Food is one of life’s great pleasures, and also one of its most hotly debated topics. While cooking for loved ones or going out for a nice meal is great, the industries of hospitality and agriculture regularly (and rightly) find themselves under scrutiny from those of us who care about the longevity of our planet and reducing waste. Businesses such as restaurants and hotels often require large amounts of energy and resources, impact many people in supply chains, and produce a lot of waste. Because of all these factors the way that these businesses choose to operate, and change as climate change becomes increasingly pressing, is key.
Beyond those of us who are already in the sustainable world, general research has found that nearly all consumers are willing to pay more to dine at ‘green restaurants’ which are actively engaging in environmental protection. OpenTable also found that 81% of diners want ethically-sourced meals, while Forbes reports that customers are 88% more loyal to sustainable businesses.
Basically, even with morals aside, being sustainable is a smart business move. However, these studies also highlight just how difficult it can be to understand a restaurant’s sustainable practices, as most of it occurs out of the customer’s sight. This is both difficult for restaurant owners who want to tell people what they’re doing to operate in a better way, and for people who want to eat out more consciously.
After being invited by my friends Bridget and Laurence Callaghan to visit their sustainable pizzeria and social enterprise, Well Kneaded, in Earlsfield I decided to compile some things to consider and look for when trying to eat out with ethics in mind.
(For transparency: this post isn’t sponsored! I’ve known the Well Kneaded gang for at least 3 years, and while they did invite me to come and eat free pizza, this blog post was an idea I happened to have whilst eating).
What is sustainable food?
Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, developed a working definition of healthy and sustainable food, or good food:
Good food should be produced, processed, bought, sold and eaten in ways that provide social benefits, contribute to thriving local economies that create good jobs and secure livelihoods, and enhance the health and variety of both plants and animals (and the welfare of farmed and wild creatures), protect natural resources such as water and soil, and help to tackle climate change.
In practice, this looks like considering multiple factors, both in and outside of the home. When it comes to restaurants, ideally they will be proactive and committed to finding sustainable options for the areas that their business has a direct impact upon; looking at how their space and business is run, their supply chains, and what happens beyond ingredients reaching the kitchen.
A good place to start is looking out for businesses who deliberately operate with a triple bottom line model, which prioritises people and planet just as much as being economically successful. If you’re looking to be more specific, here are some things to consider when looking at restaurants:
Locally sourced & seasonal ingredients
Restaurants that utilise as many locally sourced ingredients as possible will immediately lessen their impact and emissions, as everything travels much shorter distances to reach them. This also invests money right back into local communities and means that ingredients are fresher. Produce will also be at its nutritional peak, as it has been harvested at the right time without being transported for many days over thousands of miles to reach you. Plus, if it’s in season in your area it’s often also what your body needs to be consuming at that time of year.
Some restaurants can also use seasonal thinking as a way to reduce waste, buying peak season produce in bulk, when it’s at it’s least expensive, and finding ways to preserve it such as pickling, freezing or drying. This helps tackle the larger epidemic of food waste and often results in more creative opportunities for chefs too.
As a restaurant goer, local and seasonal menus are also more interesting because they change regularly. It’s really fun to visit restaurants that have rotating seasonal menus, as each trip feels more exciting and worth the investment. Well Kneaded’s menu changes every week, depending on what they have in stock and what’s in season. This means that the vegan sourdough pizza I had on my last visit (kale, red onion, kimchi, pine nuts, garlic and tomato, called the Brontosaurus Rex) won’t be the same next time I visit. If you’re into food, the extra surprise element is even more fun.
While I think it’s definitely important that people prioritise eating fruit and vegetables rather than avoiding them because of pesticide fears (and therefore ending up with really bad nutrition and health issues), I also think it’s the responsibility of food businesses to prioritise supporting organic producers.
Toxic pesticides cause varying health issues for workers and locals living near farms, whilst also destroying biodiversity through killing other animals such as birds, fish, insects and non-target plants. They also contaminate soil, vegetation, and water systems through runoff from treated plants and soil, meaning that pesticides touch a lot more than the plants they’re intended for. Organic produce is less environmentally intensive, and can carry more antioxidants too.
Vegetarian & Vegan options
At this point, we all know that the mass production and megacorporation approach to meat and dairy is hard on the planet. Restaurants that serve multiple plant-based options will have a smaller footprint overall, whilst also catering to many dietary needs and providing non-alienating options for those who are just looking to reduce their consumption whenever they can, for instance by doing something like only eating meat on weekends.
