Once upon a time there was an association to help restaurants leave an overall smaller carbon footprint from their operations. The non-profit was called the Green Restaurant Association, established 1990. And for about 20 years, it had something of a monopoly on its suite of services. Twenty years later, the GRA and its target industry operate in a different landscape. "Being green" is here to stay. Even though consumers might not know exactly what that ubiquitous phrase means, they want it, according to a GRA/Technomic survey released last month.
Where there is demand, supply follows suit. Case in point: Green Seal and the National Restaurant Association have jumped onto the green bandwagon in the past year or so, rolling out programs to help restaurants operate more sustainably. These organizations certainly aren't new. Green Seal has helped certify the hotel industry for over 20 years, and the NRA has been helping solve restaurants' problems for almost a century. But the GRA submits that these organizations' "greenness" to the world of restaurant sustainability makes them less capable of fulfilling their missions to help operators succeed in this realm, at best. At worst, the GRA says, the NRA program specifically could be considered "greenwashing," or merely pretending to be green for profit. And it sent out releases saying so during last month's National Restaurant Association Show. Who is a green-minded restaurant to trust in such a combative climate? To help clarify the issues surrounding that question, here is a look at the three main restaurant greening programs, their characteristics and costs. NRA Greener Restaurants program: Drawing attention At the National Restaurant Association show, the NRA showcased its new "Greener Restaurants" program, first announced in April, to roughly 58,000 attendees. NRA's program claims not to be certification-oriented, unlike the other two big players. Rather, it calls itself a "recognition program" with the central aim of helping restaurateurs "become more sustainable and implement greener practices," according to company statements. It helps restaurants achieve these goals via an online program that lets restaurateurs track their progress along several categories: energy efficiency, water conservation, building/construction, waste reduction, administration, and innovation/other proprietary methods. Each of these components comprises a drop-down category with detailed sub-categories to track, and estimated ROI time for each measure. Restaurants pay $250 annually to use the site's resources. The subscription comes with how-to videos, "money-saving techniques," and a sticker decal that recognizes a restaurants' participation in the program. NRA director of media relations Annika Stensson said the fee covers program production, including educational videos and materials. The price point gives the program extra accessibility. Some say you need to be a multi-million dollar casual dining chain to afford the costs associated with the GRA or Green Seal programs. That's why Pizza Fusion founder Vaughn Lazar supports the $250, DIY method of the Greener Restaurants recognition plan. Lazar researched standards and energy-saving methods and mantras on his own to make his concept the poster child for sustainable in his sector of the restaurant industry. He said the Greener Restaurants program provides some valuable help for restaurateurs that want to approach sustainability in a similar way. He does admit the sticker could cause some confusion about what the GRA's "endorsement" means. The decal has inspired far more ire from Michael Oshman. Oshman is founder and executive director of the Boston-based GRA. The GRA was part of the NRA Show 2010, with its own section of product and service providers that it had certified green, not far from the NRA's own Conserve Pavilion. Oshman felt so strongly about the misdirection of the NRA's program that his association released a statement criticizing the Greener Restaurant program as greenwashing on the eve of the NRA Show 2010, and continued to distribute the materials at the actual event. According to one GRA-made flyer, the NRA program allows restaurants to "click a few buttons on the web, make any claims they want with no verification, and then are awarded a sticker." Oshman argues that the consumer doesn't know that sticker didn't involve the third-party vetting of a Green Seal or GRA certification. Some question whether the criticism is well-directed, or the ranting of a newly endangered monopoly. Green Restaurant Association: Industry insider incumbent Such an assessment of the GRA may be hasty in the grander scheme: Oshman doesn't hold the same verbal contempt for Green Seal that he does for Greener Restaurants, though his thinks his organization knows the restaurant industry better. That niche is perhaps this program's defining advantage. The GRA's auditing process focuses on a holistic approach to reducing energy consumption through savvier supplies and building