In a move to make it easier for consumers to understand how their food orders affect the environment, Panera Bread is adding the carbon footprint of meals to its menus.
"At Panera we think it's important for our guests to have choices based on what they find important around food," Sara Burnett, VP of food values, sustainability and public affairs, said in an email to FastCasual. "We want guests to have absolutely delicious food that they can feel good about eating — for some that is about clean ingredients, for others its nutrition or the impact of their plate on the climate."
Panera was the first national concept (in 2010) to post the calorie counts of its menu items, for example. It was also the first to post added sugar and calories for all self-serve beverages in 2017 and has been displaying whole grain content in breads since in 2018.
How it works
To deliver the carbon data, Panera partnered with The World Resources Institute, a nonprofit organization that established a method to calculate the carbon footprint of a food provider's menu options. The goal is to help restaurants reduce food related greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2030.
Using a dish's ingredients list, WRI calculates a dish's carbon footprint by analyzing the emissions from the agricultural supply chains and the land used to produce the meal. If a dish's carbon footprint falls below an established per-meal threshold and meets a nutrition safeguard, it is approved as a "Cool Food Meal."
"Meals that have a lower carbon footprint in terms of what it takes to produce the food and get it to your plate are better for the climate," Burnett said. "These 'Cool Food Meals' have a low impact on the climate, making them a delicious way to help the planet."
More than half of Panera entrees are Cool Food Meals — including the Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt, 10 Vegetable Soup, Fuji Apple Chicken Salad and Broccoli Cheddar Soup.
"We hope that by labeling the entrees that are Cool Food Meals, guests will start to learn about the impact of their plate, and how what they choose to eat can have an impact on climate change," Burnett said.
Although there is is a fee for using the certification, Burnett believes it's worth it and hopes other brands will follow suit.
"Climate change is an important societal issue that we all need to work to address," she said. "With approximately 25% of greenhouse gases created from food production, what you choose to eat can help make a real difference — so as a food company, we feel a strong responsibility to share this information and empower our guests. This is a good way, in alignment with our other transparency work, to provide our customers with information that can help them make simple choices that can help combat climate change."
Will customers care about carbon transparency?
Since Panera is the first restaurant company to use the Cool Food Meals certification, Burnett isn't sure what to expect from customers but thought it was important to teach them that eating better for the planet can be both easy and delicious.
One fast casual chain has already found success, however, with its own carbon-labeling initiative. Just Salad, based in New York City, worked with students this summer from the New York University Stern School of Business to post the carbon footprints of its menu items.
"By the way, after our launch, we saw a 26% increase in sales (week-over-week) on our own digital channels," Sandra Noonan, chief sustainability officer, said during an interview with FastCasual. "We also saw a 126% (week-over-week) increase in our Climatarian menu items."
Noonan said it was exciting to see other brands (like Panera) embrace carbon transparency and climate-smart eating.
"Our vision is for carbon emissions to become as prevalent and familiar as calorie labels," she said.
Cherryh Cansler is VP of Editorial for Networld Media Group and senior editor of FastCasual.com. She has been covering the restaurant industry since 2012. Her byline has appeared in Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine, among many others.
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