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November 18, 2021

Sustainability: Beyond the Hashtag

Good for the planet, good for your bottom line.

Words: Fred Siggins
Images: Kristoffer Paulsen

In 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener filmed a plastic straw being removed from a sea turtle’s nose and posted it on YouTube. Within a few short months, that confronting image was memefied as the ultimate symbol of humanity’s negative impact on the environment, and, specifically, the hospitality industry’s wasteful reliance on single-use plastics. Plastic straws became social kryptonite, and a few years on everywhere from your local dive bar to Starbucks has done away with them. 

In recent years, the hospitality sector has realised that customers care about sustainability and feel good about spending their money in venues that care too. Research commissioned last year by parcel-delivery service CouriersPlease reveals that 85 per cent of Australian consumers want retailers and brands to be more transparent about the origins and sustainability of their products, and that two in five would be willing to pay more for ethical and sustainable products. As such, it’s no surprise that words like ‘local’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’ have become mainstream, appearing everywhere from Aldi to Attica. 

But while it’s good to eliminate plastic straws and support similar campaigns, these are very small steps on the long road to genuine sustainability in a sector that generates millions of tonnes of food, plastic and other waste every year, along with a massive carbon footprint. 

Kelsey Ramage has spent the past few years travelling the world with The Trash Collective, teaching cocktail bars how to reduce their environmental impact. “People really want to enact change, whether it’s a ‘trend’ or not,” she says. “But there’s a lot of performative stuff and misinformation out there.” Her advice for businesses wanting to take the first step is to “quit making it such a big deal. Just start by training staff on what does and does not get recycled. It’s such a simple thing, but there is a shocking number of people who don’t know that a coffee cup thrown in the recycling can contaminate the whole lot.”

The movement to make hospitality more sustainable is nothing new. Chez Panisse in California, a pioneer of locavorism, is celebrating 50 years of operation this year, and anyone who’s opened a cookbook in the past decade understands that using seasonal produce makes food taste better. In Australia, restaurants like Brae, Attica and Three Blue Ducks have long championed the farm-to-table approach.

“For the vast majority of hospitality businesses that don’t have the margins, the manpower or the prestige to be the next Attica, serious commitments to sustainability often end up getting tossed in the too-hard basket.”

There’s also no lack of publicity for environmental initiatives at the top end of town. Case in point is sustainability and hospitality guru Joost Bakker’s most recent project, with chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barrett. Greenhouse – a self-sustaining pop-up dwelling that also houses the restaurant Futurefoodsystem, in Melbourne’s Federation Square – puts sustainable building and eating practices in the spotlight. Around the world, high-end restaurants like Silo in London and Frea in Berlin have made waste minimisation a fundamental part of their brands. 

Despite all this, substantive, industry-wide change seems elusive. Greenhouse’s Futurefoodsystem, like other projects of its ilk, may be an important driver of awareness and innovation, but not everyone has the time and money to book the three-hour, $390-per-head tasting menu on offer. For the vast majority of hospitality businesses that don’t have the margins, the manpower or the prestige to be the next Attica, serious commitments to sustainability often end up getting tossed in the too-hard basket, along with all their waste. 

So where does that leave the rest of us? Making an impact on an industry-wide scale is the great hurdle. But models are emerging that provide a template for serious change. 

OzHarvest, for example, rescues food from supermarkets and hospitality businesses and redistributes it to charities that help people in need. Since it was founded in 2004, the organisation has delivered 180 million meals and eliminated 60,000 tonnes of food waste in the process. Organisations of this kind provide a glimpse of what’s possible across the sector. But while the sort of systemic challenges OzHarvest and its allies are tackling may seem daunting, substantive steps to achieve change need not be so ambitious. 

“We just want people to start with something simple,” says Ross Harding, principal at sustainability consultancy Finding Infinity. “We did the waste strategy for Monash University, and everyone wanted to talk about plastic straws and coffee cups, but that was only about 3 per cent of their total waste, where food waste was nearly 50 per cent. So just getting on top of your food waste is the biggest opportunity. That and not buying things that go to landfill. Just start there.” (For tips on how to reduce food waste, see: Five Easy Steps to Make Hospitality More Sustainable.

There’s no reason it can’t be profitable, too, says Harding: “We take the approach of doing as much as possible in a way that’s profitable for the businesses we work with. Operating costs and environmental impact are very much aligned. We encourage people to get the accountants involved, because the numbers will tell a pretty clear story.”

“Sustainability isn’t just an environmental practice, it’s an economic one. You can save money by having effective systems in place for managing and repurposing your waste.”

Innovation and technology are also stepping in to make eliminating straws the tip of the waste-reduction iceberg. Paul Gabie, chief executive officer of EcoSpirits, is on a mission to eliminate the 40 billion single-use glass spirits bottles made globally each year, by distributing high-quality booze in large-format, reusable containers. The company works with more than 500 venues around the Asia-Pacific region. “We can eliminate about 80 per cent of the carbon emissions from the production and transport of traditional single-use bottles,” he says. “In 2020 we managed to eliminate more than 100,000 single-use bottles and we expect that to triple in 2021.” It makes sense economically, as well, with venues saving about 20 per cent off their nip price compared to when using standard 700-millilitre packaging. Scalability and savings form the basis of this model, making it a solution accessible to a wide range of businesses beyond the top tier.

On a smaller scale, operators like Max Allison want sustainability to be just another thing that good venues do without all the song and dance. His soon-to-open café-by-day, bar-by-night venue, Good Measure, on Melbourne’s Lygon Street, will serve only bulk-packaged beverages, and it will compost all food waste. “Sustainability isn’t just an environmental practice,” he says. “It’s an economic one. You can save money by having effective systems in place for managing and repurposing your waste.”

Choosing what to serve is also an important first step in eliminating food waste. The reduction of meat consumption, for example, has made great strides in recent years, as more diners make the conscious choice to limit their intake. Internationally, New York’s much-lauded Eleven Madison Park has just announced that it’s going totally meat-free, while closer to home, chefs like Melbourne’s Shannon Martinez are making tasty, engaging vegan food accessible to the masses. 

Now, thanks to documentaries such as Seaspiracy and books like Richard Flanagan’s Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry, we’re also starting to recognise the dangers of simply replacing meat with seafood. Mark Briggs is the chef and co-owner of restaurant Sardine in Victoria’s Gippsland Lakes region. Basing the menu on what’s fresh and available, he works closely with local wholesalers to champion less popular, more sustainable seafood. “There’s a lot of amazing fish in the ocean that people are scared to try,” he says. “Australian salmon, sardines, leatherjacket, gurnard – they’re absolutely delicious. We just have to let the general public know they’re good to eat.”

Whether through thoughtful produce choices, packaging decisions or guidance from environmental advisors, the hospitality industry can implement a range of measures to help ensure healthy businesses as well as a healthy planet. And when it comes to sustainability, the writing is on the wall, both in terms of consumer expectation and government regulation. 

To take measures beyond the occasional hashtag, such endeavours need not be relegated to the ideological fringe, the ultra-high end or the token effort. As Harding says: “Hospitality is a great place to enact really meaningful action on sustainability, because it’s experiential. Your average person can’t experience a solar panel or a wind turbine. But in a hospitality environment they get to see and taste the changes being made.”  

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