The Green Restaurant Association was founded in 1990 with a mission of providing a convenient and cost-effective way for restaurants, manufacturers, distributors and consumers to become more environmentally responsible.
From the beginning until 2008, the organization's membership grew at a trickling pace.
Since then, however, the number of Green Certified Restaurants has accelerated significantly, including at chain restaurants. Such certification entails achieving points in seven environmental categories – water efficiency, waste reduction/recycling, sustainable furnishings/building materials, sustainable food, energy, disposables and chemical/pollution reduction.
2011 was the strongest year thus far for chains beginning the process toward certification, and for achieving certification, according to GRA CEO Michael Oshman.
The increase is likely a response to not only more education and necessity, but also a boost in consumer demand. For example, a recent survey conducted by SCA, makers of the Tork brand, found that 64 percent of consumers said they would more likely visit an environmentally responsible restaurant.
Oshman, who founded the association, provides some color on the GRA's evolution, continuing challenges and the notable shift in consumer preferences.
FastCasual.com: How would you describe the growth of the 'greening' of the foodservice industry, specifically chains?
Michael Oshman: The GRA started mostly with independents 22 years ago, and over the years, those clients have become bigger, more renown, more numerous in their locations. Now, we are at a stage where the largest brands are becoming Certified Green Restaurants, some with their whole brand and some with a selection of their locations.
FastCasual.com: Why are chains just now starting to catch onto the benefits, compared to independents, which caught on years ago?
MO: The larger companies have waited to see how successful we would be with the smaller chains, and waited to see if it was an enduring value for consumers. As they have seen that 79 percent of consumers prefer to dine at a Certified Green Restaurant, they have come on board in strong numbers.
FastCasual.com: What are the biggest benefits for chains, specifically, in embracing green certifications through the GRA?
MO: They've seen that we've saved our restaurants thousands in energy, water and waste. Also:
- They want to tap into the 79 percent of consumers preferring to dine at Certified Green Restaurants;
- They want to tap into the 78 percent of employees preferring to work in Certified Green Restaurants;
- They want to stay ahead of legislation;
- In cutting marketing budgets, they want to leverage the amazing media that we have garnered for the Certified Green Restaurants;
- They understand now that there is only one way to achieve sustainability: To go through a systematic series of changes measured against a reputable set of standards; changes made transparent by a trusted outside party. Whereas five or even three years ago, some companies were experimenting with creating their own standards and then telling customers what they were doing, they soon realized that consumers want and deserve transparency.
FastCasual.com: Are there any roadblocks?
MO: The roadblocks are generally with the perception that it's going to be hard. Once a restaurant engages in the process, 99 percent of those roadblocks are gone. Like anything, success is predicated on a team with a leader who is good and implementing new things.
FastCasual.com: What are some of your biggest chains represented?
MO: The largest full chain to be fully certified is Garden Fresh's Souplanation/Sweet Tomatoes with more than 120 2-Star Certified Green Restaurants around the country. We also have more than 50 Le Pain Quotidien and numerous small chains of 20 and under.
Some larger chains that have at least one Certified Green Restaurant are: Moe's, Panera, Uno's, Boloco and Pita Pit. We also have all of Mario Batali's restaurants, BR Guest Restaurants, the entire Intercontinental Hotels and Resorts restaurants in the U.S. and Canada.
FastCasual.com: What green characteristics are most achieved by the bigger brands/chains?
MO: They are all styrofoam-free and have full-scale recycling along with 100 points minimum and 10 points in food, water, waste, chemicals, disposables and energy.
FastCasual.com: Do you expect the largest quick-service chains to catch on – the McDonald's, Burger King's, Wendy's, etc., or are their footprints too big?
MO: We have had some discussions and proposals to some of the largest companies. Some have expressed strong interest. Based upon our experience with other segments, it's possible one or two of them will test in a region in the next couple of years.
Read more about sustainability.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.