Knowledge for better food systems

Food sustainability within the restaurant industry - Interview Will Nicholson

FCRN: What are you trying to achieve?

Will: I have owned my own restaurants and worked as a chef for a long time, and over time I became interested in the environmental impact of the food we were using.  When I started an MSc in Green Economy, at Bournemouth University in the UK, I decided to focus my research on how the restaurant industry can become both environmentally responsible and a good influence on consumers. As such I spent a great deal of time researching the real impacts our food consumption has on the environment, not just on global warming, but also on the health of our environment and pressures we are placing on agricultural (and non-agricultural) land.  I found there was a significant mismatch between what the research literature was saying and the understanding of this in “the real world”, where consumers and people within the restaurant industry seemed to be placing emphasis on the wrong issues (such as local food and energy use).  Nobody seemed to be dealing with some pretty obvious problems, that we eat too much of the types of food that have a high burden on the environment.   This is the awareness and behaviour I want to change.

FCRN:  How are you trying to do this?

Will:  As part of my MSc research I developed a tool for measuring different indicators of “food sustainability”, including carbon footprint, organic food, sustainable fish, and Fair Trade products.  I tested this on a number of restaurants and cafes, and found that there was indeed a genuine misunderstanding.   Some people believed that organic food was the answer to all of our problems, some people focused on local food, some people only saw barriers to change, but understanding of the impact that high meat consumption has on global warming was strikingly low.   The restaurants I have worked with so far are probably what you might call mainstream, selling burgers, pizzas, “good food pubs” and smaller café-style restaurants.  This variation presents different challenges, but all had opportunities to make change; the key point is that you need to give restaurants reasons to start to change.  And to me, it makes more sense to work with the restaurants that most people frequent, rather than the gourmet end of the market.  If we are talking about impact here, we should be working at the market level that can connect with the most consumers.

By measuring the impact of the food used in a restaurant, in terms of total volume and menu items, I was able to identify the “hotspots” and plan for changes in the menus to improve in measurable ways.  The use of carbon footprint as an indicator has, without fail, highlighted the heavy burden of meat.  In terms of percentage of carbon footprint, meat has always shown a high impact, and in terms of menu items, the beef menu items have always scored worst.  Initial projects have shown some success, even with restaurants that were not previously doing anything towards sustainability.  The point is that over time improvements can be measured using this tool, and this can be both managed to set goals and marketed to consumers.  There seems a genuine confusion from consumers in terms of the impact of our diets, so this is a way to communicate with them and help them make responsible choices.

FCRN: What do you see as the next steps?

Will:  I am collaborating with a number of groups active in environmental concerns, LCA research and the food industry to bring this approach into a scalable solution.  This means working closely with restaurants, caterers and canteens to set targets that are both environmentally sound and achievable.  However, from my experience within the industry I know that two things need to happen - it needs to be cost-effective and it needs to bring more customers to the restaurant.  Money still talks the loudest.  In order to achieve this we are working on developing direct marketing techniques to connect restaurants with consumers.  The more a restaurant can improve, the better we can market them, be it through overall improvement or the introduction of low carbon footprint menu items, increased organic food, use of Marine Stewardship Council fish or discounts to promote new “green” menu items.

FCRN:  How does this differ from certification models already in place?

Will:  I am not trying to develop another certification model, but we are focusing on proven and measureable impacts of the food, because this is where the biggest impact comes from.  The point of using carbon footprint, organic and sustainable indicators is to allow restaurants to start doing something tangible.  Most restaurants are shocked when I show them the global warming contribution of the meat they use, and I am starting to develop solutions for them for “meat free”, “less meat” and “less but better” options.  Often the carbon footprint is the entry point to get them started.  This in reality can mean introducing more vegetarian options, often re-imagining how they use vegetables they are already buying, or replacing some of the meat content in (for example) a beef quesadilla with more vegetables, or even promoting meat options that have a lower carbon footprint (such as chicken instead of beef).  Different customer groups have different needs, so it is important to avoid being too prescriptive and, in a way, let the customers lead the restaurant in terms of the menu items they choose to buy.  Because food lower on the “carbon footprint scale” tends to be cheaper, this allows for further development for example to start using some organic produce or invest in sustainable fish.  Existing certificates and associations in the food industry have a curious reluctance to look at carbon footprint, which I find strange because I have used carbon footprint ideas in my own businesses to be greener and leaner.

I am also building this consumer connection, to use technology and social media as the channel to connect restaurants and consumers because, in all honestly, a certification label goes mostly unnoticed by customers.

A related area I am trying to develop is an efficient food waste solution.  Restaurants do waste a lot of food, regardless of whether they believe they do or not, and there are a number of ways to deal with this.  Again, it can be measured and its environmental cost can be described using the same indicators.  It is also an important factor when introducing change to a restaurant, because new menu items can take time to become popular, and this in itself can increase the potential for waste.

FCRN:  What do you see as the key challenges?

Will:  This is a problem in all developed countries, and a growing problem in developing countries, so solutions need to be able to work in different cultures and societies.  I see this solution as scalable across geographical boundaries.  With collaborations here in Norway I am aiming to develop this for the Scandinavian region, but it can also work anywhere as long as cultural differences are involved.  The Norwegian diet has a reputation for being fish-based, but in fact a similar amount of high burden meat is eaten here as in most developed countries.  There are differences, but at the same time there are common themes.  Collaboration is the key, in terms of developing solutions, ideas for engaging more with consumers, best practices from restaurants.  With this in mind, it would be great to have a wide collaboration where we can share ideas and solutions that work.  In the end, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation, so the more we can share ideas, the more effective we can be.

For example, restaurants often ask if their carbon footprint is worse than the average, and what should their target be.  But it will take time to develop metrics (how low should the carbon footprint of a restaurant be? What about different types of restaurants?), so the more input into this we can have, the more we can share, the more we can achieve.  There is also an important challenge to be met in measuring how and when different solutions (think vegetarian options, reduced meat options, different meat, reduced meat but more organic) are most appropriate in different restaurants, and how this translates to behaviour at home.  In this sense there could be a fantastic collaboration between research, restaurants, nutritionists and consumers to develop new interpretations of our diet that is tasty, cost-effective, healthy and environmentally responsible.

      To get in touch with Will, email him at