Digging just a little bit more will be helpful in making really sustainable choices.
With sustainability becoming a natural part of our lives, we are often faced by practical questions: how to make choices that really help the planet and not just make us feel good?
The choice is particularly tricky when it comes to eating out. Green, vegetarian and zero waste options have occupied city streets worldwide, promising to boost your health and reduce your carbon footprint. Digging just a little bit more will be helpful in making really sustainable choices.
First up is the food itself. If you’re at a place that sells only sustainable food, great. Otherwise, enter, look at the menu, ask the waiter. The rule of thumb is that if there is at least something that is seasonal or sustainably preserved, vegetarian and locally produced, give it a chance. Otherwise, look for any other sustainability clues that can get you interested, or else go on searching as these are the three must-meets of any truly sustainable place.
Other more subtle food criteria include whether the restaurant sources only local produce or makes sure none of the food produced violates human or animal rights. And if you are lucky they might even have a solar panel or two on the roof and a nearby garden or greenhouse where the food you eat is directly produced. If you come by a place that’s part of the farm-to-fork or slow food movements, you’re in luck. It is also worth considering whether a restaurant has any biodynamic wine, organic and fair trade coffee or some futuristic sustainable choice like insect chips or advanced aquaponics system that might be of particular interest for you.
Other options, such as the possibility to choose the size of portions, availability of trusted organic certificates, and the ratio of vegetarian and vegan dishes to other food items on the menu, can help you figure out how deeply the owners actually care about their impacts on nature.
But what about meat, fish and exotic food? When it comes to these, a more ethically and sustainably produced/harvested food can give a restaurant big credits. If a place touts itself as an eatery for eco-friendly meat enthusiasts, you can inquire about sustainability practices at the farm level or whether the restaurant managers look for ways to reduce emissions from transportation or to offset their carbon footprint. Still, taking meat off your list is one of the most environmentally friendly eating-out habits you can make. And if you can sometimes make it without diary, even better.
But there’s more. Zero waste, renewable energy and other green practices help conserve resources and protect nature. It’s always good to bear in mind that restaurants that are built on values are more likely to consider the small details. These include the types of cleaning supplies they have in the bathrooms, the absence of plastic straws, whether the place has an option not to print receipts or whether there is an electric vehicle charging station in the parking lot. Take one of the most sustainable restaurants in the world: Azurmendi.
You can look deeper by asking the restaurant’s staff about how they deal with food leftovers, as well as whether they have any composting/bio-waste digestion practice in place. Or, maybe, do they do something to reduce packaging waste and inspire clients to live more sustainable lifestyles, like giving a discount for not choosing disposables? And don’t forget about the service. Does the stuff care about conserving water, for instance?
Another mark of sustainability is a strategy regarding positive social impacts. The Urban Space restaurants in Kyiv and Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, donate a large share of their profits for social projects that benefit the city. You can also look for restaurants that cater to people with limited means like Karma Kitchen in Berkeley, in the U.S.
Finally, it comes to building materials. What is an eatery made of? Were any interior elements upcycled, recovered or renewed? Maybe the floor is made of recycled materials, or those beautiful lamps were upcycled from Jack Daniels bottles. Or maybe everything the restaurant features is either recycled or sustainable, such as at Silo in Brighton, Britain?
If the restaurant showcases a Benefit Corp, LEED Gold, Cradle to Cradle or another top sustainability certificate, it certainly deserves your attention. Some restaurants even go as far as to acquire a sustainable restaurant certificate from independent third parties, like the Green Restaurant Association. And if a place has been recognized by Food Made Good Awards, it’s definitely a must.
If you like looking things up online first, the Green Restaurant Association guide is a good way to start. The Internet also offers a chance to find guides to local eco-friendly restaurants, or explore the insights of green restaurants guru Arthur Potts-Dawson, the founder of Acorn House and numerous sustainable food initiatives like Zero Waste Bistro in New York, which has been almost completely produced from recycled packaging waste. You can also learn a lot about what it means to be a sustainability-driven global coffee shop chain by perusing the most recent annual Social Impact Report by Starbucks.
In the end, though, the best sustainable choice you might ever find could still be one of your own doing, right at home. Go zero waste shopping to your favorite organic farmers market or take self-grown veggies from an urban garden. Cook them personally in your own solar-powered kitchen leaving no leftovers behind and enjoy the meal with your friends, knowing that you’ve made every possible effort to respect the planet at your dinner table.