Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A green-hot trend

I appreciate your attention here, but keep an eye diverted for safety reasons. After the industry insisted for decades that it couldn’t afford to address social concerns, the pendulum is suddenly swinging the other way, and you don’t want to get bonked by that baby. Not at the speed it’s moving.

Consider how it’s been pushed in the other direction by events of the last few days. Walt Disney Co. would’ve generated headlines merely by adopting healthier menus in its theme parks, as it’s indeed doing. But it took the considerable extra step of vowing not to do business with restaurant chains that refuse to meet its health-oriented menu standards. A tie-in with the likes of Burger King, Taco Bell or McDonald’s can presumably mean millions in additional box-office revenues for a Disney flick. Yet the company has publicly vowed to walk away from such a collaboration if healthful dining options aren’t on its partner’s menus.

An aspect of the announcement that went unnoticed by the public: Disney convened an event the day afterward at MUFSO, our conference for restaurant-chain executives, to provide further details of its initiative. Was it a way of getting out the word to the big chains that future marketing partnerships would have to be much different?

The initiative is such a bodacious step that even the Center for Science in the Public Interest couldn’t muster it’s usual “good, but” response. It veritably gushed about the move Ditto for critics like Marion Nestle. It is indeed a quantum leap.

Yet the magnitude of that development might’ve diverted attention from other strokes of green. Normally, the launch of a new lodging chain by Barry Sternlicht, the Steve Jobs of the hotel industry, would have delivered the buzz of a honey farm. Add an exclusive affiliation with BR Guest, the New York indie-restaurant group headed by Steve Hanson, and the Richter Scale needle would’ve moved into the red. Overlay the news that the venture will be totally eco-friendly, right down to its restaurant, banquet and room service operations, and more than a few observers would be bouncing like Tom Cruise during an “Oprah” appearance. But coming just a few days after Disney’s announcement, it might’ve seemed, um, a little mickey mouse.

Ditto for Wendy’s disclosure that it had developed a website where parents could get information from dieticians about children’s nutrition, or the pledge from McDonald’s, a frequent partner of Disney, that it would develop more healthful kids’ entrees. McD also promised to spend 20 percent of its GDP-scale children’s marketing budget on spots that promote exercise.

Added together, the news suggests the industry is convinced, after decades of being hounded, that there’s considerable green to be made from being green.

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