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Is a sustainable-restaurant certification worth it?

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Question:

I am thinking of going for a green/sustainable restaurant certification for my restaurant group. Do you think it’s worth it?

– Owner

Answer:

Over the past decade or two, a number of sustainable restaurant certifications have been launched. These are voluntary certifications that require a thorough application and documentation, and sometimes an audit or external review, to be deemed a green or sustainable restaurant. There are a few organizations, including the Green Restaurant Association, Green Seal, The Sustainable Restaurant Association (UK-based) and Zero Foodprint, to name some leaders. There are also general green business certifications that can apply to restaurants. At their core is a commitment to more sustainable operations in multiple areas. For example, the standards for the Green Restaurant Association consider water use, waste and recycling, materials, food sourcing, energy use, disposables, cleaning supplies, and training and education, among other factors. The cost, rigor and importance of these vary. I won’t use this space to recommend one over another, but will address your question of whether a certification in general is worth it for your operations.

In terms of whether certification is “worth it,” I would encourage you to think of the value in two different ways: 1. Strict ROI and 2. Doing the right thing.

In terms of ROI only, the answer is probably not. There are numerous benefits to certification. For example, Green Seal mentions “third-party validation from one of the world’s most respected ecolabels, access to new customers and valuable niche markets, increased customer loyalty, potential for increased profitability, and valuable brand enhancement.” Most certifying bodies publicly promote their certified members among concerned consumers, share resources that can help you operate more efficiently or profitably and provide collateral and use of their logo for your own marketing. That’s good. Worth it?

I think the real value of the certification in your case is public recognition for the work you know you should be doing to green your restaurants. While it’s always nice to be more sustainable, with the many competing pressures restaurateurs experience, it can be tough to justify the time and expense of improving your operations, even if you know that there may be long-term benefit. For example, swapping out old equipment for energy-efficient versions might be the right thing to do and can even save money over time, but will you actually do it today without the external pressure? Readying your operation for certification provides that extra motivation and accountability some restaurateurs need.

In general, my advice is to take the application and criteria from one of these certifying bodies and put your operation through the process of preparing the application. Even if you don’t feel ready to formally apply, the work of closely reviewing the criteria, making changes where feasible and sharing your goals with your staff to engage them in the application process can be valuable. If, after that process, you feel you could be certified, then by all means, go for it!

Applying simply for the recognition or marketing benefit is not worth it, but if you are committed to greening your operations or being recognized for the great work in sustainability that you are already doing, then it is very worthwhile.

More on sustainable restaurant certification here.

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