to Food Tank. “Even when you’ve fixed all your operational issues, you are only just beginning in terms of your impact potential when you influence other people. Particularly in the U.K., there’s a trickledown effect to retail, catering, and cooking at home. I think providing chefs with the right level of ambition on how much impact they can have is a lifetime’s work.”