usage. Points are awarded for more energy-efficient behaviors in areas such as water usage, waste reduction and recycling, and using sustainable furnishings and building materials. Many GRA audits are done by their getting in contact with a restaurant's suppliers and vendors, and looking at invoices, rather than spending a carbon-burning trip to the actual restaurants. The standards against which the GRA measures its restaurants' progress are cobbled from different energy-efficient organizations, such as LEED, Energy Star, even seafood standards from the likes of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's dictates regarding overfished species. GRA spokesperson Colleen Oteri said it's anywhere from $800 to $1,000 for restaurants to get started with consultations and audits. These options include one-on-one environmental consulting to help the restaurants discern needed changes, and how to make them, as well as verification, according to Oteri. There is a minimum yearly charge of $300 to affirm the certification thereafter. Many of the program's proponents agree that its incumbency offers valuable industry-specific guidance. Elizabeth Meltz oversees sustainability initiatives for Mario Batali restaurants. Meltz appreciates that her GRA consultant understands that some greening initiatives simply don't work or aren't profitable for her industry. "What I really like about working with my consultant there â€¦ there are always other options," she said. "They understand that. They seem to be tailored to (the restaurant industry), so they understand you can't put compact fluorescents in the front-of-house because you have a â€˜look.'" Founder Oshman is proud of the work the GRA does, and points to his track record: 700 restaurants certified, including high-profile eateries from Batali and Rick Bayless. But some say the GRA's main focus isn't on the most wasteful parts of the restaurant industry – its sourcing methods. Green Seal leaders have claimed that area of scrutiny as their forte. Green Seal: Setting new standards While the GRA has certified hundreds of restaurants, Green Seal has certified thousands of cleaning products in its native hotel industry, using its carefully developed, much lauded standards. It is still in the process of certifying its first restaurant, 312 Chicago. Herein lies this particular non-profit's prowess: it develops its own industry standards by the worldwide International Organization for Standardization benchmark, and has third parties like the American National Standards Institute accredit them.
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When Green Seal entered the restaurant certification business about a year ago, according to Linda Chipperfield, V.P. of outreach, company leaders didn't see a holistic standard that addressed the most wasteful parts of the industry – "the entire life cycle," according to Chipperfield. So they developed their own. "We analyze the entire environmental impact from [a restaurant's] â€˜life' -- where food is sourced from, how it's transported, how it's treated in back of house, how it's served, and how it's disposed of, in addition to the environmental impact," said Chipperfield. "We wouldn't have done that if there were life cycle research available. And that's the basis of our standard." Recycling, Chipperfield said, is barely a drop in the bucket when it comes to restaurant sustainability. Peter Truitt agrees. Truitt is co-founder of Truitt Bros., a sustainable produce supplier based in Oregon that conducts outreach seminars for foodservice professionals. "The most visible part of transparent and sustainable practices are the things (restaurateurs) do in their operations – conserve water, power, etc.," Truitt said. "These are powerful ways to create in the mind of the consumer progress. And we all start â€¦ with things we can control. "But the (larger) the story is what takes place on the farm or ranch that raises the food. The on-farm, on ranch impact on the environment is many times greater than (that) of a given (restaurant) operation." But that big-picture approach comes at a cost. Green Seal is the priciest of the endorsement and/or certification programs. According to Chipperfield, there are bronze, silver and gold award levels to be achieved. The initial evaluation fee, to include a site audit, is $1,400 for the lowest tier and $3,500 for the highest. After one year, a monitoring fee to ensure continued compliance costs $980 for the lowest tier and $2,450 for the highest. Out-of-pocket expenses for the audit are extra, but the company tries to use local auditors to keep that cost and carbon footprint low. Kermit's old saying – "it's not easy being green" – was perhaps never truer than for the restaurant industry. *Flickr photo by Powerhouse Museum
*Correction: An earlier version of the story said the GRA's Green Restaurant Products Pavilion was in the Conserve Solutions Pavilion, instead of merely near it. The latter is true, and the story has been corrected.