Sustainability in the Food Service Industry

Sustainability is one of the main concerns of the modern world and one of the main goals for the future. There are efforts to make various spheres of human activities more sustainable. However, with many initiatives, recommendations, and proposed strategies, there is often a lack of strict guidance. This is the case for the food service industry, too (Baldwin, Wilberforce, & Kapur, 2011). Extensive studies are required to identify how the environmental impact of food service providers can be reduced. In order to assess how the operation of such facilities as restaurants can be modified towards increased sustainability, this operation can be divided into separate categories, e.g. procurement, storage, cooking, and supporting activities. According to a study in the United States by Baldwin et al. (2011), the broadest environmental impact was caused by food procurement.

Another possible categorization of food service providers’ activities is to divide them into four major areas: purchasing, waste control, energy consumption, and use of water. Each of the categories presents a wide range of issues and considerations concerning environmental impact and environmental friendliness. Various solutions in terms of approaching sustainability were proposed by academic studies of recent years. Although such solutions are normally more expensive than conventional or traditional ones, sustainable choices often prove to be more profitable in the long run. A review of relevant academic literature allows providing recommendations to food service providers for modifications towards sustainability in these four areas.


For food service providers, one of the earliest stages of operation where sustainable choices can be made is purchasing. There are several recommendations for more environmentally friendly purchasing strategies. First of all, there is the issue of excessive buying. Multiple studies in the area of environmental protection have stressed the negative effects of food waste on economy and environment (Papargyropoulou, Lozano, Steinberger, Wright, & bin Ujang, 2014). Food service providers, as well as food producers, can attain significant cost savings by reducing food waste. Besides purchasing, however, these costs are also connected to final waste disposal. On the post-consumer stage of the food supply chain, “buying more than is needed” (Papargyropoulou et al., 2014) is listed among the major factors of food loss or waste.

Another consideration of environmental friendliness in terms of purchasing is the origin of food products. Local products are preferred for several reasons. One of them is that locally grown organic food is more environmentally friendly. Another reason is that, for a business, operating within a local food market and purchasing from local food producers means decreasing “food miles,” which are the distances from producers (farmers) to service providers (e.g. retailers) to customers (e.g. restaurants if they do not buy food products from farmers directly) (Reisch, Eberle, & Lorek, 2013). More food miles means longer distances to travel, i.e. higher transportation costs and higher carbon dioxide emissions.

It is proposed to food service providers to plan more thoroughly how much food they need. Such planning will help reduce the amount of food waste. Also, it is recommended to prefer local food producers to other ones because such a choice makes the delivery more sustainable.

Waste Control

Food waste is one of the major climate change issues. According to recent studies, the food sector is responsible for 22 percent of the global warming potential in Europe, and the waste management is the primary concern in the sector (Papargyropoulou et al., 2014). Researchers argue that, first of all, more sustainable practices in terms of food production and consumption need to be adopted globally and the issue of food waste needs to be addressed from the perspective of the worldwide food supply chain.

Experts and practitioners recognize five levels of the food waste hierarchy. The top layer is the level of prevention. Most strategically efficient—thus most favorable and preferable—options for sustainable changes are to be introduced at this level. Two possible changes are avoiding the production of extra food by addressing the issues of consumption and preventing the production of food waste on different stages of the food supply chain (Papargyropoulou et al., 2014). The second level is about re-using extra food by distributing it among groups of people suffering from food poverty.

Tools that can facilitate such redistribution are food banks and networks. The third level is recycling food. Two most prominent recycling options are recognized on this level: animal feed and composting. The fourth level is about recovering energy from food waste via special procedures that create the conditions of anaerobic digestion. Finally, the fifth level is the level of disposal. Food that should be disposed of is only the food excess that fails to have been prevented, re-used, recycled, or used for energy recovery. Such unavoidable food waste can go to landfill, but only if the landfill is equipped with gas utilization system. Disposal of food waste is the last level for modifications towards sustainability. However, it is still important to improve landfills.

It is acknowledged that waste control is a complicated issue involving legislation, policy making, private-public partnership, technology, and infrastructure. However, the most challenging issue is the habits and practices of households (Reisch et al., 2013). In developed countries, around one-third of all purchased food ends up as waste. In this situation, it is crucial to modify behavioral patterns of consumers in order to achieve better waste management.

