10 steps to sustainability

18 October 2007 by
10 steps to sustainability

Food production and catering has a huge carbon footprint, but there are some relatively pain-free ways that hospitality operators can make a difference. Emma Allen describes how 10 companies have earned their green credentials

The green debate has undoubtedly picked up speed in the past few years, but the impact on the environment of food production and food service can get overlooked, despite some alarming figures. Only six out of 1,000 fruit products bought in the UK are actually grown here, according to the Soil Association and the food system alone accounts for up to 40% of all UK road freight.

The good news is that creating a more sustainable food offer doesn't have to be complicated. Buying more local produce, cutting down on food waste or simply adjusting menus to the seasons can all help to reduce your carbon footprint and demonstrate environmental responsibility to your customers. Here are 10 examples you can follow of how operators are making their businesses more sustainable.

Grow it yourself
Percy's, Devon

Guests staying at Percy's, an eight-bedroom eco-friendly hotel in Virginstow, Devon, don't have far to look to see where the food on their plate has come from. Almost everything served in the 30-seat restaurant is home-grown, with the 130-acre organic estate providing anything from vegetable staples such as potatoes, squashes and carrots to fresh herbs and fruit from the orchard.

Owners Tony and Tina Bricknell-Webb, who opened Percy's in 1996, also rear their own Jacob-Suffolk crossbreed sheep and Large Black pigs. "People can see their dinner walking around the field," says Tina, who plans to start using the wool from their 200-strong flock this year to produce hand-knitted jumpers. Average spend at dinner is £50. The hotel's turnover is in the region of £350,000.

Being self-taught farmers themselves, they recommend growing produce to anyone with a bit of land, but point out that it's very labour-intensive. "It's also not particularly lucrative, but it's very much part of our USP. We can guarantee where our food comes from, so guests can relax, and the quality of our ingredients speak for themselves," Tina says, adding that polytunnels, choosing vegetable varieties carefully and using cheaper cuts of meat help to keep menus interesting in winter.

Her tip for beginners? "Get the soil and drainage right first and a couple of pigs can save a lot of labour by clearing land."

Percy's, Virginstow, Devon EX21 5EA

Compost food waste
Morton Hall, Lincolnshire

The publicity surrounding landfill sites and the damage they do to the environment has made the disposal of food waste a key issue in the fight against climate change. The UK chucks away £20b of produce every year, and a 2006 report by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) stated that if we stop throwing away food that could still be consumed, the carbon saving would be equivalent to taking one out of every five cars off the road.

One way for businesses to tackle the problem, and save money, is by composting waste, rather than sending it to expensive and fast-filling landfill sites. Morton Hall, a low-security women's prison in Lincolnshire, has saved about £12,000 a year in waste-disposal costs after the prison installed an IMC food waste disposer, which reduces waste volume by up to 80%.

Food waste is macerated and then passed through a de-waterer, which allows the resulting grey water to simply drain away while solid matter is collected in bins. Wood pellets then mature the matter into high-quality compost over six weeks. With the price of the IMC equipment at less than £7,000, Morton Hall has recouped its investment in just over two years. Larger-capacity composters cost about £20,000.

Morton Hall, Swinderby, Lincolnshire LN6 9PT

Use biodegradable packaging
National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham

One company that is making big strides in sustainability is the National Exhibition Centre (NEC), which in September introduced 100% biodegradable packaging across its entire catering business. White plastic cups and see-through plastic sandwich containers have been replaced by more eco-friendly cardboard wrappings, paper carrier bags, and recyclable cups for tea and coffee - a considerable step for a business that serves millions of drinks and sandwiches a year. Costs, according to Sally Davis, managing director of NEC Food, are "almost the same". "Once the research and testing was carried out, buying biodegradable packaging was no more expensive," she says.

The move, she explains, is about corporate responsibility. "People have come to expect companies to act greener, and we are getting more and more enquiries about our CSR policy," she explains. "It's not a massive issue yet, but it's definitely growing."

Labels on packaging have also been reduced to minimise waste and, to encourage visitors to recycle, recycling bins have been introduced around the NEC site - though expecting crowds of delegates or concert-goers to sort their rubbish before chucking it away is probably unrealistic.

"That's why it's even more important for us to have greener packaging, as we're not in total control of disposal," she says. "Our next step is looking at better ways to manage this and how we can reduce our overall waste."

National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham B40 1NT

Recycle cooking oil

An estimated 75,000 tonnes of waste cooking oil are produced by hospitality businesses every year in the UK. Legislation passed in 2004 means that waste cooking oil can no longer be sent to landfill sites or used in animal food supplements. Instead, it can be recycled into either incineration fuel or biodiesel, a cleaner-burning, more environmentally friendly substitute for ordinary diesel. Biodiesel is now becoming more widely available in the UK and a growing number of companies are using it in company vehicles, including McDonald's, which has pledged to convert all of its vehicles to biodiesel by next year, producing a hefty carbon saving of 1,650 tonnes a year.

Transesterification, the manufacture of biodiesel from waste cooking oil, is strictly regulated and requires an Environment Agency licence if over 5,000 litres, so most firms pay someone to do it for them. Some firms - including Sodexho, which plans to start using biodiesel in its vehicles - are starting to look at conversion on site.

