Sustainability vs. Eco-friendly


Hello everyone, my name is Christian Cross and I am the new intern with the University of Guelph Sustainable Restaurant Project (UGSRP). I am super excited to be part of this project this year as I have a great passion for food and as a business student studying sustainability is interesting to me. I am currently the Vice-President if the Slow Food Student Chapter here at the University of Guelph and am in my third academic year (fourth program counting my co-op term). Being part of this sustainability project I have noticed we are perceived as having an environmental focus opposed to a sustainable focus.

In conversation with fellow business students as well as friends from other disciplines I asked about their understanding of what is means to be a sustainable restaurant. I got a lot of very cliché answers from friends who have taken commerce courses such as “enough, for all, forever”, or the “3 P’s – people, profit, planet”. When I pushed as to what that actual meant in implementation, the primary answer I received dealt with being eco-friendly. When I pushed a little further I had a few comments about using fair trade or ethically sourced products. The key point that was missing in these conversations was profitability.

Sustainable business is often taught as a an equilateral triangle with the “3 P’s” each representing one side and each one holding equal weight and equal importance. In perception though sustainability is often weighted more like a pyramid, with the most importance falling on the focus of the planet. The second largest weighted section being people and profit takes up a very small portion of the shape almost as if it is an afterthought.

Despite knowing that sustainability is about more than just the planet, this focus of being eco-friendly in terms of sustainability is consistently reinforced while the other 2 aspects are often ignored. If you do a quick Google Image search of “sustainability” or “sustainable business” your screen will be covered with green images showing trees and plants with economic interests and social impacts getting some small black text in some of these images.

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Even some definitions of sustainability seem to put the focus on the natural environment. The Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition, defined sustainability specifically in regards to economic development as: “capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage: sustainable development”. This definition mentions being maintained at a steady level but a company cannot be maintained without the finances to do so or the human capital to run the business. This definition puts the focus on natural resources but doesn’t mention by name the other aspects of sustainability. This singular focus of sustainability is also reinforced by different businesses in the hospitality industry. For example on the Wyndham Worldwide website they have a section titled “Human Rights & Ethics” and a different section titled “Environment & Sustainability”. Even though the topic of sustainability should extend to the “Human Rights & Ethics” category, they narrow the topic of sustainability to focusing just on the environment.

Often times when discussing the topic of sustainably and the lack of focus on topics outside of the environment, I think back to a past study done by the University of Guelph Sustainable Restaurant Project much before I was involved. The study was looking at food waste in our student run restaurant on campus, PJ’s. The study measured food waste and looked at different strategies to limit waste. One of the strategies used was offering fries as a side option instead of automatically including it in with the meal. What they found was many people were opting out of ordering the fries and there was much less waste at the end of the meal. What the study also found was there was less revenue coming in also. It was a great initiative to limit food waste but a restaurant cannot be sustained if it is not making money.

We should not belittle the environmental component but we should aim to elevate the importance of the other 2 branches when speaking of sustainability. Emphasis needs to be more evenly split between environmental impacts, social interests and making the green instead of just being green if a restaurant, or any business, wants to be sustainable.

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