Energy Conservation

The use of energy is one of the main issues in the area of sustainability. Fundamentally, sustainability is the pattern of operation and development where resources are used less rapidly than they are generated, and waste is produced less rapidly than it is put back into the system or taken up by nature. Energy is one of the primary resources. Nowadays, the main sources of energy that the humanity uses, i.e. fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil, are being used much more rapidly than they are produced under natural conditions. Therefore, if humanity keeps using these energy sources, it will run out of them soon without having appropriate substitutes.

That is why it is generally agreed that, along with developing alternative types of energy such as solar and geothermal (renewable sources), humanity should reduce the use of energy. There are two types of energy reduction: energy efficiency and energy conservation. The former refers to using the same amount of energy for more purposes, i.e. achieving better results and more output with the same input of energy. The latter refers to refraining from the use of as much energy as previously, i.e. using less energy for certain aspects of operation.

In the food service industry, there are various options for applying energy conservation practices. Few of them, however, are specific to the industry. Most of the possible environmentally friendly solutions are measures taken by many different businesses (Wang, Chen, Lee, & Tsai, 2013). For example, energy saving equipment and light sources can be installed, including pieces of equipment needed for storing and cooking food. Also, the technology of motion sensors can assist in energy conservation by switching the light off when it is not needed. There are also indirect and more complicated ways of energy conservation such as reducing the number of food miles, which was described above.

Water Conservation

Water is another resource that similarly requires reduction of use, including increased efficiency and conservation. Generally, water conservation pursues finding the balance between how much water is taken out of ecosystems and how much water appears in them as a result of natural replacement. It is emphasized today that humanity needs to learn to use significantly lower amounts of fresh water in their various activities. Otherwise, there will not be enough fresh water left for future generations (Cosgrove & Rijsberman, 2014). Water management is particularly relevant to food service providers because they normally deal with water in their operation a lot.

One of the examples of water conservation technologies that can be applied in restaurants and cafés is installing low-flush toilets and waterless urinals in the restrooms. A significant portion of water used by indoors businesses is spent in bathrooms on flushing, which is why the mentioned technologies can significantly reduce the overall amount of used water. Another example is taps that one turns on by approaching one’s hands or pressing a pedal with one’s foot. Such taps generate short bursts of water instead of continuous flow. Studies show that it helps save over 60 percent of water that would otherwise go down the drain (Cosgrove & Rijsberman, 2014). The taps can be installed in bathrooms as well as kitchens. Also, those food service providers who are involved in farming may be engaged in more sustainable irrigation technologies such as the drip irrigation technology instead of flood irrigation. The latter features much higher rates of water loss in the process of delivering water to the plants’ roots. Drip irrigation, however, like many sustainable practices, is more expensive than its unsustainable alternatives, but it can be more profitable in the long run.


Various possibilities for sustainable choices have been identified for food service providers in the areas of purchasing, waste control, energy conservation, and water conservation. First of all, food service providers should refrain from excessive purchasing and pay more attention to local markets, especially organic, i.e. more environmentally friendly, ones. Second, waste should be managed on five levels: it should be prevented as much as possible, food excess should be re-used, recycled if re-using is impossible, used for energy recovery if recycling is impossible, and disposed of only if none of the above can be done. Third, energy conservation practices should be adopted such as the use of energy saving equipment. Fourth, water conservation should be pursued by introducing equipment for bathrooms and kitchens that uses less water. The third and the fourth categories of recommendations apply to other businesses as well. The first two, however, are specific to the food service industry. Food service providers should particularly focus on sustainable food purchasing as well as preventing and wisely managing food waste.


Baldwin, C., Wilberforce, N., & Kapur, A. (2011). Restaurant and food service life cycle assessment and development of a sustainability standard. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 16(1), 40-49.

Cosgrove, W. J., & Rijsberman, F. R. (2014). World water vision: Making water everybody’s business. Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge.

Papargyropoulou, E., Lozano, R., Steinberger, J. K., Wright, N., & bin Ujang, Z. (2014). The food waste hierarchy as a framework for the management of food surplus and food waste. Journal of Cleaner Production, 76(1), 106-115.

Reisch, L., Eberle, U., & Lorek, S. (2013). Sustainable food consumption: An overview of contemporary issues and policies. Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy, 9(2), 1-19.

Wang, Y. F., Chen, S. P., Lee, Y. C., & Tsai, C. T. S. (2013). Developing green management standards for restaurants: An application of green supply chain management. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 34(1), 263-273.