Sustainability in the Kitchen – Food & Drink

A growing population puts increasing pressure on the Earth’s finite resources. Sustainability is about finding ways of providing food that will last for future generations and have less of an impact on the environment

Eating according to the seasons has for many people been largely consigned to the past now that you can buy produce, such as strawberries and asparagus, year-round thanks to refrigeration, heated greenhouses and global transportation. These methods create “food miles” (the distance the food has travelled from producer to consumer); every single mile adds to the food’s carbon footprint.

To achieve sustainability, food should be sourced “locally” wherever possible, so minimising the energy used in production, transport and storage. It must also support farmers, sustainable agriculture and local communities, and give farmers in developing countries a fairer deal. Minimising packaging and food waste is also key. According to a recent report in NGF Next Generation Food, the food thrown away by the US and Europe could feed the world three times over. The catering and hospitality industry is responsible for a large part of this waste.

Sustainable operating practices include using tap water not branded bottled water where possible. It is estimated that 1 billion people in the world don’t have access to safe drinking water, 2.5 billion people lack access to basic sanitation services and four children die every minute as a result of water-related illnesses. Hotels and restaurants with a growing social conscience are eliminating bottled water from the menu and donating profits to help fund access to sanitary tap water in the developing world.

It is not just about a product’s carbon footprint, says Mark Sainsbury, co-director of the recently launched Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), based in the UK: “Being sustainable in our industry includes paying staff properly, not overcharging customers, paying suppliers on time, getting involved with the community. To have a finite goal is an impossible aim. It’s a journey restaurants should strive to improve year-on-year. It’s not something you can achieve overnight.”

The business benefits of sustainable sourcing are:

  • Economic as restaurants and hotels will continue to come under increasing pressure from customers, regulators, investors and tour operators to employ green procurement policies.
  • Reduced operating costs through bulk buying from local suppliers, demanding reduced packaging, buying seasonally, etc. If you grow your own produce, costs can be cut even more dramatically.
  • Improved quality of food and service from suppliers as hotels improve relationships with suppliers. They will also reduce the environmental and health risks, and avoid the negative publicity associated with purchasing “problem products”.
  • Better community relationships, increased customer loyalty, and improved morale and loyalty among staff. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate to stakeholders the importance placed on sustainability issues.
  • How to get started

Paul Kuck, founder of the Oregon-based Sustainable Foodservice Consulting, advises hoteliers:

1. Look at what you are currently sourcing, create some measurable standards and calculate your current purchases. This sets a baseline that a restaurant can evaluate against when creating goals, which is the next step.

2. Decide what you wish to accomplish, which could be a number of different things, from sourcing local organic products to growing your own herbs and vegetables or perhaps using only sustainable seafood on your menu.

3. With goals set, create a plan of action, including a budget and a timeline. “I recommend going slowly, adding products and suppliers one at a time, and being flexible when creating a sustainable purchasing policy,” he says. “More than likely things will not go as planned, so purchasers should be ready to adapt. I would also recommend tapping into local assistance, such as non-profit organisations dedicated to helping connect foodservice operations with local food producers or certified producers.”

The following is also relevant to hoteliers:

