Monday, May 28, 2007

It's good. But what is it?

Forget the light bulb queries. The question right now is how many restaurateurs it takes to agree on a definition. Clearly 73,000 aren’t enough, because attendees of last week’s restaurant convention in Chicago couldn’t decide on a label for the trend that colored the gathering. Yet designations were thrown around like restaurant recommendations, leaving no doubt the event marked a turning point for the trade. If only it could decide what to call the phenomenon.

“Going green,” maybe? Nope, snipped skeptics who don’t see that term applying to issues like how chickens live before they end up in a KFC bucket, or whether the day’s fresh fish is a species in danger of being wiped out. Ah, “sustainability,” then? No, not exactly, since what does the use of non-recycled building supplies have to do with fertilizer-free produce or buying from local growers? That’s sustainability. Of course, if you went to the seminar on sustainability and organics, you also heard about matters like truck-fuel consumption, and the use of growth hormones on dairy cows. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, given how much time was devoted during the going-green seminar to the popularity of organics.

The convention’s planners must have seen sustainability and green as two very different things. Why else would they have scheduled the sessions at exactly the same time, as if those topics appealed to audiences with far different sensibilities? Not that it mattered. One was standing-room-only; the other about 80 percent filled, or a box-office smash by NRA seminar standards.

Clearly the industry has awakened to an environmental responsibility—a sense that actions have to be adjusted to do the least harm to the globe and the carbon forms inhabiting it. But it’s still groping for the right vocabulary to designate its concerns and actions.

The problem goes beyond semantics. As several speakers noted, some charlatans are exploiting the lack of agreed-upon terms to designate their products as the greatest boon to the environment since Al Gore bought a Prius. If no baby seals were hurt in its production, why not label it “eco-friendly?” And it could conceivably be melted down and turned into plowshares. Why not market it as “recyclable,” even if not a one has indeed yet been recycled?

With that sort of medicine-show grifting, restaurants could act in good conscience yet still find themselves being picketed by activists with a different read. Or they could just get turned off by all the hucksterism and step back from what is fast becoming a movement.

If the industry is serious about being more environmentally responsible—and the gathering last week in Chicago strongly suggested that it is—then the trade would be smart to draft its own eco-definitions and terms. It needs a language, a set of common terms used and understood by operators and suppliers alike. Only then can it determine what will truly fertilize the movement, and what's your garden-variety BS.

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