Slicing up sustainability

Slicing up sustainability
16/01/2017 - 12:00
Four months into his post as chief executive of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, and he is constantly reminded that it really couldn’t be a more exciting time to be working in the hospitality and foodservice sector. Andrew Stephen explains

Brits are now spending more than £50bn eating out annually on an eye-watering 8 billion meals. Restaurants, pubs, cafés and caterers are feeding people more than ever before. With that huge power comes responsibility.

That was why restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and Mark Sainsbury launched the SRA six years ago, to help share and shape that responsibility. From the seeds they planted in 2010, rock solid roots have grown.

During my whistlestop tour of meetings, trade shows, workshops, and events I’ve experienced a strong flavour of what the industry is doing to make food good and what it’s aspiring to do, as well as the challenges and barriers it faces.

Believe me, I’ve made it my business to acquaint myself with as a broad as possible a cross section of the market – mirroring the diversity of our membership.

I’ve witnessed a fanatically keen audience at the supplier conference of one of the UK’s largest restaurant groups, chaired passionate panel sessions at the industry’s biggest trade shows, eaten dinner in a Michelin Star restaurant, almost half of which was grown in its own garden. These are are just some of the experiences that have helped guide me during this informal induction and helped shape my view of where the industry’s at in terms of sustainability.

In the six years since the SRA launched, the landscape has changed dramatically. Much of what seemed ground-breaking in 2010 is now regarded as mainstream rather than niche, whether that’s tackling food waste, serving exclusively free range eggs, making at least a quarter of menu options vegetarian, offering  tap water as the default option and being open and transparent about tips and service charge policies. They are a long way from being universal, but these things are starting to be considered much more the norm.

While the SRA is proud to be working with 6,500 sites across the UK and to have helped many of these businesses to implement some of these positive changes, that number represents just 3% of the industry. We don’t for a moment believe that the other 97% are sitting on their hands doing nothing, rather we suspect many of them are already operating as a progressive force. But the wider industry’s spirit of innovation and desire to do the right thing needs to be harnessed and we are hell-bent on doing it.

Because, the equivalent of one in six meals eaten out is still being wasted, the vast majority of operators ‘could try much harder’ to make their kids menus nutritious and  delicious and the skills shortage in the industry is evidence, in part at least, of its failure to treat people fairly. I could go on…

We want, by 2020, to have connected with 20% of the industry, and to have engaged them in meaningful, measurable changes. Consumer research conducted for the SRA by Harden’s in 2015, revealed that 95% believed that sustainability issues would have more of an effect on their dining decisions by 2020. So, the incentive is there for businesses and we’ve been delighted to start work in recent months with some of the biggest names in the business, like Pizza Hut and JD Wetherspoon.

We believe wholeheartedly that it’s incumbent on chefs to lead as well as feed. Many have already taken on that responsibility and are doing so to great effect. Chefs like Jamie Oliver and Thomasina Miers are doing it on a grand scale, but it doesn’t require a TV show.

To inspire restaurants and to help them to make further progressive, positive changes the Sustainable Restaurant Association is launching a calendar of campaigns in 2017 as part of its Food Made Good programme. Slicing up sustainability into ten tasty, manageable chunks, we’ll help frame the debates one by one. And an interactive online community platform will provide all the essential tools and resources as well as offer an opportunity to showcase the trailblazers.

Whether, for example, it’s tackling the million tonne mountain of food the industry wastes, making kids’ menus healthier and more nutritious or helping cut the 20bn kWh of energy foodservice uses annually, the ten campaign themes will help define what a ‘good’ restaurant is.

The pledges to which operators commit will enable us to measure and monitor positive change both on a micro level – in any specific business, as well as across the industry. And in a significant shift in our operating method, we will be offering non-members the chance to get involved too, because making food good is absolutely not the preserve of a few.  We’ll also be opening up our awards to non-members and making them submission based, so we can best capture and celebrate the huge array of positive initiatives of which hospitality businesses are rightly proud.

As someone far cleverer than me once said, knowledge is power. All of the very best examples of sustainable hospitality businesses ensure that their ethos is second nature for their staff. How do they do that? Training, and that’s why we’ve now made this a core element of our offering to the industry. Understanding and appreciating the fundamentals of what makes a restaurant ‘good’ makes staff feel engaged, inspired and better able to communicate that to customers. And we’re in the process of consulting the industry on how this training can work best for them.

Food Made Good is about building a sustainable food system by linking together those that are growing, cooking and serving food, with the people who care about what they eat – 75% tell us that they regard the sustainability achievements of a restaurant as better value than a 10% discount. We are fully committed to pulling together the broadest possible coalition of businesses, drawing on the expertise of a network of partner organisations from the sustainable food movement, sharing practical, effective solutions to inspire measurable, meaningful change.

We’d love you to be a part of the movement.

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