How—and why—restaurants can benefit from better sustainability practices

March 14, 2023

Measuring your restaurant’s carbon footprint to drive financial gains.

The restaurant business has always been challenging. And with food and labor costs on the rise during the coronavirus pandemic, carbon accounting might be low on the priority list for restaurant owners. But finding ways to trim costs and eke out more margin will always reign supreme. There’s a way for the two to go hand-in-hand.

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By now, we’re all aware of climate change but might not be as familiar with the restaurant industry’s environmental impact. According to the UN, “The food sector accounts for around 30% of the world’s total energy consumption and for around 22% of total greenhouse gas emissions.”  

While the way food is grown and transported to restaurants is responsible for most of these emissions—an issue we won’t quite cover here—restaurant operators can also reduce their carbon footprint by focusing inward on operations initiatives. 

Understanding a restaurant’s climate impact is essential to any emissions reduction strategy. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions measurement can drive cost savings, and subsequent reporting and branding efforts often attract new customers. In fact, a 2021 research article found that environmentally- and health-conscious people pay greater attention to restaurant sustainability practices. “Customers are demanding more sustainability. […] It’s a win-win for restaurants. They can save money and attract customers,” says Laura Abshire, director of sustainability policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association. 

Why should restaurants care about their carbon footprint?  

Food service is both energy-intensive and inefficient. According to ENERGY STAR, restaurants use five to ten times the energy per square foot of typical commercial spaces. And utility company PG&E says inefficient equipment eats as much as 80% of energy costs. So it follows that better management of your utility consumption and, simultaneously, your carbon emissions will help your bottom line. 

Getting started: Carbon accounting in the kitchen 

If you’re not already familiar with emissions scopes (scope 1, 2, and 3), they’re just an easier way to understand your emissions sources and how what you do can drive emissions reductions. 

Cooking equipment accounts for the bulk of energy usage from burning fuel, like natural gas or propane, followed by space and water heating. GHG emissions from these operations are considered scope 1, or direct emissions produced on-site. 

Most restaurant electricity consumption comes from refrigeration, lighting, and space cooling. The emissions from electricity use are scope 2 or indirect because while the electricity is consumed on-site, its production (and emissions) occur elsewhere. 

While utility bills provide a transparent and measurable input to part of your emissions, other (read: many) activities aren’t as easy to quantify and contribute to a restaurant’s carbon footprint. These can include things like the production and transportation of ingredients to restaurants, delivery to customers, the production and disposal of non-reusable takeout containers, and the methane released from biodegradable food waste in landfills. All are considered scope 3 emissions, which occur outside of a business’ direct control or ownership, but result from its value and supply chain. 

Scope 3 emissions are generally the largest portion of a restaurant’s carbon footprint but are more difficult to measure, so they’re not likely to be the first place you start your GHG inventory (and that’s ok!). Access to scope 3 data requires greater time investment and deep relationships with suppliers, and the ability to track their emitting activities. 

Rather than start with scope 3, tackle what’s most accessible: the energy appliances and lighting consume. 

How to create efficiencies in your restaurant that lead to cost savings 

1. Shut off appliances when they aren’t in use.

This might feel like a no-brainer, but it warrants saying. Changing how you use your restaurant’s equipment means near-immediate cost savings. For example, turning a steamer or pasta cooker off for an hour a day could save up to $300 a year. Similarly, cutting power to your broiler for an hour a day could save as much as $450 a year. Schedule these power-downs between mealtimes and at the end of each day.

For refrigerators, which can’t be shut off, replace leaking gaskets and calibrate thermometers to prevent them from running colder than needed.

2. Purchase energy-efficient equipment. 

An ENERGY STAR-certified commercial water heater saves up to $1,500 a year compared to a standard model. Similarly, energy-saving connectionless food steamers save $2,000 on water usage and $3,000 on electricity annually compared to boiler-based steamers. Use the ENERGY STAR Product Finder to search for efficient appliances.

3. Switch to LEDs. 

For interior lighting, Lime Energy says that switching from incandescent lighting to LEDs could cut lighting-related energy costs by more than 75%. And paired with motion sensors and daylight dimmers, LEDs can save even more. Plus, with longer life spans, they reduce maintenance and replacement costs.

If the upfront switching cost is a barrier, explore local government and utility incentives. Grants, rebates, or loans are available in most states and can reduce up-front costs. For example, Minnesota-based Salut Bar Americain saved $5,569 annually by installing kitchen hood fan controls and upgrading to LED lighting. The restaurant recouped the $50,622 project just two-and-a-half years through the combination of utility rebate and city government loan programs.

‍Carbon accounting in practice 

Many organizations use spreadsheets to create a GHG inventory focused on energy consumption (scope 1 and 2 emissions) using monthly fuel and electricity data from utility bills. But that requires some complex equations using EPA emission factors and global warming potential to convert carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide into carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).  

The process might sound complicated, error-prone, and time-intensive. That’s because it is, but it doesn’t have to be. Sustain.Life’s carbon footprint calculators makes this process quick and easy. It also allows businesses to calculate those more challenging scope 3 emissions. 

Take measured steps and promote your success

While measuring carbon dioxide emissions alone won’t save money, it drives goal-setting on your way to becoming a more sustainable restaurant. Carbon accounting is an ongoing process. Tracking progress over time is essential to see how your efficiency projects perform. 

As you take on waste reduction projects and better manage your energy use and GHG emissions, always remember to celebrate and communicate your progress toward becoming a more green restaurant. A shrinking carbon footprint creates marketing opportunities—both on social media and in the press—to stand out from competitors while attracting employees and customers alike. Measuring GHG emissions and promoting reduction efforts are natural entry points and foundational restaurant sustainability practices for any long-term strategy that drives continued business improvements and builds resilience, especially in uncertain times.

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Russ Kuhner
Russ Kuhner is a GRI-certified sustainability professional with several years of experience as an environmental, health, safety and risk management assistant and project manager in the sustainability and CSR space.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

Three ways to create efficiencies that lead to cost savings:

1. Shut off appliances when not in use
2. Install energy-efficient equipment
3. Switch to LED lighting