National Restaurant Association: Greener Restaurants or Greenwashing?

Greener Wallace Wash - an imaginary restaurant - can now display its Greener Restaurant certificate

How easy is it to get a Greener Restaurants certificate from the National Restaurant Association? It’s as easy as one, two, three (no restaurant required) Read on and see how it’s done:

Issues of sustainability and “green” (a term that is now overused and abused, as this story is a case in point) have gained increased awareness in the general public. For many, that awareness leads to a sincere desire to find more sustainable ways to go about their daily lives, both as consumers and business owners. But folks are busy, and don’t have the time or resources to research how eco-friendly or sustainable every product or service might be. They rely on programs such as Energy Star and other certification programs to help them weed through the truly green from the simply greenwashed – or so they hope.

Others are all too ready to jump on the green bandwagon with little regard to the actual greenness of a product or servce. Enter the National Restaurant Association.

From the inside

As the publisher of TheGreenWashingBlog, I was contacted just over three weeks ago from an anonymous source wishing to speak to me about an issue of concern from within an industry of which this anonymous person worked. Let’s call him (or her) Greenwash for our purposes here.

I made initial contact with Greenwash and he (or she) told me of the Greener Restaurants program just started by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). AfterΒ Greenwash filled me inΒ about the program, I decided to find out more and work with him (or her) to develop a story in time for the upcoming National Restaurant Association’s National Restaurant Association Restaurant Hotel-Motel Showin Chicago this coming weekend (May 22-25), where the NRA hopes to roll out the program to restauranteurs.

Over the course of the past few weeks, working with Greenwash, I have gained access to compelling evidence that the NRA’s program is a thinly veiled attempt at greenwash. A good one at that. What starts as an adequate source for restaurant owners seeking information on sustainability best practices leads to the Greener Restaurants program. For an annual fee of $250 and some basic computer skills, anyone can claim up to dozens of sustainability practices and gain access to a neat little package of marketing materials and use of the Greener Restaurant logo for display to the public.

Videos show an imaginary restaurant – Green Wallace Wash – going online and securing three separate certificates validating membership in good standing in the Greener Restaurants program. The process takes Green Wallace Wash mere seconds to only a few minutes to get signed certificates from the National Restaurant Association’s verifying membership in the Greener Restaurants Program. In one certificate every possible claim is made – 90 in all – of sustainability in their business operation. But, oops, the restaurant doesn’t even exist.

Further, the NRA has planned a special pavilion for the exhibit floor at their upcoming trade show this weekend called the Conserve Solutions Center that, according to a press release, is for “…restauranteurs looking for ways to ramp up environmental efforts and find greener business solutions will find the information, products, services, and contacts they need.”

A prospective exhibitor for the Conserve Solutions Center, let’s call him “Troy,” submitted four products to the NRA for exhibition as “green business solutions,” asking specifically if the products would be acceptable. Of the products proposed, two were made of virgin plastic, one was a cleaning product made from 100% Chlorine and Ethyl Cellusolve – a chemical listed as hazardous in California – and a Styrofoam cup.

The NRA responded that the four items were a “great fit” for the Conserve Solutions Center.

What follows is a portion of my original report on TheGreenWashingBlog, including the video of Greenwash signing on to the Greener Restaurant website, making claims of sustainability practices for Green Wallace Wash, and getting in return – on three separate occasions – a certificate of membership in the program from the National Restaurant Association.

Judge for yourself:

Scenario 1: One step (30 seconds to an NRA certified Greener Restaurant)

The following video shows Green Wallace Wash logging in, then choosing an option indicating the restaurant is creating a “green marketing plan.” Within seconds a certificate is available for downloaded on their computer. With that certificate also comes additional marketing materials, such as a handy decal to display on your front door (if you have one), and a listing in the NRA’s “Green Dining Finder.”


Scenario 2: Upping the ante – claiming assessment of energy and water use (90 seconds to a Greener Restaurant)

This video shows Green Wallace Wash taking the story a bit further. Five items are clicked, claiming that local utilities have done an assessment of energy and water use. Remember, this restaurant isn’t real. There is no requirement to verify that such assessments from the utilities were actually done. It took 90 seconds in this case to get a Greener Restaurants certificate from the National Restaurant Association.


