RapidBlog: Greenwashing in Restaurants, by Angela Topp

This blog is one that is not going to sit well with a lot of people, but in the past couple of weeks, it has been more important than ever to publish it. The term “greenwashing” is new to me. In fact, it was not until coming to GR that I ever heard the term. I felt a bit like I lived in a cave as I have always known the meaning of greenwashing, but never had an official name to call it.

Greenwashing is simply (defined for me, anyway) as a company that is in the business for profit as opposed to passion. Because of this, corners are often cut. Local farms are very trendy at the moment and this is a VERY GOOD thing. It seems that everywhere you look, more and more restaurants are claiming to shop local for meat and produce, or talking about other ways they are benefiting the environment. The question is: how can you tell the difference between talkers and the walkers?

Greenwashing of food is happening right here in our favorite restaurants. I have friends who are chefs and friends who are farmers. My previous life was spent in the restaurant industry and I can tell you that often, it is not pretty. Restaurants have made great strides in environmental issues, as a whole, have a long way to go. Until customers and farmers hold restaurants accountable for what they put on your plate and what goes out the back door, not much is going to change. I am not going to out anyone in this blog, but I can tell you that more restaurants are guilty of this than you would think.
As a consumer, you have the right to ask where you food is sourced and how it is grown or raised. You also have a right to know how they handle their waste and what steps they are taking to conserve energy. Everyone has different personal issues and preferences, and it would be nearly impossible for a restaurant to cater to all, but you want to spend your hard earned money at the restaurants that support the causes that matter most to you. I am going to let you in on some of their secrets. I think as consumers, we deserve better. And, certainly, the local farmers deserve better.

Cutting?

Cutting is probably the worst offense a restaurant can commit. This happens when a restaurant purchases a small amount of product from a local farmer and mixes it in with a larger quantity of product from the national food distribution companies. They do this so that they can say it is organic, local or both without having to pay the higher prices for the produce. It allows them to still charge you the same, and many still will, but allows them to get a higher profit margin. As a farmer, I would not want to do business with a restaurant that would mix my organic or very carefully raised produce with that of a product that sat in a warehouse for who knows how long and traveled here from who knows where. If a customer is not happy with the product, it could reflect poorly on the farmer even though they did not grow the item in the first place. It is bad business, plain and simple, to put someone’s name on a product that they did not produce -- especially in this case where many times the product is inferior. The ratio of local or organic produce on your plate can be pretty small. Some restaurants are using less then 20% local produce and still advertising it that way on the menu.

Lying or a lack of updating their information… which is still lying
?Unfortunately, we have to take the restaurants word for what they advertise. There are laws holding restaurants accountable for truth in their menus, but they are very rarely ever enforced. There really is nothing stopping a restaurant from saying whatever they want to tell you and sadly, some will tell you anything you want to hear. They advertise products as local or as organic or from a specific farm and that could have been two months ago, but now is no longer the case. They maybe got asparagus from a local farm in May, but come October, the chances of them having a local supply from the friendly farm next door are pretty unlikely. A restaurant that truly sources locally will have menu items changing all of the time and farms changing pretty frequently as well. If your favorite spot has had a static menu for a couple of months without any shortage, something is wrong.

Waste??
This topic for me is one that gets me pretty riled up. We have this AMAZING Company called Spurt industries right here in West Michigan, and they make being a waste-free business so simple. They are an industrial composting company that will pick up compostable waste from restaurants and businesses in the area. If your favorite restaurant does not have a bright orange Spurt bin, you need to ask them why. I do not work for Spurt or get paid in any way for saying this, but they are the best thing to happen to local area restaurants. They drop off this pretty orange dumpster and restaurants throw in food scraps, paper, waxed paper and many other items that have no business going to a landfill. Spurt does all of the work and the restaurant gets all of the credit. It is a no-nonsense approach to composting and takes no more time and effort then taking out the trash at the end of the night. With a Spurt bin and the GR recycling program, every restaurant in GR could be virtually waste-free. The sad truth is that many restaurants do not compost and do not recycle -- and that is just not right.
Today is the day where we stand up and ask our restaurants to do more and be honest with us. No more tricks and corner-cutting.  We deserve honest truth in menu practices and our environment deserves more from one of the biggest industries in the world. Just think about the impact made if just half or a quarter of the world’s restaurants practiced these missions rather than just preaching them.
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