Thursday, June 14, 2007

Feeding a green monster

The public is convinced the restaurant industry could do more to protect the environment, starting with the type of disposables it uses. But what if it's wrong? What if Tiffany and Brad Public are pushing for actions that might be more detrimental to the environment than the status quo? Does a restaurant do what's ecologically sound, or does it cede to mistaken impressions and accommodate the foot-stompers? Sadly, more and more are caving to the public clamor.

As those reluctant converts point out, they really have no choice. Even if they're willing to risk the ill will of customers, local lawmakers are taking away the option. San Francisco and Oakland have already mandated that restaurants switch from foam-type cups and disposables to paper carriers. Other areas are showing interest in propelling the movement into a trend.

Yet, as a Google search will demonstrate, even some environmentalists are unconvinced that paper is ecologically better. But input the search terms "paper," "versus" and "Styrofoam" and you'll also pull up a slew of rock-hard assertions that plastic is the worst hazard since DDT. Significantly, many of those contentions are made on college-related websites by students at the institutions—sometimes in direct conflict with what their professors are attesting.

Is it any wonder that the Jamba Juice drinks chain has organized a whole committee to address what management has slugged The Cup Challenge? Nine-five percent of the chain's intake is generated by the sales of smoothies, which means it uses more cups than a bra factory. Polystyrene works best from a customer-satisfaction standpoint, and yet the chain is concentrated in California, ground zero of the foam-ban movement. It's already had to switch to paper in San Francisco.

CEO Paul Clayton says that being green is part of the chain's culture, and that it wants to do what's right. But the evidence doesn't prove paper is better, notes he and other senior members of management. And long experience has shown it's decidedly worse from a customer-satisfaction standpoint. So what's a customer-centric brand to do?

The company is currently looking at such foam alternatives as paper coated with a corn-based shell, hopefully to enhance performance.

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