Scenario 3: Going all out – taking every step possible (5 minutes to a Greener Restaurant)

Nothing is spared in our third example. Green Wallace Wash is the greenest restaurant possible in the eyes of the National Restaurant Association. In this video, every option is checked: 40 items for Energy Efficiency, 11 for Water Conservation, 18 in Waste Reduction, 10 in Building/Construction, and 11 for Program Administration. Whew! That was exhausting. Five whole minutes to certification – and not one of the 90 items checked are verified, accomplished, or even planned for our imaginary restaurant.


As we plainly see in these three examples, all that is required for endorsement by the National Restaurant’s Greener Restaurant program is payment of a fee and basic computer skills. And with such endorsement comes an assurance from the NRA that a restaurant is planning, pursuing, and implementing sustainability best practices. In fact, it doesn’t even require an actual restaurant. Nonetheless, we see how easy it is to get an instantly downloadable certificate, a listing on the NRA’s “Green Dining Finder,” and other marketing materials, including use of the Greener Restaurant logo on a decal to put on your door informing your eco-minded customers just how green you are — even if you aren’t.

And what if you really are a restaurant owner, interested in actually doing what you — and the NRA — say you’re doing? Good for you. You are doing the right thing.

The problem is that not every owner is as honest as you are, unfortunately making the Greener Restaurant certificate from the NRA all but meaningless.

Recognition vs. certification

By calling Greener Restaurants a “recognition program,” the National Restaurant Association seeks to shift responsibility for benchmarking and verification, while at the same time claiming to retain the authenticity and legitimacy that comes with an honest and transparent green practices program. How can this be?

When pressed on the issue of verification, NRA spokesman Chris Moyer said in telephone conversation that the “push-back” from some complaining there are no benchmarking and verification requirements is answered by the expectation that such methods will be employed “every day by the customer.”

My guess is that many or most of the steps in the Greener Restaurants program are out of sight of average customers, who would have neither the knowledge nor the tools to understand if best practices were used or not, even if they did have access.

The customer relies on the very sort of endorsement that is both explicit and implicit in an official looking decal pasted on a restaurant’s front door confirming the establishment is a member in good standing of a major trade organization’s green restaurant program.

The NRA can’t have it both ways, “recognition” in this context should minimally imply endorsement, sanction, certification. Some assurance that the statements and claims made are verifiable and real.

At best the argument of recognition vs. certification from Moyer and the NRA is naive, at worst disingenuous and detrimental to the very cause it professes to support.

There are trusting people among us, some own restaurants and some patronize them. You might be one of those people. Once trust is violated, trusting people can become a bit less trusting. Greenwash is eventually exposed for what it is. So when the next green program comes along, no matter how worthy, it is seen as suspect. You’ve been burned before. “It’s all just greenwash.” The result is real change, a transition to real sustainability, becomes that much more difficult.

I don’t think the National Restaurant Association is being naive.

Want to make sure the food you eat meets your green standards? Grow your own. We’ve got everything you need for an eco garden, including organic seeds, compost bins, and rain barrels.

  1. heckety

    This is simply fantastical! Its mis-information like this which keeps the general public cynical and unwilling to take sustainability and the fate of the planet seriously. And to be honest, if I wasn’t a confirmed ‘greenie’ I’d not just have read this and dismissed this one organisation, but others which call themselves ‘green’ as well.

  2. Steve Saks

    These are great steps that many resturants have been making to gain the title of a “green resturant” including energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, and building and construction. There is, however, another aspect of the resturant business that could be altered to make for an even greener outcome. That is using enviormentally-friendly, alternative paper products like plates, bowls, cups, utensils, and even trash bags. These products are biodegradable, renewable, and compostable, allowing for them give back to the environment for generations to come.

  3. Mahesh Kumar

    Great post. As a founder of 500gallons.com (we are still in alpha mode) and looking to genuinely take the restaurants on their own sustainability journey, we tussle with how best to get to that end point – green restaurant. On the one hand folks get it (atleast once explained) that sustainability is the right way. On the other hand folks especially restaurant owners are strapped for time, looking for tangible (bottom-line) benefits as well as branding/marketing benefits from their actions to drive clients to their dining places. This balance often gets skewed/skewered when folks come in with a laundry list approach, absolutely no validation/verification and start issuing certification.

    But, then my question back to you is how does one engender green behavior atleast in some restaurants, and also reward them without having to employ an army of consultants to go audit ground realities?

    My blog: http://www.greenmachan.com
    twitter: greenmachan

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