4 sustainability takeaways from a recent meeting of foodservice professionals

At the Sustainability Leadership Team meeting in Charlotte, N.C., foodservice operators and manufacturers discussed barriers and solutions to being sustainable in on-site foodservice.
How to motivate stakeholders through storytelling was a topic of conversation at the Sustainability Leadership Team meeting. | Photo: Shutterstock.

When it comes to sustainability, storytelling and messaging have proven to be a challenge for operators and manufacturers alike. That, at least, was a topic of conversation at the Sustainability Leadership Team meeting in Charlotte, N.C. last week. Put on by Jim Green, president of Jim Green & Associates, the forum was a meeting of manufacturers and operators in the on-site foodservice space who gathered to discuss common challenges to being sustainable.  The team discussed the issues of standardization, communication and ultimately motivating stakeholders through storytelling.

Here's four takeaways from the event.

1. Start with something small

Sustainability can be an intimidating beast to tackle, and one concept shared at the forum was the idea of starting small with something that makes sense for your specific operation. The operators at the forum were all at different points in their sustainability journey and all had different priorities when it comes to addressing the issues.

From the manufacturing side, sustainable suppliers need to be cognizant of the needs of the operation. It’s also important to tell a good story, said Michael Moore, VP of business development at RestaurantWare, an environmentally conscious foodservice packaging, supplies and equipment company.

“Let's start with one thing, maybe a straw. If we replace a plastic straw with one made out of recycled coffee grounds, then we're telling a good story,” he said. “We're offering an innovative product that not only provides a solution that people will want to talk about, but it also has a better impact on the environment.”

When it comes to that storytelling, Moore said it’s important to go into the conversation with the context of what the client wants and needs.

“A lot of it has to do with domestic geographies. A conversation I have in the state of New York with a client is going to be very different than it may be in Ohio or a state where the emphasis on sustainability is less prominent. The perceived environmental impact and the resources that each state has varies drastically,” he said.

2. Motivating consumers and other stakeholders can be a challenge

One common theme that came up in discussion was the challenge of motivating stakeholders to get on board with sustainable initiatives. Operators noted hesitancy from the C-suite who are concerned with factors such as cost, labor and availability.

“Availability is a concern, as well as functionality, when people consider getting into something sustainable. If that fork is snapping in their client's hands with a more sustainable material, it detracts from the experience,” said Moore.

From a manufacturing perspective, Moore said it can be difficult to get clients on board if sustainability isn’t a focus area for them.

“It's a hard story to tell because it requires constant observation, measurement and the need to resonate with what the client wants. If the client is not super interested in hearing about how they've saved X amount of straws or replaced X amount of gallons of water waste, then it's really hard to get that traction in favor of sustainable options,” he said.

3.Messaging is key to changing consumer behavior

Changing consumer behavior is another challenge. Some operators in the business and industry space said that employees are often looking for convenience in the workplace and may place sustainability as less of a priority, even if they prioritize sustainability at home.

“The challenge is the messaging,” said Justin Williams, SVP amenities strategy lead for Wells Fargo. “If employees understand the story behind the company and product, then they may be more willing to pay an extra 50 cents or $1 to support a local or DE&I business.”

In addition, when it comes to waste separation, much of those efforts are reliant on employees.

“We look at ways to educate our employees on waste separation as we rely on them to do that first level of waste, separation, recycling, composting,” said Williams. “There may be a misalignment or a misunderstanding of what they're supposed to do. We continue to work on the right way to provide that understanding.”

One way Wells Fargo is working on that messaging is through hiring a foodservice marketing manager.

“And her goal is to create messaging that connects with our employees,” said Williams.

Another potential solution is the idea of a sustainability champion, said Kaitlyn Welzen, sustainability manager for Duke University Dining.

“I think a lot of the storytelling is this idea of sustainability champions. You need point people, people in this room and many more to be the go to people for disseminating that information, for asking questions and making those connections, [and] for being the one to talk to the marketing people and be like, 'I need you to write the story,'” she said.

While messaging may be a solution, motivating consumers can still be a daunting task.

“The problem, honestly, is you've got a lack of motivation from most consumers. Frankly- most people just don’t care- it’s not top of mind. Fact is, we live in a capitalist world where everything is driven by personal benefit. There are some do-gooders- but for the majority, human behavior needs to be incentivized," said Chris O’Brien, CEO of Hungry Giant Waste Systems. “Sounds cynical, but if you could say to every staff member in this building, ‘we are going to give you an extra $5 a day for every container you recycle,’ I can imagine the recycling figures skyrocketing instantly."

4. Sustainability is becoming more attainable

While the conversation around sustainability may seem bleak with the myriad of challenges in the industry, the group was optimistic for the future of sustainable foodservice. Cost was clearly a challenge in most operations, but O’Brien said that in some ways the commercial viability of sustainability is getting closer.

“The gap is closing. You know, compostable packaging prices I've seen in some cases come down and become more comparable as volume of production goes up,” he said. “You're seeing those options become more viable. So, the financial influence and therefore the incentive is changing.”

And while changing behavior is difficult, there is a growing demand for sustainability, particularly from younger generations, said Moore.

“There is a growing client base for this that we see increasing day to day in every conference that we're in,” he said. “Consumer awareness is on an upward trend as new generations are being more mindful of their individual environmental impact, spiking popularity in the use of these products.”



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