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Understanding Sustainability Labels on Restaurant Menus

Contributors: Marissa Thiry, RDN

Published: August 28, 2023

Two young women are at a trendy cafe ordering from restaurant menus that feature sustainability terms and phrases.
jacoblund/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Food systems play a significant role in total greenhouse gas emissions — gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. With the rise of consumer interest in protecting the environment and desire to purchase from companies that have sustainable practices, restaurants are exploring ways to minimize their impact on the environment and let consumers know about these efforts. Some restaurants use sustainability-related labels or terms on their menus to indicate a more climate-friendly offering. However, a lack of consistent regulations and standard language can lead to many different approaches at restaurants, causing consumer confusion or misinterpretation.

How restaurants are creating more climate-friendly offerings

When it comes to sustainable menu offerings, a few common approaches include:

  1. Sourcing Sustainably. Many restaurants are evaluating their carbon footprint across their entire supply chain, including how and where their food is grown, harvested, processed and transported before it gets to the restaurant. A few ways restaurants can source sustainably include properly caring for animals raised for food, minimizing deforestation commonly caused in certain supply chains, supporting food providers by purchasing from reputable sources, and buying locally grown or raised products to reduce emissions from long-distance transportation.
  2. Offering Choice and Variety on the Menu. Where and how an animal is raised for food can affect its level of environmental impact. Cattle, due to their large population, size and particular digestive characteristics, account for most emissions from livestock in the United States. This is partly because of the number of cattle, which produce methane through digestion, as well as the overall land and resources involved in cattle production to make beef products and cow’s milk. Therefore, many restaurants feature plant-based (containing no animal products) or plant-forward (containing less animal products) menu items as climate-friendly offerings. Additionally, some restaurants may utilize less common or leftover parts of an animal or vegetable scraps to minimize food waste going to landfills.

How some organizations are helping

The Federal Trade Commission has published a resource called Green Guides that provides definitions and guidance for various environment-friendly claims used in marketing. While the guide is a useful tool for restaurants, it does not carry the same weight as federal or state regulations when it comes to compliance. Regulations for sustainability claims may differ from state to state, causing confusion when comparing with the content in Green Guides.

  • The World Resources Institute, a global research organization that creates sustainable solutions for various organizations, developed the Coolfood Meals menu program, which flags menu items that are below a specific emissions threshold.
  • The United States Department of Agriculture regulates and defines certain claims and terms for products that fall under the department’s jurisdiction, such as meat and poultry products and the use of animal welfare claims. Since these definitions are regulated — not an optional tool or guidance — compliance to these claims is more clear and common.

Sustainability-related labels or terms restaurants use

The FTC’s Green Guides identifies 14 categories of environmental marketing claims. While these claims span all industries, some of the most common food-related claims include general environmental benefit claims (for example, “eco-friendly,” “green,” and “saves the planet”) and carbon offsets claims (for example, “carbon negative”).

Many companies use claims not currently included in Green Guides, such as emissions claims (such as “net zero,” “carbon neutral,” and “low climate impact”) to indicate the amount of greenhouse gas (most commonly carbon) emissions that are released into the atmosphere in the process of creating a menu item; origin claims (for example, “locally grown” or “locally sourced”); or animal welfare claims (such as “humanely raised,” “raised without antibiotics or hormones,” and “grass-fed”).

These and other menu labels for sustainability are meant to help people make educated food choices. However, these claims are often unregulated and used voluntarily. Add to that the lack of consistent language and varying approaches from one restaurant to the next, and it can be quite confusing for people dining out. If you are unsure about what a menu label or claim means, consider reaching out to the restaurant for clarification so you can make an informed decision.

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