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Getting your green card

For Jose Duarte, it wasn’t enough to run a successful Italian-Peruvian fusion restaurant in Boston’s North End. He was reading about climate change, and he wanted to do something about it. In 2007, he applied to get his eatery, Taranta, certified by the Green Restaurant Association.

The Boston-based GRA awards the label “Certified Green Restaurant” to establishments that undergo an audit and score high on a list of eco-friendly practices. It’s been certifying since 1990, but its roster has tripled the past two years, to over 300 units.

In April, a second nonprofit began offering a green label for foodservice. Green Seal of Washington, DC, which has rated products and services since 1989, launched its own set of restaurant standards, endorsed by the American National Standards Institute. No restaurants have been certified yet, though several are in the process.

Green labels don’t come cheap. The right to use the logo can run anywhere from $300 up to $4,500, depending on how much help you need to bring your operation up to standards. Are the returns worth the investment?

Proponents say the labels give restaurants a marketing edge, as consumers grow more leery of “greenwashing,” making false or deceptive environmental claims. Says Colleen Oteri, communications director for the GRA, “Your customer doesn’t necessarily know you’re doing the things you say you’re doing unless you’re certified by a third party.”

Agrees Cheryl Baldwin, vice president of science and standards for Green Seal, “It simplifies the message for people.”

At Chick-N-Grill, a six-unit Miami fast-casual chain, CEO Al Salas features the GRA’s logo and Web link on his menus, his walls and his Web site. “It gives the customer an understanding that we’re not just saying we’re green on our own,” he says. “We have accountability to someone.”

For newcomers to sustainability, another benefit is organizational know-how. To get Taranta certified, a GRA consultant inspected its operations and presented a laundry list of suggestions. Duarte implemented a dozen his first year, from compact-
fluorescent light bulbs to a recycling and composting program. Says Duarte, “They do all the legwork for you, and they recommend the most appropriate things for you to do.”

Boloco, a 16-unit burrito chain from Boston, sought help with its purchasing. The GRA keeps a database of products that meet its standards, from aerators to water heaters. “We let the experts help us sort through the wannabe-greens from the real stuff,” says president Mike Harder. “What you’re really paying for is their expertise and not having to have that expert on your staff.”
Not all restaurateurs think the labels are worth the expense, though. Pizza Fusion of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, which boasts a largely organic menu and delivers from its 19 units in hybrid cars, looked into getting GRA-certified. But it balked at the $5,000 fee. “We felt it was unnecessary for us,” says spokesman Eric Haley. “We were already going green.”

Another concern is the growing number of green labels out there. Only two organizations certify restaurants, but the food they serve may be certified by dozens of groups, from the Food Alliance to the Marine Stewardship Council. The result is that consumers need help sorting through labels, says Dr. Urvashi Rangan, director of technical policy for the Consumers Union in Yonkers, New York. She runs the Web site Greener Choices, which rates 150 green labels on a scale from “not meaningful” to “highly meaningful.”

In general, she says, the most meaningful labels are bestowed by third-party certifiers, like the GRA and Green Seal. “Certified claims have more credibility, if they’re made by organizations with independent verification arms.” 

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