Sweetgreen Joins Chorus of Food Businesses Going Carbon Neutral

Sweetgreen, the Washington D.C.-based health-food chain, joined the growing chorus of restaurants that are going carbon neutral on February 24 when it announced plans to green-ify all 109 of its locations by 2027.

“Simply put, we believe it’s the right thing to do for our business and for the planet. With the food system driving 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the time for change is now,” Nicolas Jammet, co-founder and chief concept officer of Sweetgreen, said in a statement.

To complete its renovation, Sweetgreen enlisted the help of Watershed, a software platform that helps businesses reduce their carbon footprint. Other changes the business will implement include sustainable sourcing, plant-forward menu makeovers, investing in clean energy, and building restaurants with eco-friendly materials.

In return, Watershed will help Sweetgreen analyze the sustainability of each of Sweetgreen’s menu items. Sweetgreen said it plans to use the data collected from this partnership to offer more plant-based options and “soil-friendly ingredients” like regenerative kelp and the cover crop sorghum.

Panera Bread implemented a similar initiative in October 2020 when the company added carbon footprint impact labels to its menu items. Just Salad, a plant-based chain from New York City, also added these labels and reduced its packaging by 91 percent to meet its sustainability goals.

“Sweetgreen’s menu is already 30 percent less carbon intensive than the average US diet, and their commitment to decrease their greenhouse gas intensity by 50 percent and become carbon neutral is setting a new bar for the industry,” Taylor Francis, co-founder of Watershed, said in a statement.

Going carbon neutral isn’t a new fad for restaurants either. In 2018, over 60 San Francisco-based restaurants went carbon neutral to help fight climate change. More recently, large food distributors and manufacturing companies like Elevation Farms and Maple Leaf Foods have made the carbon-neutral transition.

Similarly, Pepsi announced on February 6 that it will make all its bottling and manufacturing plants carbon neutral by 2040.

Zero Foodprint (ZFP), a sustainable foods nonprofit organization founded by San Fransisco-based chef Anthony Myint, has been working with restaurants to reduce their carbon footprint since 2007. Restaurants that partner with ZFP add a small optional surcharge to their tabs, and the funds raised go toward grants for farmers to transition away from carbon-heavy farming techniques.

Myint told 5280 Magazine that his goal is for restaurants to put a one percent surcharge—which translates to donating $.50 for every $50 spent—but he is pleased to have restaurants participate by going carbon neutral as well.

“Healthy soil is the biggest win-win in the food movement, and shockingly very little of our food economy incentivizes healthy soil,” Myint told the publication.

“One percent feels like not that big of a difference to the customer, but system wide that starts to create tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to change farming practices on local farms. Policy makers can then scale up, and instead of chefs opting in, maybe that becomes the default, and all of sudden we have millions of dollars,” he added.

ZFP has already partnered with Boulder-based Mad Agriculture and Longmont’s McCauley Farms. Both Mad Agriculture and McCauley Farms are working together on a carbon footprint project that is estimated to remove 300 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Other participating restaurants in Colorado include Annette, Grand Junction’s Bin 707Serendipity Catering, and Sullivan Scrap Kitchen. Denver plans to develop a partnership with ZFP through its Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency.

“While Denver doesn’t have much agricultural land, we support the use of compost and carbon sequestration through regional regenerative farming practices,” Susan Renaud, the office’s community engagement administrator, told 5280 Magazine.

Industry analysts expect carbon to play a big part in the revival of local restaurants. Sustainable farming practices have been occurring in urban settings like New York City, which generates more than 36 metric tons of organic produce a year, according to the City’s 2019 Food Metrics Report.

For food marketers like Jared Scott, Chief Marketing Officer at Quench, a water supplement company, businesses need to adapt by learning to utilize new technology to “replicate or accelerate essential processes found in nature” to feed the growing demand for carbon-neutral food.

One method Scott predicts carbon branding will impact restaurants is forcing them to consider alternative fulfillment options. Micro-fulfillments allow restaurants to take up much less space while optimizing efficiency and favoring to-go and delivery options, Scott says.

“Micro-fulfillment offers grocers the ability to pick orders 10 times faster and more efficiently than human workers while maintaining stores’ ability to serve local customers,” he wrote in an article for RestaurantNews.com.

For Sweetgreen, going carbon-neutral isn’t just a good business decision, according to Jammet. It’s also in the best interest of the company’s business partners and, most importantly, their customers.

“We know that real change doesn’t happen overnight — it’s all the steps in between, the little moments that can lead to a big impact. That’s why we’re making this commitment,” Jammet said.

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