Green Restaurant Certs More Than Most Small Shops Can Take On

Green Restaurant Certs More Than Most Small Shops Can Take On

Green Seal has long been creating standards that develop environmental leadership across numerous sectors of our economy. However, while sustainability initiatives have become the norm for big business, this is not yet the case for America's small business sector.

How do we make going "beyond-business-as-usual" the mainstream for small business? Restaurants are an excellent place to focus. Food service operations are energy- and water-intensive, rife with opportunities for efficiency improvements with fast returns.

Conscious consumers are willing to pay more for green choices -- presenting an edge for savvy restaurateurs who seek to distinguish themselves in a very competitive industry. Additionally, restaurants are highly visible small businesses, and a substantial majority of American restaurants [PDF] are single-unit operations.

For restaurants, even business-as-usual thinking can lead to big energy efficiency improvements, with many utilities offering rebates and incentives. If you're renovating your kitchen, it probably makes economic sense to purchase an energy-efficient fryer or exhaust fan, and swap out your old incandescent exit signs for those with LEDs.

However, it would be even better to pair these obvious winners with additional environmental improvements that wouldn't otherwise take place. For example, Hannah's Bretzel, a quick-stop restaurant in downtown Chicago, has completely eliminated plastic bags from its operations and uses biodegradable containers, utensils, warm and cold beverage cups and lids, to name just a few accomplishments.

Third-party certification programs like LEED-Commercial Interiors, the Green Restaurant Association standards, and now the new Green Seal restaurant standards are one important way to get independent restaurants to take these extra steps.

This is why Green Seal's new restaurant standards are so valuable. GS-46, as they are collectively known, form a comprehensive framework to address the myriad environmental and social impacts of food service operations. Restaurants can receive Bronze, Silver, or Gold certification. The Bronze level was intended "to include meaningful environmental performance with as minimal capital expense as possible."

Still, attaining Green Seal Bronze is no small investment of time and money, especially for smaller food service operations without dedicated sustainability experts. Quite often, Mom and Pop themselves are doing the bulk of the research and planning. There are fixtures to be replaced, energy and water management plans written, packaging policies re-vamped, vendors assessed, employees trained, menus redesigned, and thermostats and lighting controls installed. The certification process in and of itself is expensive, entailing thousands of dollars in evaluation fees and monitoring costs.

On top of their initial (and worthwhile) investment, Bronze restaurants are required to ramp up to Silver within three years, or their Green Seal certification is entirely revoked. This provision will frustrate potential small restaurant leaders from pursuing Bronze at the outset.

Were I a restaurant owner, I'd instead be tempted to "cherry pick" only the lowest-cost, quickest-return measures, foregoing certification entirely. Where does that leave our small restaurants? Right back at business-as-usual decision-making, without any green additionality.

Part of Green Seal's mission is to help develop industry leaders and effect market transformation. Its progress will be stymied if they don't attract more small restaurants to the table. There are other ways Green Seal can continue to incorporate the important goal of ongoing improvement-- for instance, Green Restaurant Association certification standards gradually raise the number of points needed to maintain certification year after year. Using points or some other means, Green Seal should consider moderating its ramp-up provision and allow restaurants to bask in their well-deserved bragging rights a little bit longer.

Caitlin Dorsey is the director of research at e-One, LLC, a Chicago company that designs, implements and manages sustainability programs for trade associations and other organizations.