How green is your industry?

02 October 2008
How green is your industry?

When did you last have an environmental audit? Are you really recycling as much waste as you should? We kick off our Green Month coverage with a look at whether hospitality is really as green as it likes to think it is

Wind turbines, solar panels, cycling to work - you've heard it all from David Cameron and his advisers, but how far has hospitality travelled down a green path that many, not just the Conservatives, now extol? Over the next four issues of Caterer, we look at the progress made by operators as they seek to implement, and promote their eco activity, kicking off with exclusive research to help dissect reality from so much green marketing.

We're proud to present the coming four weeks of environmental coverage in Caterer, showing the best, and sometimes the worst, that the UK hospitality industry is partaking of in its push to be more eco-friendly. What we've termed "Green Month" will fill the magazine in the coming issues with useful advice, charismatic leaders of the debate, and comment on why we need to be even more environmentally aware. We hope you take inspiration from it.

To kick off the month we have a fascinating "taking the pulse" of where the industry is at in terms of its greenness. Vanessa Scott, winner of the first-ever Green Award (sponsored by Johnson Diversey) at this year's Cateys, visits two hotels and a restaurant in order for us to conduct an internal audit. There's advice for any property wishing to take their policies a step further, and hints at where operators are going wrong as well as where they are doing it right.

This is followed next week by young, up-and-coming chef Tom Kitchin talking about his love of local Scottish produce combined with Michelin-starred cooking. He's a real believer in marketing what we have on our doorstep. If we get it right, he believes, then the people - overseas visitors and Michelin inspectors - will come.

The week after we have advice on energy and recycling savings, how and when to buy Fairtrade, and the latest from the Marine Conservation Society on what to use and what not to take from the world's seas. Then, the week after that, we're running a full-spread illustration of an eco-friendly hotel. It's easy to digest, and far-reaching in its application of green products and policy. So there's a real mix of things for you to think about - and perhaps even act upon - in the next year.

Yet to say that this coverage comes at an odd time, with trillions of dollars being lost on the world stock markets, and major banks going to the wall, is something of an understatement. Talk of being more eco-friendly seems somehow beside the point if you're a restaurateur relying on the mark-ups from highly-priced Burgundy sold to City customers, or running a catering company looking to book parties over Christmas. In the words of Damian Clarkson, director of Red Snapper Events, "there's going to be carnage in the New Year when the effects of a lack of Christmas spend will seriously impact operating in 2009". Recycling a few plastic pots in these circumstances understandably won't be top of everyone's to-do list.

This is confirmed by the exclusive research we've conducted for our Green Month, from across the whole of the industry, over the past few weeks. We found that 13% of respondents say the downturn is an obstacle to pursuing more eco-friendly policies. About 19%, meanwhile, say that other areas take priority.

That represents one-third of the industry turning away from green policies - and they're brave enough to admit it. Rarely will you find anyone who says they're against an environmental approach - even if they think the whole thing is a load of rubbish.

Other reports suggest that consumers themselves aren't fully switched on to the green debate quite as much as we think either. Travel agency Expedia found in a survey in August that some people thought carbon offsetting meant "extinguishing the barbecue properly". Meanwhile, sales of organic produce, after years of outstanding growth, dropped back by 19% this year. It's fashionable to be green, and many press releases now extol the benefits of a new heating system at a major hotel, or local sourcing initiative by a restaurant chef. But are the people who actually do something about it very much in a minority?

If they are, how does one square this with the fact that 81% of operators believe their customers to be more interested in green issues than they were a year ago? Our survey in 2007, when green fervour was at its peak, pre-stock market and housing crash, found that only 71% said their customers were into being green.

The answer seems to be that perhaps perception is winning out against reality. Many people think they are running greened operations already, supplying demand, and giving customers what they want. Around 44% of respondents to our survey believed that they were doing as much as possible for the environment in their restaurant, hotel or catering outlet. The fact that over 30% of respondents have never had an energy audit, only 17% are recycling food waste and 30% of hospitality businesses are without a sustainability policy suggests otherwise. The amount of bottle and paper recycling - 70% and 85% - is impressive but not matched in recycling staff uniforms or metal cans. In general it's a set of figures that encourages one to hold back the eulogies - although we don't take it as far as eco-fridge company Gram, who in a report earlier this year described the pub sector as "the most cynical" part of the industry, "feeling that they are already green, while not being as motivated to be greener".

However, certainly the industry must beware a gap between PR message and reality. Concepts such as "sustainable" and "locally sourced" are laudable in themselves. According to Cumbrian beef farmer John Geldard, speaking in our recent chef-meets-producer debate, "It's amazing how strong the idea of local sourcing has become. It has overtaken the organic movement considerably in the past five to 10 years." But the overuse of such terms can lead to a kind of green fatigue. As one, anonymous respondent to our survey commented, "We hate the green-wash companies trying to jump on the bandwagon to make themselves feel better. We encourage our business customers to do what they can, but not for smarty points."

Members of the industry voted in our survey that "corporate social responsibility" (CSR) and "environmentally friendly" were top of the list of "meaningless pieces of green jargon". Another respondent, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "Companies say they have a CSR policy and use carbon-footprint monitoring on their website, when the reality of how green they are is very different."

There are many questions, and Ritz executive chef John Williams adds to them. "Is it local enough to call something British?" he asks. Far better, he implies, to use locally sourced on something from the Lincolnshire Wolds rather than an anywhere within the UK. Likewise, "We helped build 20 wells in Western Africa", is surely better than "We are benefiting the children and communities in Africa and helped with their future structural development". People need facts, not waffle.

So there's much to be done, yet at the same time, as entrants for our Green Award at this year's Cateys and our green audit showed, there are many examples of fine practice, too. Praise must go to Cyrus Todiwala's for his work at Café Spice Namasté, near London's Tower Bridge - he's "green through to his core", according to Vanessa Scott. Meanwhile the Considerate Hoteliers Association has a growing number of members, such as the Royal Lancaster hotel in London and the Bed Knobs bed and breakfast in Cornwall. And then there's Vanessa Scott herself, a shining example of just how far one can go in making a hotel more eco-friendly. "My husband Les and myself come from a background where our parents, who were children in the latter years of the Second World War, were told not to waste," Scott says. "My indoctrination was very much that when you leave a room you turn the power off, or when you take some food you take only what you can eat."

Some people have cottoned on to the fact that going green is about common sense and running your business better. Yes, if you spend £20,000 on a new heating system with £4,000 saved every year on bills, that's going to take five years to pay back, but after that you're in the clear. It's hard for everyone to look ahead with financial woes creating uncertainty, and the inherent instability whatever the economic climate in some parts of the industry. If you run a tied pub, or you're or a contract caterer being delisted by clients playing the field, there's less incentive to improve your working environment.

But as Rebecca Hawkins, senior research fellow at the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University, says, "Any business that is not looking at resource costs is not only environmentally irresponsible, but, more importantly, not very good at business." If £1b a year is being wasted by hospitality through its current energy planning, as the Carbon Trust estimates, then there's a good case for going green.

One of the best pieces of environmental advice we can offer is that an operator walks around his or her premises, looking at what's working, and what isn't, and to examine where eco-action could be taken. That's what we've done with Vanessa Scott in the coming pages, and the quality of her findings is evident. We hope you enjoy the rest of our Green Month.

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