What Do Consumers Really Think About Restaurant Sustainability?

Dec 08, 2022

What Do Consumers Really Think About Restaurant Sustainability?

According to the latest research from Datassential, restaurants are moving swiftly to adopt more sustainable business practices. But do their customers even care?

In a word, yes.

The results of the study suggest broad agreement on the importance of sustainability to operators and customers. That said, there’s a disconnect between what consumers expect and what restaurants are actually doing to improve sustainability. Finally, the study reveals a vital opportunity many restaurants are currently missing in promoting their sustainability activities.

Why is sustainability important to the restaurant industry?

Today 70% of restaurants say that improving their sustainability is a priority. But only 41% say they’re currently running sustainable operations.1

Most operators say their reason for pursuing sustainability is a feeling of responsibility and a desire to preserve the Earth for future generations. Only 12% say they’re doing it because their customers demand it.1

While that may be the case, research shows the desire for greater sustainability is widely shared among consumers, with bottom-line impact for restaurants.

  • 90% of consumers say sustainability, in general, matters to them.1

  • 57% say restaurant sustainability practices are “somewhat influencing” their choices when dining away from home.1

  • 39% say they’ve taken steps to become more sustainable in their own lives over the past year.1

  • 57% believe the foodservice industry can have a significant impact on the environment.1

Most importantly, a meaningful segment of customers—21%—will go out of their way to eat at a sustainable restaurant.

Sustainability-Chart 1 Generational

Gen Z and Millennials were the most passionate about restaurant sustainability; boomers were the least. And since Gen Z and Millennials eat out more frequently than older generations, sustainability is something restaurants ignore at their peril.

How do you make restaurants more sustainable in the eyes of customers?

Environmentally-sustainable food and initiatives are popular with consumers, with 24% willing to pay more.1 But what consumers want and what restaurants do aren’t always the same things.

According to the Datassential study, here’s what they’d like to see from restaurants:

Sustainability-Chart 2 Pay-More

Operators, on the other hand, reported the following sustainability initiatives as the ones they currently offer or would like to offer.

Sustainability-Chart 3 Interest Implementation

The survey results show restaurants and consumers share similar enthusiasm for these sustainability tactics:

  • Donating excess food to charities

  • Recycling

  • Paper bags for takeout vs. plastic

  • Limiting disposable packaging and utensils to “on request”

However, there are several sustainability features consumers would like to see that are not currently available to them. These represent some of the most significant opportunities for operators to score sustainability points with their customers:

The following items are environmentally sound but aren’t very impressive to consumers (which isn’t to say you shouldn’t do them anyway):

  • Energy-efficient appliances

  • Eco-friendly cleaning products

  • Banning Styrofoam

  • Condiments offered only on request/ramekins instead of portion control packs

  • Smaller food portion sizes

38% of restaurants aren’t sharing their sustainability efforts with the public

85% of foodservice operators say they’ve adopted at least one sustainable practice. Yet 38% aren’t sharing any information about what they’re doing to lessen their environmental impact. This is a big missed opportunity: 38% of consumers say they’d be more likely to visit a restaurant that operates more sustainably.

Restaurants should pursue sustainability as a public good, not a marketing tactic, of course. But if you’re going to invest the time and money to reduce your environmental impact, you may as well get credit for it. And, if it results in a competitive advantage, all the better.

Here’s how your peer establishments are currently promoting their sustainability initiatives:1

  • Social media 23%

  • Waitstaff/cashier telling you 20%

  • Signage on site 16%

  • Notes on menus 14%

  • Table tents 11%

  • Ads in local publications 7%

The drive for restaurant sustainability is more than a passing fad

The perception that sustainable practices are expensive to implement has slowed or deterred many operators moving forward. But going green doesn’t have to break the bank (see 24 Low-Cost Sustainability Tactics for Restaurants).

As the effects of climate change manifest themselves, customers will demand businesses take action to mitigate their environmental impact, including their favorite restaurants. Now is the time to build your sustainability credentials. Reduce your food waste. Cut your energy consumption and water usage. Make sure your menu items are sustainably sourced. Get serious about recycling, and upgrade to environmentally-friendly Energy Star® appliances whenever you can to reduce your carbon footprint.

Just be sure to keep in mind what sustainability measures your customers feel are important, too.

1 Datassential, Keynote Reports, Oct. 2022