Staying Green While Dining Out

You’ve taken the Veg Pledge. You’re attending special events to learn more about the environmental impacts of the food you eat. You’re feeling pretty confident in your grocery story choices. But how do you know if the food you order in a restaurant is environmentally preferable?

Never fear – we’ve got you covered there too.

Several independent certification schemes have come forward to help you identify restaurants doing their part to keep it green. In addition to a stamp of approval, these certifications also provide resources to consumers, manufacturers, restaurants, and distributors to help them improve on sustainability metrics. Below, we’ll compare two of the longest-running certification standards and introduce you to research at UChicago that aims to bring it all home.

Green Restaurant Association

Founded in 1990, this non-profit organization certifies existing restaurants, new builds, and events. Their most recent “GRA 4.0” standard lets restaurants earn points in seven categories:

  • Water efficiency
  • Waste reduction & recycling
  • Sustainable furnishings and building materials
  • Sustainable food
  • Energy
  • Disposable
  • Chemical & pollution reduction

Restaurants must accumulate at least 100 points overall, and meet the minimum number of points required for each of the seven categories to earn the GRA 4.0. Full-scale recycling programs, polystyrene foam-free packaging, and regular communication on sustainability issues are key certification requirements. The GRA also provides product endorsements for “the best environmental products in the restaurant industry.”

Green Seal

Founded in 1989, Green Seal develops life cycle-based sustainability standards for a variety of products and services. The Green Seal Standard for Restaurants and Food Services, or GS-46, focuses on food, waste, and energy. The group examines metrics, performance, practices, as well as overall commitment to sustainability issues to produce an aggregated score. It also breaks those scores into nine categories:

  • Responsible food
  • Energy conservation & management
  • Water conservation & management
  • Waste reduction & management
  • Air quality
  • Cleaning & landscape management
  • Environmentally & socially sensitive purchasing
  • Training & communication
  • Continuous improvement

Participating restaurants can a receive bronze, silver, or gold-level “Seal of Approval” from Green Seal. Generally, higher levels of certification require a greater percentage of purchases and practices meet the GS-46 standards. For example, the bronze level requires 25 percent of food purchases “be either organic or environmentally preferable.” In order to earn gold, 80 percent of food purchases must meet this standard.

The UChicago Green Restaurant Research Team
In 2012, undergraduate and graduate students right here at UChicago set out to adapt these national standards to the local Chicago context. Working with Green Seal and the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition, the group evaluated Green Seal’s GS-46 through a Chicago lens in a practicum style course offered by the Program on the Global Environment.

The group, called the Green Restaurant Research Team (GRRT), visited local favorites like Uncommon Ground, Frontera Grill, Goose Island Brewery, and even Shedd Aquarium to explore restaurant practices in Chicago. Their final report put forth a number of findings and recommendations to help bring the GS-46 into focus for Chicago. These recommendations included an increased emphasis on stormwater management, insuring proper management of compost in the waste stream, and creating local policy and infrastructure to support green Chicago restaurants. You can read a detailed summary of the GRRT’s work here.