  • Ascertain whether they are tied into any long-term supply contracts before sourcing new suppliers.
  • Calculate expenditure on food and drink, and where (i.e. country of origin) they are spending it. This is the best indicator to measure progress on sustainability, because it highlights how much is being spent with local producers.
  • Find out what sustainable producers are available locally. UK restaurants have an excellent source in Sustainweb, which offers a database of suppliers. There are also regional food groups, such as Taste of Kent and Taste of Suffolk, which will put restaurants in touch with small producers. International sources include Slow Food, the movement that started in Italy to promote locally-produced food, Satavic Farming (India), MercaTrade (Latin America), Australia’s ECO-Buy (its site offers a Sustainable Procurement Assessment Tool,, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, Go Organic (South Africa) and Local Harvest (US).
  • Chicken and eggs should always be organic, free-range and accredited by bodies such as the RSPCA Freedom Foods in the UK, Free Range Farmers Association Inc in Australia, or Humane in the US.
  • All tea, coffee, sugar, chocolate, dried fruits and nuts should be Fairtrade-certified.
  • Anything on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, which is a comprehensive assessment of the conservation status of plant and animal species, is off limits; all fish and seafood should be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Threatened fish species that should be avoided at all costs include bluefin tuna. Other food that is fast disappearing from menus is foie gras; the force-feeding of geese or duck is considered to be cruel.
  • Avoid airfreighted foods. By doing so, restaurants and their guests may discover a new passion for those foods that can only be enjoyed at certain times of the year.
  • Think about cutting down on high carbon meat products. The methane emitted by cattle and sheep is a potent greenhouse gas and many experts believe a major contributor to climate change.
  • Aim for most fruit and vegetable to be seasonal, locally grown and organic. If imported, it should be Fairtrade-certified.
  • Wines should be organic or biodynamic.
  • Water should not be bottled unless it is tap or filtered water in refillable bottles.

The Sustainable Food Policy Guide ( is a useful tool.

Questions to ask suppliers

Find out where the produce is coming from, how far it has travelled, etc—keep asking these questions and the supplier should begin to change their sourcing to suit your requirements. You may wish to supplement suppliers, or join with other businesses in the area to bulk buy from sustainable businesses, which also keeps costs down.

This will take lots of organisation; spreadsheets to chart orders and deliveries are imperative. Co-ordinating with other businesses may take time to get used to—chefs are accustomed to ordering what they want, when they want, not waiting till the van comes round from the “group” supplier.

Some produce, including exotic fruit or spices, may have to be imported from abroad. Find out about the growers and producers you’re buying from. Ask how the ingredient was produced, how it’s packaged, how far it has travelled, how was it transported, and then work out if you should replace it with a local product.

Insisting that suppliers are more transparent will help to eliminate or reduce foods that are grown in an unsustainable way and build relationships with the right sellers. Buying Fairtrade-certified products imported from poorer countries is a more ethical option as it benefits disadvantaged producers. The Soil Association, which certifies much of the UK’s organic food, requires foreign farmers to prove they provide employment at fair pay and that they are endeavouring to reduce transport by air.

At a glance: check list

1. Find out where the produce has come from
2. Set up the necessary systems to chart orders and deliveries
3. Assess whether you can replace food from abroad with local produce
4. Ask suppliers for sustainable produce, such as Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance-certifed goods.

Challenges of sustainable purchasing

Not all countries have the luxury of fully embracing the sustainable route. For example, according to a recent BBC report, only 39% of the food the Japanese need is grown at home; in contrast, Britain produces 70% of the food its population requires and France more than 120%. Japan relies heavily on food imports, particularly of wheat, beans, fruit and animal feed. Also, Japanese tastes have become increasingly westernised so the government is trying to encourage its population to appreciate the health benefits of fish and rice again.

For many developing countries, it is difficult to manage on the resources they have due to lack of fertile soil, disease, crop failure, drought, flood and other natural disasters, as well as disruption through war and political unrest, let alone safeguard resources for the future. However, a 2010 survey of 17 countries by the National Geographic Society found that consumers from India, Brazil, China and Mexico had the most environmentally sustainable lifestyles, while American consumers’ overall behaviour ranked as the least sustainable, with Canadian and French close behind. In addition, since 2000 Latin America has reported one of the largest increases in organic food production, for example Bolivia specialises in organic quinoa, Paraguay in sugar, Brazil in soya beans and Argentina in wheat.

Even if you can source your food and drink locally, the ever-changing menu to reflect seasonal ingredients can create more work for kitchen staff. “You have to take your pen every week and write something new,” says chef Laurent Poulain at Fairmont Copley Plaza. “But seasonal items are usually at their best for two to three months at a time, and I have a 12-month calendar on my desk that tells me 90% of what is going to be available at any given time.” Approximately 60% of the food served by Poulain in the Plaza’s Oak Room restaurant is made from local ingredients purchased from a farmers’ market across the street.