For example, while Well Kneaded do have meat on the menu (and they’re very strict on all suppliers in terms of welfare and organic practices), whenever I’ve visited the pizzeria or eaten from their pizza van at events there have always been multiple varying veggie and vegan options. The number of exciting choices on display (and not just having salad as the only option) helps open up the idea of accessible and achievable plant-based lifestyles to more people, helps a food business be lower impact, and presents a ton of exciting discoveries for food lovers. I’d never had kimchi on a pizza before visiting the Well Kneaded pizzeria, and now I’m a huge fan.
In more general terms, it’s also important to consider where and how a restaurant is sourcing their seafood. Over 50% of the UK’s biggest restaurant chains are using seafood from overfished areas of the sea or failing to be transparent about the origins of their seafood, according to Fish2fork and the Marine Conservation Society. The organisations teamed up to asses a dozen of the biggest restaurant chains serving at least four species of seafood. With more than 1,800 branches between them, 7 of the chains failed to reach the basic level of sustainability on seafood that Fish2fork and MCS believe to be the minimum standard.
You can find restaurants sourcing MSC certified sustainable seafood, however this label can be difficult to trust at times, especially when scale increases. If the restaurant you’re visiting is sourcing from trusted fishmongers or small fishing operations using low impact catch methods, then that is likely to be better than simply buying seafood with the sustainable label. Smaller, more local restaurants are more likely to do this than big chains, so going for small business is generally your best bet.
Currently food waste makes up 40% of the total waste from the hospitality sector. In the UK alone 500,000 tonnes of food is wasted annually in restaurants, pubs, and hotels, equalling almost 1 billion average plates of food. Not only is this a waste of resources, but it also produces a lot of methane.
There are ways that restaurants can do better, however. Having a rotating seasonal menu, as Well Kneaded does, can immediately lessen the waste a restaurant creates, as the menu depends on what is available at the time and uses up everything in stock. Having a smaller menu helps ingredients be managed properly, whilst food waste can be composted or recycled, and low waste preparation methods can also be implemented. In Well Kneaded’s case, each pizza is made to order and then cooked in the pizza oven for 60 – 90 seconds, meaning nothing is prepared that won’t be sent to the customer immediately.
Beyond food waste, restaurants can also examine their packaging habits, opting for recycled, recyclable, reusable or compostable options over single-use plastics.
As well as physical waste, it’s also important to consider what we don’t see. Globally we’re facing a clean water shortage crisis, while plants that treat waste water produce huge amounts of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. At the same time, commercial kitchens can use up to 10 times the amount of energy of an average commercial building.
There are things that restaurants can do however, including switching to a green energy provider, using technology to monitor energy consumption, using rainwater collection water systems, and finding sustainable suppliers for other necessities such as zero waste toilet paper and non-toxic cleaning products.
Ethical treatment of workers
There are many hidden workers in food systems, and large global chains (such as the rice industry) can leave room for exploitation, low pay, abuse, unsafe working conditions, and even bonded labour.
For a food system to be sustainable it has to benefit all workers along the way, ensuring they’re safe, cared for, and fairly compensated for their labour. For restaurants this has to be reflected in how they treat their own staff, as well as those in their ingredient supply chain. By working with smaller scale farmers restaurants can develop direct relationships with their suppliers, ensuring that working conditions are fair and workers are happy. Well Kneaded does this by working with British producers as much as possible, enabling them to visit suppliers and see conditions for themselves (this is also another benefit of using locally sourced produce, as businesses can monitor their supply chains more easily).
Most responsible businesses have a charitable or community aspect to how they operate, and food businesses are no different. Each responsible restaurant will look different, often feeding back into localised community projects. Well Kneaded operates as a social enterprise, offering employment and training to young people from marginalised communities. It operates like a paid internship, with many going on to other jobs in the food industry, or becoming fully employed at Well Kneaded themselves.
What can consumers do
While it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find one perfect restaurant ticking every single box exactly as we’d wish, the list above does show that there are multiple ways that the hospitality sector can rise above the norm and operate in greener ways. As well as considering the factors above, in general you can:
- Avoid large chain restaurants, where supply chains and scale of ingredients make it much harder to operate sustainably. The highest Ethical Consumer score for a restaurant chain in the UK was Wahaca, with a score of 8. However the scoring system is out of 20, so that tells you something. If you can opt for smaller scale, local businesses they’re more likely to also be working with local suppliers and operating in a more sustainable and ethical way. It’s not a perfect guarantee, but it’s a helpful starting place.
- Use apps like Happy Cow or CoGo to help you identify sustainable food businesses in your area.
- Or if you already know of sustainable food producers in your area, support them! Rewarding good practice through your custom and generally advocating for more transparency in our food systems will help sustainable businesses stay open and encourage others to change.
And if you’re in West London and fancy some sustainable pizza, well then you can visit Well Kneaded and say I sent you.