In addition to saving money and reducing an operation’s negative environmental impact, “green” has the potential to provide competitive marketing advantages. According to 2007 National Restaurant Association research, 62% of adults said they likely would choose a restaurant based on its environmental friendliness; 44% of adults surveyed by the NRA late last year said they are likely to make a restaurant choice based on an operation’s practices in the areas of energy and water conservation. Yankelovich data also indicates that for some consumers, “green” may be the added value that is likely to motivate purchases in a tough economy. Plus, a company’s environmental practices can help attract and retain good employees, who increasingly want to connect with greater meaning in their work.
But for those restaurants “walking the walk” – working in earnest towards sustainability goals – “talking the talk” is another challenge. To attract increasingly aware consumers (and staff), sustainability efforts must be made visible, but doing so inappropriately can backfire. The fear of perceived “greenwashing” (misleading consumers and exaggerating claims about environmental commitment and practices) has become so great that many operators shy away from talking about their efforts at all. While it is better to err on the side of more action than talk, and important not to appear to capitalize on initiatives that are perceived by consumers and employees as having a higher purpose, there are some basic strategies for getting the word out.
Companies whose efforts to operate sustainably are part of their core values have an advantage. “When it’s a matter of course and integrated into their businesses, companies can say ‘This is what we’re doing’” instead of ‘We’re great,’” says Jacquelyn Ottman, founder, J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., and the author of “Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation.” Even for those restaurants getting started, says Jacquelyn, “The good news is that so much can get through to the consumer without tooting their horn too much.” Simple messages, like identifying local ingredients on the menu or servers talking about new lighting, are likely to be noticed by consumers, who are increasingly aware.
According to EnviroMedia Social Marketing, consumers are also increasingly savvy and able to see through what it calls a “green screen,” so it is essential not to overstate the depth of your commitment or the scope of your efforts. Don’t position your company as having a comprehensive environmental strategy if it doesn’t. Before promoting any aspect of sustainability efforts, Jacquelyn advises restaurateurs to look at the lifecycle of their operation for disconnects – everything from raw materials coming in the door to what goes out (including take-out packaging, which Jacquelyn says “seems to be getting more offensive”). Green marketing experts often underscore the power of third-party certification, which, for restaurants, includes Green Seal; the Green Restaurant Association; and regional options such as Thimmakka, a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit that provides environmental auditing, “green” consulting services, and third-party certification to restaurants. In addition to the credibility they provide, the process of certification itself shines a light on all aspects of an operation.
“You might want to position whatever you’re doing in steps, as part of a process,” advises Jacquelyn. “Set some goals and be seen as working towards them. For example, we’re now composting abc and our goal is to xyz. Making these goals known shows true commitment. Having said that, you can’t do one little thing and stop the process.”
Consumers seem to be accepting of incremental progress when it comes to environmental goals. According to TerraChoice Environmental Marketing there is no such thing as a perfectly green product – ”greener” but not “green.” Their point of view is that marketing products as “greener” is entirely fair and consumers should and will reward this incremental progress. Bottom line, “People don’t expect businesses to be perfect,” says Jacquelyn. “But they do react when they feel businesses are trying to get too much credit about what they’ve done, particularly when it’s not a lot. You may not be doing it all or doing it perfectly – just be honest about it.”
“People don’t expect businesses to be perfect. They do react when they feel businesses are trying to get too much credit for being environmentally responsible, particularly when they haven’t done a lot.” – Jacquelyn Ottman, founder, J. Ottman Consulting