Spotlight on Orient Express
As part of its policy to help local communities through economic-based activities, Orient-Express’ Hotel Monasterio and Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge in Peru, are purchasing products directly from the local producers of the community of Huama. Local farmers used to receive 0.30 soles (7 pence) per kilo of potato sold, but now, thanks to the elimination of an intermediary, they receive 1.90 soles (44 pence) per kilo. This represents a six-fold increase in their incomes. Additionally, the hotels have increased their demand for native potatoes, helping to rescue many varieties that farmers now grow and sell elsewhere, too.

The Orient-Express hotels have also established a close relationship with the Regional Association of Cusco Farmers (ARPAC), an association of more than 5,000 farmers, to purchase organic products, including papaya, pineapple, lime and oranges, directly from the farmers of the Yanatile and La Convención valleys.

How do you “sell” your sustainable policy to consumers?

Sustainability provides a way to attract customers, but only if the message is communicated. The story can be used to highlight the quality of ingredients on the menu—a new locally sourced product you want to draw attention to, for example—but also to explain any higher price points. For example, if your sustainable smoothie is more expensive because it uses local raspberries rather than ones imported from Asia that should be conveyed to the customer. Today’s consumers are savvy enough to know that green claims must be backed up and may come at a premium.

SRA’s Mark Sainsbury believes the best way to communicate the message is through staff training. If you can inspire staff with farm trips, or bring the farmer to the hotel to talk about his produce, employees are more likely to develop a passion for the food and the whole ethos will be transmitted to guests and diners. Rather than cluttering up a menu with provenance details, you might consider providing photos of the farm that supplies the eggs or the coffee, as sandwich chain Pret A Manger have done.

Calculating your menu’s carbon footprint

  • Get into the habit of calculating the carbon footprint of food now—the SRA reports that new regulations are likely to soon require businesses to produce an annual carbon audit alongside their accounts.
  • BSI Standards Solutions in association with the Carbon Trust and DEFRA (the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has developed PAS2050, which is the international standard by which companies can measure the carbon footprint of their products and services.
  • The Carbon Trust has been working with food and drink companies to calculate the carbon footprints of certain products with some surprising results; for example, Coca-Cola generates only around half the CO2 emissions of Innocent’s smoothies.
  • At international vegetarian restaurant chain Otarian, which claims to be the world’s first-ever low carbon restaurant, customers build up credit for free dishes as a reward for saving carbon on a Carbon Karma card. Otarian uses international standards such as PAS2050 to carbon footprint its entire menu, and was chosen to road test the new World Resources Institute’s Greenhouse Gas Protocol product standard, which measures the emissions from all parts of a product’s life cycle, including growing, harvesting, processing of ingredients, transport, packaging and waste disposal.
  • For advice and tools to help calculate a menu’s carbon footprint; see,, and

Grow your own

Hotel kitchens can reduce food miles to zero and dramatically reduce operating costs by growing their own fruit, vegetables and herbs. Since last year, award-winning UK chef Simon Rogan has run Howbarrow Organic Farm alongside his L’Enclume restaurant in Cartmel, Cumbria, England. “The organic produce we serve now just costs us the price of the seed,” he says. “For us it’s a quality thing: we can pick things out of the ground when we want.” Rogan hopes eventually to cut the “six-figure” annual vegetable bill to zero.

The pioneer in kitchen gardens is Raymond Blanc, whose two-Michelin-starred restaurant at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, part of Orient-Express Hotels, in Oxfordshire, UK, is supplied by a two-acre patch in the grounds, which produces more than 90 types of vegetable and 70 varieties of herb.

