What does sustainability mean?

The concept of sustainability can be described as the practice of living within our means. Whether that principle applies to our checking account or the inventory in our refrigerator, living sustainably is all about making our available resources last until they can be replenished without disrupting the supply. Being conscientious of resources and waste hasn’t always been a priority in the restaurant industry, but thanks to lots of research and public awareness, the times, they are a-changin’. 

So, what’s the big deal?

Well, there are actually several reasons that sustainability is a (very) big deal. First and foremost is the impact on this planet we all share. When we use too much of any one resource, the supply chain is disrupted. Production is often increased in an effort to meet demands, which causes more energy waste, more packaging, and more need for pollution-causing transportation. Putting sustainable practices into effect gives you the power to stop contributing to that nasty cycle and start saving the world one plastic straw at a time! Magnified by every participant in the movement, the positive effect of sustainable restaurant practices on the environment is limited only by those who choose not to participate.


young people promoting sustainability

The benefits of going green don’t stop at the positive environmental impact. Reducing operating costs, reducing employee turnover, and attracting new customers are all advantages of “going green.” Employees tend to choose workplaces in the same way consumers choose which brands to buy, and people are more likely to remain loyal to an employer whose values match their own.

Over the last decade, customers have become increasingly aware of their carbon footprint and are more willing than ever before to pay a premium for a product or service that reduces it in some way, however small. That’s why sustainability is more than a buzzword — it’s good for the planet and good for business.

How to make the shift toward sustainability

As is the case in many troubling situations, knowing you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

Once you’ve stopped ignoring the bags and bags of… well, probably more bags and answered the persistent tug on your conscience with a commitment to shape up and make a change, you may be feeling overwhelmed — and rightly so. Saving the earth is a monumental task! But before you get too carried away by despair, know this: small efforts can make a difference, too.

You don’t have to jump up and retire your fleet of delivery vehicles and replace them with electric cars. You don’t have to start growing all your own produce. Although those changes would certainly be a big step in the right direction, you may find it more feasible to start with some of these simpler suggestions.

