Sustainability matters

Mark Linehan, Managing Director of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, examines the catering industry’s response to sustainability.

Catering companies are one step ahead of many restaurants in the challenge of communicating their sustainability credentials.

The last five or six years have seen a significant change within the restaurant, hospitality and foodservice sector in response to an ever-growing awareness and concern for sustainability issues. Responding to calls for greater environmental and social responsibility was initially seen as optional or ‘niche’, but is now becoming more and more mainstream – to the point that any business neglecting to do so, does so at their own risk.

Not surprisingly, over this period, research has shown an increase in consumer concern for and interest in sustainability topics. Recently, research by the Harden’s restaurant guide showed that diners care more about sustainability now than ever before, that they are prepared to pay a premium for it and that they expect it to be more of an influence on where they choose to eat out.

The challenge for businesses has been knowing how to respond to concerns from consumers who appear to be incredibly fickle. One year organic is the most important issue, next it’s sustainable fish, then food waste and then treating staff fairly. The impact of campaigns and news stories can be huge, yet who predicted the horse meat scandal would break or that the Evening Standard would run a series of stories on how tips and service charges are being managed?

Of course, the most progressive and forward-thinking businesses have always been on the front foot, taking care of sustainability across the board rather than waiting for the next story to break. It’s not just been about local and seasonal sourcing – although this always features prominently on the list of things diners say they care about – but also such important issues as investing in staff and taking steps to reduce the amount of perfectly good food that gets thrown away.

It has been fascinating over the last few years to witness the extent to which so many contract caterers have embraced sustainability within their operations, but perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. One of the real challenges restaurants face is knowing whether taking such steps in this direction is really giving customers what they want and bringing more people through the door. Even if you know what customers care about most, sustainability issues compete with a whole range of other factors in influencing the choice of where to eat out. Eating out is ultimately about fun, enjoyment, great food and a social experience and, when choosing a restaurant, it is very easy to ‘park’ our principles at the restaurant door.

Caterers are different, in that they have two clients Ð the people who eat their food and the clients who award contracts. Clients, across the cost and profit sectors, are increasingly including sustainability criteria in tenders, going far beyond the insistence on Fairtrade tea and coffee of a few years ago. Virgin Atlantic have taken a lead in the aviation sector, by working to develop minimum sustainability standards in all contracts with suppliers of in-flight catering in all the countries they operate in. But we’ve seen similar innovation in the education sector, with schools and universities, in public spaces and with workplace dining.

The last of these is particularly interesting, because the relationship between the caterer and the consumer is much longer term than is the case traditionally in the restaurant sector, loyal regular customers notwithstanding. When someone eats in the same staff restaurant two, three or more times a week, it provides the caterer with the chance to communicate sustainability credentials more clearly and the customer the opportunity to articulate what he or she really cares about.

And the best caterers have gone so much further than just meeting the minimum requirements of their clients. Developments and innovation have been interesting to watch and very welcome, with so many businesses making a real commitment to build genuine sustainability and high ethical standards into their DNA. They not only bring added value to contracts by helping clients to save money through such initiatives as reduced energy and water use and reduced waste, but they play a real part in helping them to deliver on their own CSER commitments. Where sustainability used to be point of difference for some caterers, it is now much more commonplace, which can only be good for the sector as a whole.