Costa Rica’s Finca Rosa Blanca hotel has its own organic coffee plantation, and offers guests lessons in planting, picking, processing, roasting and tasting. Not only that, but it grows indigenous fruits and vegetables, such as pejibaye, yucca and narubib, which are presented to guests in their raw form first and then incorporated into dinner.

Restaurants and hotels that lack the land to grow produce to fuel a restaurant kitchen have increasingly been looking to other spaces, such as rooftops. The Fairmont Dallas has its own organic rooftop herb garden; and chefs at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto grow more than 60 varieties of herbs, fruit, vegetables and edible blossoms in the rooftop garden—they even keep bees. Executive Chef Simon Dolinky has set up a hydroponic growing operation on top of the 19-storey Hotel Palomar Los Angeles-Westwood.

The soil-free system includes grow lights, which switch on when the sun goes down, providing year-round summer growing. He says it would not be practical or even possible to grow everything on the roof, so he concentrates on house-grown herbs and micro-greens and supplements the menu with locally grown organic produce.

Hotels may also consider teaming up with a local community garden; it probably won’t be able to supply enough produce, but it’s a chance to get involved with the community—another key area of sustainable food and drink practice. It’s also an opportunity to invite gardeners to come and look round a professional kitchen as well as develop an interest in food and cooking. Look for local schemes in your area; in the UK, these include the London-based Global Generation charity (

As a result of growing concern about Colony Collapse Disorder in North American honeybees, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has installed beehives in the rooftop gardens of a number of hotels in North America, as well as the Fairmont Yangcheng Lake in China and Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club.

Spotlight on Fairmont Hotels and Resorts
This not only helps provide bees to pollinate gardens and parks but also provides a supply of local and sustainable honey for the hotel’s on-site bars and restaurants. The most recent installation was at Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel in Canada where executive chef Kamal Silva is planning a signature line-up of offerings from the honey harvest.

“After months of coordination our hives are now installed and are a first for any airport and hotel partnership,” says Kamal Silva. “We’re already seeing the fruits of our bees’ hard work as they forage and produce some of Richmond’s best local honey. In just the first couple of weeks, I’ve tasted raspberry and blueberry notes in our honey that will continue to be infused with flowers and herbs throughout the season.”

Beehives have also been installed on the roof of the Fairmont San Francisco. This year, the four hives are expected to produce around 250lbs of honey, which will be used in soups, salad dressings, pastries, ice cream and as an accompaniment to the hotel’s afternoon tea.

For more information, visit

Reducing waste and packaging

Paul Kuck advises hoteliers to first conduct an internal waste audit (see “You need to know what kind of garbage you have, how much you are producing and what is happening in your current waste-management programme. Are the recyclables being thrown away? Is there a recyclable that you are missing entirely or is there an area of the hotel that is producing an extraordinary amount of waste, and if so why?” he advises.

Tips for reducing waste and packaging

  • Look at how much food is being discarded and make adjustments accordingly. It may be a case of better stock management or reducing portion sizes. Mark Sainsbury says: “If you’re worried about looking mean with reduced portions, at least provide (recycled) doggy bags so people can take the uneaten food away with them.” If you donate leftover food to local charities, such as homeless shelters, it must be untouched by consumers.
  • “Work with suppliers to reduce the waste they are bringing you, like cardboard boxes”, says Kuck. “Many suppliers are now creating ways to use reusable containers.” If you remove the packaging and give it back to the supplier, they will soon find a way to reduce it.
  • "Turn cooking oil into bio-diesel to be reused, turn food waste into gas and compost, and have cardboard taken away and compacted. You need to find companies to carry out these procedures and it may cost a little more initially. However, in the long-term, by reducing your waste you should offset any additional expense.
  • Bottled water is another huge area of waste. The SRA awards restaurants “points” for serving tap water in jugs. If it must be bottled, the bottles should be made of biodegradable material, such as Belu, which uses bottles made or corn not oil, or use a filtering system, such as Norway’s Pure Water Company, which filters tap water into elegant, recyclable bottles.

