For six months, the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) has operated under overhauled certification standards, dubbed Green Restaurant 4.0. And for six months, Michael Oshman, executive director of the GRA, has received nothing but compliments about it.
Green Restaurant 4.0 represents the most dramatic change to the group's standards in its nearly 20-year history. Implementation was in the works for two years.
Under the old certification standards, restaurants could become members if they recycled, were Styrofoam free, and took four additional eco-friendly steps each year. But it wasn't always clear what qualified as a step. Oshman says the GRA didn't feel comfortable making the certification standards more extensive when they might not have been feasible for most restaurants.
“You said the word, 'green restaurant' five years ago to a restaurant, and they would say, 'Huh? What does that mean?'” he says. But what was once cutting-edge in the green movement is now the norm. Eliminating Styrofoam and recycling is expected, and the GRA felt two years ago that consumer demand had made more intricate certification standards possible.
The result is a system that awards members points for implementing green practices in seven categories: water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable food, energy, disposables, chemicals, and pollution prevention. No bottled water served on-site is worth 3.5 points, for example, while no paper towels in restrooms is worth 2 points. Certified Green Restaurants must earn a minimum of 100 points, including the minimum points required in each category. They also must implement a full-scale recycling program, remove all Styrofoam from stores, and fulfill an annual education program requirement.
“It's all weighed differently, so it makes it much easier for us and our restaurants to help them prioritize the steps,” Oshman says. “With the new system, you're going to have done more by the time you've got certified, but the overall system is so much more transparent and so much easier to use and navigate.”
Two-Star Certified Green Restaurants must earn a minimum of 100 points, Three-Stars must earn a minimum of 175 points, and Four-Stars, which are on the cutting edge of green practices, must earn a minimum of 470 points. Stores can also earn recognition for being Certified Green Restaurant Sustainabuild or for Certified Green Restaurant Events.
“The vast majority of restaurants in the country, if they want to, should be able to reach the level of Two-Star Certified Green Restaurant in significantly less than a year,” Oshman says.
After a 50 percent growth in membership in 2008, the GRA is on track to duplicate last year's performance—if not exceed it—with its new certification standards.
Vaughan Lazar, president and co-founder of noted green chain Pizza Fusion, applauds the GRA's switch to a point-based system—but says it might not be necessary for restaurants to pay the fees associated with GRA certification to go greener.
“[The new certification system] is better because it's bringing more awareness to the areas that need to be addressed,” Lazar says, but he points to the National Restaurant Association's "Conserve: Solutions for Sustainability" as a similar program with a lesser expense.
Holly Elmore, founder and president of the Green Foodservice Alliance, also cautions cash-strapped restaurants to look at the investment required by the program.
“Most restaurateurs in these economic times are not in the position for a large cash outlet for a certification program,” she says.
Lazar says GRA certification can be a good fit for restaurants that don't understand how to go green and that need a step-by-step process—so long as they do their research first.
“Some questions I would ask if i was a prospective restaurateur are: How often does the Green Restaurant Association do surprise visits? How often do they do follow-up audits? Is it yearly? Is it as often as you pay them?” Lazar says. “To me, that's the important part. To get the seal on your door one time is nothing. It's maintaining that integrity in that system.”
The GRA responded to Lazar's concerns in an e-mail to QSR:
“We do in fact do random spot-checks, and all restaurants are required to go through a re-certification every year,” says Colleen Oteri, the GRA's communications manager. “The GRA has been certifying restaurants longer than any other organization on the planet, and our certification program is 100 percent transparent. Our integrity as an organization is directly dependent on the integrity of our Certified Green Restaurants, and because of that, we are diligent in making sure they've met—and maintain—our high standards.”