ByAlison Lueders

Oct 20, 2014

Dining out is big business. Let’s talk about dining out.

Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion or just can’t face cooking another meal at home, dining out is a happy option for many people. Indeed, the restaurant industry pulls in almost half (47%) of the total food dollars spent in America. In 2014, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) expects American restaurants will make $684 billion.

But dining out also has a big environmental impact

This is not about guilt – it’s just a fact. The restaurant industry knows this and is addressing it. Their own research shows that 58% of consumers would prefer a restaurant “based on its environmental sustainability efforts.” So the NRA is taking action on 3 sustainability fronts:

  • Energy and water efficiency – According to the U.S. EPA, restaurants use about 5 to 7 times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings, such as office buildings and retail stores. It makes sense when you consider how many energy-intensive appliances a restaurant may have (refridgerators, stoves, fryers) plus any heat/AC needed for dining areas.
  • Food waste – recent research has shown that the U.S. wastes between 30% and 40% of its food between the farm and the consumer. While restaurants are not the largest contributor to that, (consumers are), they know there’s huge potential to save money and to waste less food in a world where millions go hungry.
  • Packaging – A lot of packaging waste comes from restaurants, from Styrofoam containers to single-use cups. These often wind up in landfills, and landfills generate about 9% of methane emissions in the U.S. each year.

Since 2008, the NRA has spearheaded the “Conserve” initiative, which helps restaurants develop and share sustainability best practices to improve in all these dimensions. With almost 500,000 member restaurants, a good idea can go a long way quickly.

So choose your restaurant wisely…

Here are some tips that can help:

  • Check restaurant rankings. While there is no one comprehensive ranking of sustainable restaurants, progress is being made. The UK’s Sustainable Restaurant Association is slowly expanding globally. In the U.S., the Green Restaurant Association is a bit limited in its geographic coverage, but a resource in major cities. There’s also the which focuses on local, sustainable and organic food outlets, including restaurants. With sustainability clearly on restaurants’ radar screens now, look for these rankings to expand and mature.
  • Choose a “farm-to-table” restaurant – These restaurants source all or most of their food from local farmers. The many benefits of eating locally include: eating fresh for better taste and nutrition, (usually) eating organically, eating food with a lower GHG emissions footprint (because it comes from 30 miles away instead of 3000), and supporting your local farmers. even lets you specify “farm-to-table” when searching for dining options.
  • Ask the restaurant staff – While some big names like Chipotle and Darden have high-profile sustainability programs, there are smaller restaurants doing interesting things too like EVOS, a restaurant with locations in Florida and N. Carolina. Sustainability starts with their menu of grass-fed beef and air-baked fries. But it goes much deeper. Features such as eco-friendly flooring, recycled wood panels for tables, and zero VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints on the walls are all part of the recipe for efficiency. Guest menus are printed on recycled paper with soy rather than petroleum-based ink. Food takeout bags are made of bio-degradable plastic. EVOS doesn’t trumpet ANY of these things – they focus on the food. But, their loyal following of “Evomaniacs” DOES know how hard EVOS works to lighten its environmental footprint.  And, those customers keep coming back for more.

Dining out is a pleasure. The good news is, there are more sustainable restaurants to choose from than ever. Next time, look for a restaurant with great food and a real commitment to sustainability. You may be surprised at what you find!

Feature image courtesy Michael Saechang

By Alison Lueders

Alison Lueders is the Founder and Principal of Great Green Content - a green business certified by both Green America and the Green Business Bureau. She offers copywriting and content marketing services to businesses that are “going green.” Convinced that business can play a powerful and positive role in building a greener, more sustainable economy, she launched Great Green Content in 2011.