The National Restaurant Association Conserve Initiative and the Sustainable Restaurant Association both offer tips on reducing waste, saving water and other environmentally friendly, cost-saving measures.

Spotlight on Six Senses Resorts & Spa
Six Senses Resorts & Spa is donating 50% of the proceeds of water sales at its six properties to provide clean water for people without access.

Two years ago, the hotel group stopped all imported water at its properties, introducing its own water in re-usable glass bottles. The Six Senses Drinking Water—still or sparkling—is served complimentarily in guestrooms while the Six Senses Wellness Water, which is enhanced by Via Juwel® gem stones, is sold in the restaurants, bar and sauna.
Working with several charities, including Water Charity, Thirst-Aid and PlayPumps, the money raised is helping to improve access to drinking water and basic sanitation to many communities worldwide, from Guatemala to Swaziland.
Other benefits of the initiative include reduced food miles and plastic waste.

"While our primary objective is to provide a comfortable and pleasurable stay to our guests, our industry cannot afford to turn its back on the issues facing those unable to satisfy their most basic needs, let alone stay at our hotels and resorts," says Sonu Shivdasani, Six Senses Resorts & Spa founder and CEO. "A proactive role by the industry will ensure that our activities and growth are a factor of positive change and human development."

Looking to the future

Fairtrade launched in 1994 with the goal of winning a better deal for banana farmers. Now 4,500 products from 59 developing are licensed to carry the logo. They include highly rated South African, Chilean and Argentinean wines, basmati rice, quinoa, avocados, lemon juice, sesame seeds, cinnamon sticks and cloves, dried fruits, chocolate, sugar, cocoa powder and of course tea and coffee. Ando the range available to hoteliers is likely to keep expanding.

In the future, there may be sustainable initiatives such as farmer-managed supermarkets, as is being trialled in the Dutch innovation programme, TransForum, discussion of which can be found in the Food Ethics Council’s Business Forum website (

And technology is set to continue to keep pace with consumers need to know the provenance of the food they eat. The Blue Ocean Institute recently launched the free FishPhone for iPhone, which details what sort of seafood is best for the environment. Another application from the Monterey Bay Aquarium brings the latest Seafood Watch guide to your iPhone so you can make sustainable fish choices. Other environmentally-friendly apps include Green Sushi Selector ILocavore (listing restaurants selling local food).

Vertical farms also have huge potential in urban areas: these are glass houses filled with plant beds and stacked one above the other, reducing the amount of land required, food miles, transport and energy costs, and water usage. Dickson Despommier at Columbia University, author of The Vertical Farm: The World Grows Up, believes entire skyscraper farms could be created—he estimates that a 30-storey building could provide enough food for 10,000 people.

In the UK, Sustain’s Capital Growth programme aims to create 2,012 new food-growing spaces in London before the Olympics. Areas such as school grounds, canal banks and roof terraces are being considered.

The sustainable movement is growing all the time and non-profit organisations are springing up to make information and guidance easier to find.

The relatively young Carbon Trust’s Carbon Reduction Label is enjoying phenomenal growth, according to Decarbonising The Brand. UK giants Tesco, Walkers, Tate & Lyle and Kingsmill have signed up to the scheme and the annual UK retail value of products now carrying the label has reached £2.7billion. Now, Australia has adopted the label nationwide with South Korea expecting to follow in 2011. Other countries, such as France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, the US and Japan, have developed their own government-approved carbon-labelling systems, too.

Accreditation schemes

The main programmes include:

Australia Certified Organic
CST (Costa Rica’s Certificate for Sustainable Tourism)
EU Ecolabel
Fairtrade (international)
The Green Key (originated in Denmark, now international)
The Green Restaurant Association (US)
Green Seal (for accredited food-packaging items)
International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (worldwide)
KRAV (Sweden)
Marine Stewardship Council (international)
Rainforest Alliance
Red Tractor (UK)
The Soil Association (UK)
Sustainable Restaurant Association (UK)


Further information

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