Sodexho's environmental manager Paul Bracegirdle points out that savings on large-scale disposal costs could be significant. With plant equipment and set-up costs in the region of £10,000, he projects an annual saving of about £7,000, based on a large site producing 1,000 litres of oil or so a month.

Demand positive environmental performance from suppliers

At independent contract caterer BaxterStorey, which won official accreditation for its environmental programme last year, "greening" the supply chain has been a key focus over the past 12 months. As well as insisting on local food sourcing to cut food miles and support local farmers - 100% of meat and 85% of fruit and veg are now British-bought - the company is also working with its supplier base to reduce the carbon footprint in other areas.

Getting suppliers to reuse delivery trays has cut down on cardboard packaging, and deliveries have also been made more efficient by using biofuel in trucks, while replanning delivery routes has helped cut unnecessary drops. Chemical-free biodegradable cleaning products are now being trialled across every site, and all new suppliers wanting to come on board have to demonstrate green credentials such as recycling initiatives.

So far, supplier response has been positive, according to Mike Hanson, head of environmental management. "We're not wielding a stick it's more of a consultative approach that hopefully improves their business as well," he explains.

What about costs? Hanson says adopting greener measures hasn't pushed up overheads but stresses it's not about money. "It's about ethical responsibility. Yes, there's a marketing opportunity, too, but we're doing our bit for the planet at the same time."

BaxterStorey, The Waterfront, 300 Thames Valley Park Drive, Reading, Berkshire RG6 1PT

Offer Fairtrade produce
Abode Hotels

Fairtrade was set up in the late 1980s to help small growers worldwide by giving them a fair price for their produce. Since then, the UK has become its biggest market, and there are now more than 2,000 products carrying the familiar Fairtrade mark, from tea and coffee to organic herbs and spices, and beers, wines and spirits. The surge in ethical consumerism in recent years has undoubtedly boosted sales, which are increasing at an impressive 46% year-on-year, according to the Fairtrade Foundation.

Prices, both retail and wholesale, do tend to be slightly higher, but profits are ploughed back into grower organisations, allowing them to develop their businesses sustainably in the future.

One supporter is chef Michael Caines, who sells Fairtrade drinks and chocolate in his chain of Abode hotels. For him, choosing Fairtrade over standard products is about giving something back.

"For those of us lucky enough to have achieved success within our industries, helping others should be one of our responsibilities," he says.

As an operator, what are the benefits of offering Fairtrade? Caines thinks it's about choice. "More and more consumers want to know the provenance of products, and many are happy to pay the extra for products that directly help farmers," he says.

Abode Hotels, 4 Queen Square, Bath BA1 2HA

• For a list of suppliers of Fairtrade catering products see www.fairtrade.org.uk/suppliers_caterers.htm.

Source from sustainable fisheries
The Place, Camber Sands

"Our buying policy isn't clever stuff we're just trying to be responsible," says Matthew Wolfman, owner of the Place, a 50-seat fish restaurant in Camber Sands, Kent, which sources all of its fish from nearby Hastings.

One of the oldest fisheries in the UK, Hastings is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for its mackerel, herring and Dover sole, meaning the fish are caught using environmentally sensitive fishing methods and that each haul has a clear line of provenance from the boat to the plate.

Recognition by the MSC also entitles the restaurant to use the MSC-approved mark on its menus and website. Prices are set at the beginning of each month and are dictated by availability - Wolfman says there's little to no cost difference between buying MSC-certified and non-certified - while buying seasonally when species are at their most abundant keeps costs down. As well as buying MSC-certified species, he avoids endangered stocks such as cod, haddock and hake, preferring instead to put on the menu lesser-known, often cheaper, species, like flounder, or gurnard when it's in season, as well as dab - "a deliciously sweet little flatfish" - and razor clams. Prices for main fish dishes range from £13.25 to £17.25.

Wolfman believes that sustainable sourcing not only makes sense environmentally, but that diners also appreciate the chance to try something different. "We've never had any complaints about not selling cod," he says. "We don't ram the message down people's throats, but I think customers appreciate what we're trying to do."

The Place, Camber Sands, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7RB

Buy organic
The Duke of Cambridge, London

Organic food is big business. Sales of organic food and drink in the UK last year nudged the £2b mark, according to the Soil Association, and at the UK's first certified organic pub, the Duke of Cambridge in Islington, London, managing director Geetie Singh points out that consumers are far more aware of what they are eating than ever before.

"When we opened in 1998 nobody was interested in sustainability. There's been a phenomenal shift," she says.

Everything at the Duke is organic - from the food on the twice-daily changing menu to wine, to specially brewed beers, right down to tampons in the ladies loo - while a comprehensive green policy includes recycling and a ban on packaged food, including crisps.

The pub also purifies its own water on site and buys electricity from a renewable-source supplier.

Singh says perceptions, particularly around price, are changing. "We do have that expensive tag, but more customers are starting to understand the premium, especially with meat - although convincing them to pay more for aubergines in season can be more difficult," she says.

