The New Kings Of Sustainability

Back when the French had kings, they used to say, “Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi!” Translated as “The King is dead. Long live the King,” the phrase symbolized the concept that the kingdom was never without a king. The death of one monarch instantly transferred power to his successor.

The phrase comes to mind because it so perfectly symbolizes the state of sustainability in our industry. Retailers have pulled back or abandoned sustainability programs altogether, except in those areas where they can see an immediate profit boost. In foodservice, though, sustainability — especially the local aspect of it — is a cause célèbre among chefs and young adults, especially college students.

Or, put another way, “Sustainability is dead. Long live sustainability!”

How this situation came about is intriguing and not instantly obvious, even to players deeply involved. Roughly, though, it has worked out this way: In large retail operations, sustainability was very much a top-down marketing initiative. Wal-Mart, which, for a moment, acquired the image as the preeminent retail advocate of sustainability, went into it not because its customers were demanding it, nor because there was any groundswell of support coming from employees; Wal-Mart went into it as a PR move. Executives perceived that Wal-Mart could use sustainability as a kind of invisibility cloak, in which all the bad things Wal-Mart was being accused of could be made to disappear when cloaked behind a sustainability effort.

Noting that sustainability traditionally had separate focuses on the environment, the economic and social spheres, Wal-Mart executives further thought they could pick and choose — only focusing on those aspects of sustainability that would increase the corporation’s bottom line.

Now there was clearly some value here. Sustainability at Wal-Mart, and at most large retailers became a kind of heightened consciousness in which traditional practices, particularly relating to energy, packaging, and logistics, were looked at with an eagle eye to find more efficient ways to proceed.

In the end, though, with the exception of a few small PR efforts, it is difficult to identify even one thing that a major retailer did in service of sustainability that it would not have done if its goal was simply to maximize long-term profits.

Beneficial or not, such efforts are not particularly inspiring, and it would be hard to find even one of Wal-Mart’s many store clerks who would be particularly jazzed about the corporation’s commitment to sustainability.

The consumers who really were focused on sustainability wound up focusing on alternative channels, so we have an explosion of farmer’s markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture.)

In contrast, chefs and college students have served as the yin and yang of sustainability at mainstream foodservice operations. The broader industry has legitimate critiques of these enthusiasms. College students may well be leading more with their hearts than their heads in these efforts, but isn’t that passion almost the definition of the age group?    Chefs may be loath to admit it, but their movement away from organic and toward local can be explained as a rational response to changes in the regulatory environment. Before the Organic Foods Production Act, organic was a “Wild West” with wildly different standards across the country. A restaurateur, who sourced organic and vetted it himself, was giving the consumer a real value that the consumer could not easily recreate on his own. Once the National Organic Standards were established, any consumer could go into a store and purchase certified organic produce, so suddenly the chef’s contribution was not so valuable.

Yet when chefs shifted to local, they had a new way of adding value. In most cases, consumers have little, if any, opportunity to interact with local farms. So when a chef can identify local vendors of quality, he is selecting purveyors of quality produce and other items that consumers cannot so well do for themselves. That is the definition of value-added.

Because these enthusiasms by students and chefs are so genuine, they are also infectious. It is this love of local and fresh, sustainable and bio-diverse, and artisan-produced food that brought on the media love-fest with virtually every newspaper having someone live as a locavore for a while. It has also led to new restaurant concepts such as farm-to-table restaurants and has tied in with school garden projects — a way of reaching out to even younger consumers.

Nonetheless, enthusiasm may not be enough to carry the day. There are real issues, especially related to food safety, that push growers to consolidate, and local is appealing in part because high diesel prices make it price-competitive with distant growing areas.

But in all human endeavors, enthusiasm, if not a sufficient condition to prevail, is surely a necessary one. If nothing else, a focus on sustainability in foodservice, manifested as a drive for local, is teaching college students to have a great consciousness about their food and where it comes from. Reverberating such an attitude through the generations is likely to be the key to getting people to eat less processed and fresher foods; indeed, such a consciousness seems the only force with the power to move half the plate to fresh produce. As they say, “may the force be with us.”