This article was written by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), a national not-for-profit membership association that provides restaurants with help and support on a wide range of sustainability issues. The SRA also rewards and celebrates restaurants that achieve high levels of sustainable success with a 'sustainability rating,' which is based on an independent audit.

Starting up a restaurant, like any other business, poses a number of challenges. Increasingly, one such challenge is that of sustainability — more than ever, diners are demanding that restaurants meet their environmental and social responsibilities. Eating out is about enjoyment, but diners want to do so with a clear conscience.

Why start a sustainable restaurant?

Research has shown that 70% of diners would be more likely to eat at a restaurant that has good sustainability credentials (Populus Survey Ethical Index – September 2009). It makes good business sense then, to incorporate sustainability from the outset. Not only may your restaurant benefit financially from embedding sustainable practices at the start, you’ll be avoiding practical headaches later on. On top of these obvious gains, your sustainability can be marketed to your customers, setting you apart from the competition.

What does sustainability involve?

Sustainability for restaurants encompasses a number of issues but principally there are three things to keep in mind; sourcing ethically, whether for food or cleaning products, for example; respecting the environment by recycling and careful use of energy; and engaging with your community in a meaningful way, perhaps by taking on apprentices or supporting a local charity.

Financial benefits of sustainability

Sustainability can mean savings for restaurants. It is estimated that if the average restaurant reduced its food waste by 20%, it could generate savings of at least £2000 annually from avoided food purchase costs, along with four tonnes that would otherwise cost the restaurant to dispose of (Too Good To Waste - SRA Report September 2010). Installing energy-efficient kitchen equipment is an obvious way in which to run your kitchen with its impact on the environment in mind. The increased outlay at the start will be more than compensated for by the efficiency savings in the long run. Signing up to green energy tariffs and using utilities sparingly, sourcing as locally as possible to reduce the cost of transportation, and using produce that’s in season and therefore more economical, are all ways in which a restaurant’s bottom line can benefit from operating sustainably.

Social benefits of sustainability

The social benefits too, are built-in. A restaurant that is at the heart of its neighbourhood, whatever the setting, will have longevity. Building strong customer relations by responding to the sustainability demands of your target market, whether for selling high-welfare meat or seasonal British produce, sending little to landfill or hiring locally, shows that you’re in touch with diners. You’ll become known for your strong sustainability credentials, as well as your great food, and secure repeat custom.

Blending success with sustainability

A successful restaurant is a balancing act of creativity and practicality in differing measures and it can be difficult to achieve this at the best of times. In a tough economic climate it’s even more important to get it right. The beauty of making sustainability a key part of your startup is that it both answers problems with practical solutions and allows you to use your creativity to complement your food and beverage offer with sustainable practices that are, in themselves, selling points.

Of course, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Entrepreneurs building a restaurant business are already performing a juggling act — finding out where to start when it comes to sustainability in the restaurant trade can seem like juggling one ball too many. But there is help out there, and making your restaurant a sustainable one could well mean making it a successful one.