young woman using recycled bag

21 easy ways to promote sustainability in your restaurant

  • Consider adding vegetarian and vegan items to your menu. If you already have some, great! But there’s always room for more because vegetable-based meals are more sustainable than any recipe that includes meat or dairy products. Plant-based treats, like fruit smoothies, are a breeze to prepare with a commercial blender, and you can prepare plenty of portions of steamed veggies with a commercial steamer.
  • Make a commitment to purchase and use organic products. The slightly higher price tag is worth every penny because we’re all better off without harmful pesticides and chemical fertilizers in our environment and our food. (Bonus points if you can accomplish this by supporting a local farmer!)
  • Use “green” cleaning products with natural ingredients instead of harsh chemicals to get the job done. Opting to avoid chemical-laden supplies in favor of environmentally friendly ones means you’re keeping harmful chemicals off of your equipment, out of your finished product, and out of your local water system.
  • Work to increase electricity efficiency at your restaurant by using Energy Star appliances whenever possible. These can include, but are not limited to, LED lightbulbs, a smart thermostat, or motion-sensor lights that turn off when not being used.
  • If you have an appropriate setting, consider installing solar panels and collect your own energy!
  • Reduce water consumption with toilets, sinks, dishwashers, and spray valves designed to use less of that resource. Newer models can use as little as half the amount of water as older models, so replacing even one item can significantly reduce your water usage. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says, “water-efficient models can save money, with a relatively short payback period.” According to an example cited in an EPA water conservation fact sheet, “With cost savings from water and sewer fees alone, a restaurant’s simple payback period for replacing old, inefficient pre-rinse spray valves could be as short as one month.”
  • According to the U.S. Department of Energy, making efficiency upgrades to issues identified in a home energy audit can significantly reduce your energy bill. Identify energy leaks in appliances, windows, and doors by conducting a DIY energy assessment, or opt for a professional energy audit.
  • Arguably the single easiest thing you can do to improve energy efficiency in your kitchen is clean your refrigerator condenser coils!
washing dishes
  • Keep your eyes peeled for local auctions or restaurants selling used equipment or scratch and dent restaurant equipment. While you should be particularly mindful when considering buying pre-owned pieces, asking questions and doing a thorough inspection will ensure that you’re making an informed decision. You never know when you’re going to score a great deal on a quality item!
  • Other used pieces like furniture, dishes, light fixtures, and decorations can often be found at significant discounts. This not only recycles the item but eliminates the astonishing amount of packaging that comes from purchasing new products.
  • When shopping for new supplies and furniture, opt for products made from rapidly renewable resources like bamboo, hemp, cotton, cork, or soy. Any plant-based material that has a harvest cycle of 10 years or less is considered rapidly renewable.
  • If you’re planning to upgrade your equipment to more energy-efficient models, be sure to sell or donate your used items rather than simply discarding them. You’ll prevent extra junk and potentially dangerous chemicals from entering a landfill while probably giving someone the opportunity for a bargain.
sustainable restaurant furniture
  • Conduct a food waste audit for your kitchen. Evaluate your prepping process and your weekly menu items. There may be opportunities to use a product more efficiently or perhaps to use less of one. Take note of how often ingredients spoil before they’re used and invest in reusable food storage containers to encourage food to stay fresh longer.
  • Conduct a food waste audit for your dining room. If your guests often request boxes for leftovers or if your staff notices a lot of food being left on plates, consider reducing your portion sizes and effectively feed two birds with one scone by decreasing both food waste and takeout packaging waste!
  • No matter how hard we try to reduce food waste, there will always be enough of it to make compost. Creating compost for personal use, to share with your employees, or to donate is a healthy way to make the most out of every scrap.
make your own organic compost
  • Shopping with local vendors and producers whenever possible helps reduce the use of fossil fuels, supports your neighbors who share a common goal, and is an excellent way to establish a cross-promotional relationship with another local business. Your community farmers market is a great place to start and doing a little investigating could turn up additional regional options you may have never considered. A bonus of this practice is locally sourced food products are often also organic.
  • Grow your own ingredients! Even without the experience of an agriculture expert, growing your own ingredients is easier than you think. Try starting an herb garden or plant a few low-maintenance berry bushes to exercise your sustainable thumb and see where it takes you.
  • If there’s one available in your community, join a recycling program. Find local opportunities here and here.
start an indoor herb garden
  • Conduct a packaging waste audit and evaluate whether each piece of waste produced by a to-go order is truly necessary for a positive customer experience. By the time you consider food containers, condiment containers, packaged utensils, napkins, packaged straws, cups, plastic lids, bags, receipts, and paper menus or coupons, you could practically fill a trashcan with waste produced by a single takeout meal! Some items, such as cups or the main food container are obviously necessary, but every guest may not want a comprehensive sampling of all the condiments or a gigantic handful of napkins. By making some items optional for your guests, you’ll use far fewer of these disposable items.
  • Look around your restaurant and identify other single-use items. Paper menus, takeout bags, straws, utensils, and table coverings are common offenders, and avoiding them altogether or replacing them with reusable alternatives will significantly reduce waste.
takeout food packaging waste
  • Even with efforts made to reduce single-use items, they remain a necessity in the restaurant business. Buy biodegradable or recycled items whenever possible to reduce this type of waste.
  • Educating your staff and getting them excited about sustainability is critical to your success. Developing a plan and sourcing the right materials is a big part of the mission, but it’s the actions of your staff that will determine whether your strategy is effective. Make your team feel encouraged and empowered to make a change, and they’ll be proud to implement sustainable policies and procedures.
get your employees excited

Certifiably green

When your new sustainable ways have been put into practice, it’s finally time to make it official. Get sustainable certification for your restaurant through the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), a national non-profit organization, or the Green Business Network, a 5,000+ member program by Green America. These groups not only offer special certification to restaurants who strive to be eco-friendly, but they also provide resources to help make the transition easier and more cost-effective as well as connect you with other environmentally conscious businesses and consumers.

As I said before, sustainability is more than a buzzword — it’s good for business. Don’t be afraid to share some humble brags about your new sustainability efforts and certifications! Consumers are showing a preference for businesses who promote sustainable practices, and they won’t know what’s going on behind the scenes unless you tell them. Besides being an excellent way to set yourself apart from the competition, getting recognized for the difference you’re making will only inspire you and your team to keep up the good work.

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