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How to make your restaurant more ethical

9 January 2020 Small Business Advice

In this post, we look at some of the ways cafés and restaurants can become more ethical, including reducing plastic waste, offering recyclable coffee cups and sourcing ingredients locally.

Undoubtedly, there is an increasing awareness among the general public about ethical issues, driven by programmes such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 which took an unflinching look at the effect our use of plastics is having on marine life. 

What’s more, the growing concern over environmental and ethical issues is shaping our attitudes to eating out. According to Paymentsense’s recent reporttwo thirds (66%) of the population now believe that ethical considerations matter when choosing where to eat. 

The report also claims that just under a quarter of us (24%) now actively seek out restaurants that are environmentally friendly or follow sustainable practices. This is particularly true for London which is even higher at 39%.

But how do small restaurants in particular go about making their offering more ethical and environmentally friendly? 

Source locally

Sourcing locally is important for restaurant goers with 36% claiming it is a key consideration when eating out, according to the Paymentsense restaurant survey. It is even higher in certain regions, particularly London (43%).

The survey also revealed that there should be more transparency regarding the food chain with 28% more likely to visit a restaurant if the origin of the food is clear.

Of course, sourcing ingredients locally isn’t a new issue. Many restauranteurs and eco-campaigners such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have been talking about the importance of sourcing locally for many years. 

 “It’s about getting it from other people who grow it brilliantly who live near you,” Fearnley-Whittingstall told Culture Calling back in 2017. “It’s that sense of community where food is one of the great glues for a community that knows itself.”

 For forward-thinking restauranteurs, like Fearnley-Whittingstall, sourcing food locally is not only important for fostering community links, but also reducing the number of ‘food miles’ a meal takes to get to your table. 

According to Pollution Issues, 95% of our fruit comes from abroad, half our vegetables are imported and the amount of food flown by plane has risen by 140% since 1992. To many consumers, this is becoming increasingly unacceptable which is why they are much more likely to eat at restaurants where ingredients are sourced locally.

One potential option for some restaurants may be to grow their own produce. For more ideas on how to do this – even with limited space – visit the One Plate blog here

Reduce plastic use

Of all the things that a restaurant business can do to help the environment, reducing plastic is perhaps one of the most important and simplest. One place to start is by replacing plastic straws which have virtually become synonymous with environmental damage since Blue Planet 2 and programmes such as War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita

There are now loads of alternatives including paper straws, as well as those made out of papaya leaves and bamboo. Restaurants should also ensure their supplies, such as fresh meat and vegetables, aren’t wrapped in plastic and that food isn’t vacuum packed in plastic when it is stored. 

Restaurants should also reduce the use of Polystyrene or Styrofoam cups which can’t be recycled and either switch to paper cups or, as is happening now in many cafés, charge less for people using their own flasks and bottles. For more information on recyclable paper cups check out the Paper Cup Alliance.

Last year, our research found that over half of small retailers (54%) have seen demand for plastic packaged goods fall over a sixth month period with almost half (49%) reporting that more consumers are requesting products without packaging.

In response to these shifting consumer priorities, and as the zero-waste movement gains traction, many small retailers are already making changes. Over four in 10 (41%) said they have started stocking unpacked or loose goods and have introduced new lines with plastic-free packaging in the last six months. Almost a third (30%) are also now recycling more, and a quarter (25%) no longer sell drinks with built-in plastic straws.

Offer organic options

While offering organic food is probably no longer enough on its own to gain full environmental credentials, it should remain part of overall strategy to make your business more ethical. 

Our data shows that nearly one in four restaurant goers (23%) are prepared to pay more for organic food, rising to 41% in London. For more information on organic food check out The Social Association website. 

Treat staff fairly

One concern that many customers have is where their tips go. While cash tips should go directly to the staff, typically a small percentage of tips left on a card (usually about 2.5%) will be taken by the restaurant to cover card processing costs. The same applies to any service charge added to the bill. 

However, treating staff fairly isn’t just about ensuring they are able to keep their tips. It’s also about providing equal opportunities, training and clear policies to keep them happy and productive. By treating staff well they are more likely to do their job properly and keep your customers happy too!

Reduce food waste

It isn’t just the use of plastic which is a problem for the catering industry. The amount of food waste is too. According to WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), the food sector produces 400,000 tonnes of avoidable food waste each year costing a staggering £682 million.

By learning to reduce food waste, not only will you be able to help the environment, you’ll also save your business money too. There are a number of ways this can be achieved including avoiding over-buying and storing and labelling food correctly. WRAP estimates that 21% of food waste is due to spoilage, so it’s important you have a stock management and rotation system in place. 

Use the FIFO rule – first in, first out – when storing food and keep a stock inventory so you know exactly which foods you have in stock at any one time. 

Finally, how about setting up a link with a local charity, such as the Fareshare scheme? You can then donate any leftover meals and ingredients to people who need them. 

Alternatively, you could set up a link with a local food bank so that your leftover food goes to a good home, rather than going to waste.

Improve energy and efficiency

All restaurants can reduce their environmental impact and save money at the same time by taking a few simple measures. Look for the Energy Star label when buying appliances to ensure you are getting an energy efficient product. Another measure is to upgrade your lightbulbs. Traditional incandescent bulbs may be dirt cheap, but last for just 1,000 to 2,000 hours compared to a 60 watt LED bulb which lasts for between 10,000 to 25,000 hours. 

Installing passive infra-red sensors (PIRs) in less widely used areas, such as the toilets or stock room, so that lights only come on when they sense movement, can help to reduce electricity bills too. Staff should also be encouraged to switch off taps when they are not washing produce, rather than leaving them running. 

Opportunities for change

For restaurants and catering businesses, the latest consumer trends inevitably present challenges, particularly around ethical issues. However, they also present opportunities especially for smaller businesses to gain a competitive advantage over larger restaurants. 

By following the simple steps above, businesses can firmly establish their ethical credentials. If you’ve been inspired, why not check out the Sustainable Restaurant Association, a not-for-profit organisation, which works with 8,500 catering businesses to help them become more ethically aware. 

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