Mains cost about £13, or £18 for a steak, and the pub operates a 72% margin across all fish, meat and vegetables. "We're meticulous about costing," she explains. "Some core ingredients like peppercorns and olive oil are very expensive, so we try to make that up elsewhere."

With numerous wholesalers and suppliers stocking organic products it's much easier to source locally these days, but it can require a different approach to menu planning. "We've got seven different produce suppliers, so it's a question of phoning them up every day to see what they've got and taking inspiration from there," Singh explains.

The Duke of Cambridge, 30 St Peter's Street, Islington, London N1 8JT www.sloeberry.co.uk

Buy British

The Soho Coffee Company

Using local suppliers could be described as a win-win process, given that it means low food miles, high traceability and a boost for the local economy. At the Soho Coffee Co, a seven-strong coffee shop chain in the South-west of England, directors Penny Manuel and Chris Copner have worked hard to forge local supplier links, building up an impressive list of foods that don't have to travel far to the company's Cheltenham headquarters before being distributed to shops.

Beef comes from nearby Herefordshire cakes and flour are sourced from a bakery just up the road and Fairtrade coffee is roasted and blended in the Forest of Dean. Manuel believes that customers want to feel good about what they're buying nowadays, but feels it's a balancing act.

"It's getting easier to find suppliers and source locally - there are so many trade shows and local food groups around - but you have to accept you can't get some things all year round, like good British tomatoes," she says.

Large-scale commodities, such as sugar, can also be tricky to track down. Although buying locally can be more expensive, she says it's worth negotiating with suppliers if you can guarantee volume. "We also look at areas where customers recognise premium value, so we use only roasted chicken breast in our sandwiches, for example."

Soho Coffee Co, Unit 60, Kingsditch Trading Estate, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL51 9NW www.sohocoffee.co.uk

Construct seasonal menus
Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey

At Petersham Nurseries, head chef Skye Gyngell works almost exclusively with seasonal produce, creating simple dishes inspired by what she sees growing in the walled kitchen garden of Petersham House. Gyngell's approach is complemented by head gardener Lucy Boyd and resident "forager" Wendy Fogarty, whose skills help to add variety to menus by tracking down wild ingredients such as marsh samphire and puffball mushrooms from Kent.

While not all produce is grown on site, the garden does connect the kitchen with what's going on outside. "It places us in the seasons, so it's easier to understand why you'd never use, say, asparagus in September," says Fogarty, who describes the menu as "produce-led", focusing on natural flavours and high-quality ingredients at their best time of year. With starters at about £12 and mains ranging from £18 to £25, Fogarty admits that Petersham isn't cheap, but says customers understand the premium that comes with top-quality produce. "The real cost of food isn't passed on any more, but people are starting to realise that," she says. "We're seen as less expensive now."

While most produce comes from the UK, some foods are imported, such as myrtle leaves from Sardinia for salads, beans and pulses from Umbria, and cheeses from all over France depending on the season. Supporting small producers and artisans is very much part of the philosophy, so certain ingredients have to be planned well in advance, and Fogarty says that building good relationships with suppliers is essential. "We want them to have the confidence to tell us exactly what's good and when," she explains.

Petersham Nurseries, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AG www.petershamnurseries.com

• To see which foods are in season visit www.eattheseasons.co.uk.

Huhtamaki research

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives at catering companies and their client companies are driving a growing demand for biodegradable products, according to a research programme conducted for packaging company Huhtamaki by Dr Rebecca Hawkins of Oxford Brookes University's Centre for Environmental Studies in the Hospitality Industry.

The research into the environmental and cost benefits of choosing biodegradable products, such as Huhtamaki's Bioware range, over conventional disposables warns that regulations regarding how quoted companies report their CSR initiatives are tightening, placing greater pressure on operators to explore biodegradables and other environmentally friendly technologies.

According to the findings, conventional disposables remain cheaper than biodegradable alternatives, but this cost difference is likely to decrease in future, as demand increases, and as rising landfill taxes force operators to reduce their expenditure on landfill and associated waste costs and adopt composting and other non-landfill technologies. (Biodegradable products are ones that will decay or decompose. Recyclable products are used to form new products at the end of their life cycle.)


Top tips


â- Reduce the amount of foods of animal origin (meat, dairy products and eggs) served, as livestock farming is one of the most significant contributors to climate change and promote meals rich in fruit, vegetables, pulses and nuts. Ensure that meat, dairy and egg products are produced to high environmental and animal-welfare standards. See the website of Compassion in World Farming's Eat Less Meat campaign at www.eatlessmeat.org for more information.

â- Avoid bottled water. Instead serve plain or filtered tap water in reusable jugs or bottles to minimise transport and packaging waste. Companies such as the Pure Water Co (www.purewater.no) and Aqua 3 (www.aqua3water.com) offer filtration systems for businesses such as restaurants.

â- Become a Member of the Considerate Hoteliers Association and receive ongoing support and advice on being a greener hotel and enter the Considerate Hoteliers Sustain Food Challenge and receive recognition for your ethical changes within the industry and among consumers (www.consideratehoteliers.com/awards2007.html).

Source: Considerate Hoteliers Association and its sponsor, Sustain

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