Home Kitchen & Laundry NRA Report: Six Ways to Source Food & Supplies More Sustainably

NRA Report: Six Ways to Source Food & Supplies More Sustainably


CHICAGO—You’re hoping to become more sustainable, making efforts to cut your carbon footprint—reducing food waste, using energy- and water-efficient equipment, reusing, recycling, and even composting. But what do you know about the products you buy, how they’re grown, raised, manufactured, or processed?

While your menu automatically impacts your carbon footprint (a barbecue or burger concept will naturally have a bigger footprint than a salad concept), there are ways to make sustainability a key part of your purchasing criteria. Taking a little extra time to vet your supplies and talk over options with your suppliers can help you build your sustainability story.

Start with one ingredient or one supply. What change can you make in the purchase of that item that will move you toward sustainability? Once you’ve altered one purchase, you can move on to the next. Gradually, your operation will become greener.

Here are six steps you can take.

  1. Partner with suppliers who prioritize sustainability. Ask vendors what standards they have in place for sourcing sustainable products, and what they’re doing to become more sustainable in their policies and procedures. The most ambitious will have implemented some form of green supply chain management (GSCM); the gold standards are ISO14001 for environmental management systems and ISO50001 for energy management. Ask too which of their product lines might help you to improve your sustainability efforts. Sysco, for example, partnered with an upcycling company that creates Polylactic Acid (PLA)-based products (natural polymer from renewable resources; in this case, agave) to develop a certified compostable straw.
  2. Use seasonal ingredients. In-season produce typically tastes better and costs less than those that aren’t in season. Recognize, however, that there’s local and global seasonality. The growing season for fresh tomatoes around Chicago, for example, may be short, but tomatoes might still be “in season” in Florida, and in California or Mexico for many more months of the year. While transporting produce that isn’t local contributes nominally to GHG emissions, if you have to use out-of-season produce on your menu, some nonlocal options will likely be more sustainable than using tomatoes winter-grown in a hothouse in Chicago.
  3. Incorporate more plant-based options into your menu. Work with suppliers to find more plant-based menu items to feature on your menu. The carbon footprint of plant-based options is typically more environmentally friendly than that of meat and dairy products. There’s a rise in blended versions of items like burgers and hot dogs, too. Incorporating a percentage of plant food, like mushrooms, into the ground meat for example, reduces its footprint without greatly altering flavor or texture. Pure vegetarian and vegan options are likely to appeal to customers looking for more sustainable choices.
  4. Cut packaging waste. Ask vendors how they’re addressing shipment packaging. For example, Costco’s Kirkland brand paper towel rolls are no longer individually wrapped in plastic because the single, bulk outer wrap is sufficient. Ask vendors what they’re doing to use as little packing material as possible or to use recycled materials as packaging buffer for transport. Try to shift as much of your take-out and delivery packaging to materials that can be easily reused, recycled, or composted in your area to divert it from landfills.
  5. Purchase energy- and water-efficient equipment and fixtures. Look for ENERGY STAR and WaterSense labels. High-efficiency equipment might have a higher sticker price, but most are eligible for rebates, some of them instant and large enough to easily offset the higher price. High-efficiency equipment uses less water, less oil and runs on less gas and electricity over its lifecycle.
  6. Check product labels for more eco-friendly choices. Food producers want to be seen as more sustainable, too, so many seek accreditation for products from third-party organizations. While the thicket of eco-labels can be confusing, most signify a sustainable seal of approval. Here is a very small sampling of organizations that offer certification labels but take the time to learn about others. Your suppliers might be a great resource.

ENERGY STAR is the EPA’s certification program for energy efficiency. A certification means a piece of foodservice equipment is among the top 25 percent most efficient in the category.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has a goal of ending overfishing globally. MSC’s blue fish label means the product is wild caught from a verified sustainable fishery.

Upcycled Food Association certifies products made by creating new, high-quality products out of surplus food that otherwise would have been incinerated or gone into landfills.

USDA Organic certifies that producers have met all the agency’s organic standards.

WaterSense is the EPA’s certification program for water efficiency. Products must be among the top 20 percent most efficient in their category to earn the seal.