UChicago’s Program on Global Environment shapes national Green Restaurant certification

When the University of Chicago’s Program on Global Environment was approached by the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition to find out what it would take to encourage food service operators in the City of Chicago to become green certified, they didn’t realize their research would lead to the creation of a national standard of sustainability practices for the food industry. On March 12, the GS-55 Green Seal Standards for Restaurants and Food Services was launched in downtown Chicago at partner restaurants Sopraffina and Ciccheti, the first new restaurants in the city to become certified under the Green Seal standard.


“The GS-55 makes it both accessible and affordable for food service operators to measure, track, verify and improve upon their sustainability efforts,” said Eloise Karlatiras, President and CEO of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition.

GS-55 examines each area of a food service operation, be it a restaurant, a retail outlet or other operation, according to its potential impact on the environment. “By requiring businesses to meet minimum benchmarks in local and environmentally preferable food purchasing, energy and water usage, waste management and other high impact areas, the GS-55 encourages both improved business practices and environmental conservation,” said Karlatiras.

Karen Weigert, the City of Chicago’s Chief Sustainability Officer, praised the launch of the new standard and its origins here. “Congratulations to the University of Chicago for their research work in helping make this happen,” Weigert said. “This is now going to be a national opportunity, and we’re just so delighted that the research to create this really happened here. It’s no surprise when you think about the extraordinary individuals and organizations who’ve been working for so long really to make Chicago a sustainable place.”

The beginnings of a green standard

In 2011, the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition posed a research question about how to better encourage other food service operators to increase their sustainability efforts and at the same time communicate those efforts through transparent third-party certification. “We found the Program on Global Environment and its Environment, Agriculture and Food working group, and they were very interested in examining this question,” said Karlatiras.

The Program on Global Environment, which is part of the Social Sciences Division’s Center for International Studies, supported a series of academic courses titled “Environment, Agriculture and Food: Economic and Policy Analysis” taught by Sabina Shaikh, lecturer in the College, and offered in the Winter and Spring quarters of 2012. Thirty-five UChicago students—including undergraduates majoring in economics, environmental sciences and policy—and graduate students from the Chicago Booth School of Business and the Harris School of Public Policy enrolled in the course and formed the Green Restaurant Research Team.

“Students drew upon their varied academic backgrounds to apply research methods and data collection to something everyone is familiar with—food,” said Shaikh. “The research also went beyond food to all aspects of food service operations, including energy and water use, transportation, waste management and community engagement.”

In the first quarter, they worked with Shaikh to examine every existing domestic standard for sustainable food-service certification. They received advice from leaders in Chicago’s sustainable restaurant industry and interacted with more than 50 key stakeholders in both the food services industry and food-related businesses.

“The students employed various data collection techniques, including surveys, interviews, on-site tours and energy audits, and compilation of government and other sources of data,” Shaikh said. “The classes provided an opportunity for students to get away from a lecture-style course and to design their own research to answer specific and practical problems with partners from outside the University.”

At the end of the quarter, the students produced a report containing valuable information not just about the use of resources in the industry as a whole but also about favorable consumer preferences toward businesses that were environmentally responsible.

“After a full quarter of work, students found that restaurateurs wanted more options in choosing a certification standard,” said Karlatiras. “Furthermore, they wanted standards that they chose from to be both accessible and affordable.”

Through the course research, the students determined that GS-46, the existing green food-service certification used by Green Seal, America’s oldest independent nonprofit providing certification for sustainable products and services, provided a robust foundation for green certification but was too cumbersome for restaurants to implement. The students concluded that GS-46 could be modified into something resembling the certification standard that the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition inquired about. As Green Seal was among the coalition's most active partners, the coalition made the introduction between the University and Green Seal, which launched the partnership and initiated the green-certification research.

Shaikh noted that the opportunity for students to work on real-world problems was an important benefit of the project as well. “The valuable partnerships afforded by this course structure allowed students to experience a more practical style of learning where the objectives and methods were not clearly defined at the start, but instead developed along the way with stakeholders and ‘clients,’ including the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition and Green Seal,” she said.

In spring of 2012, the students made standard-specific recommendations based on the data and feedback they had collected from industry stakeholders the previous winter. The students presented these recommendations in a report to Green Seal, which led in part to the creation of the pilot standard. Several of the stakeholders who had participated in the previous quarters agreed to participate in the pilot and provide feedback on the impact and accessibility of the proposed standard.

Why green certification for restaurants?

According to the Green Restaurant Association, the American restaurant industry consumes one-third of all energy in the retail sector. It estimates that this industry is five times more energy-intensive than other retail, office and lodging industries, and that the average restaurant uses 300,000 gallons of water per year.

“Restaurants have a tremendous opportunity to reduce their environmental impact just by changing their operations,” said Karlatiras. “As food production, processes and the prevalence of food waste have significant effects on many of our planet’s most important resources, it’s clear that the choices that chefs, purchasing managers and other food-service operators make can have significant environmental implications.”

According to Karlatiras, it became apparent several years ago that the Chicago food service industry could use some help—“boots on the ground”—when it came to becoming environmentally sustainable. Chicago consumers, she said, also appeared to be seeking information about which restaurants and food service operators were leading the charge. 

With GS-55, both food-service operators and Chicago consumers can find the information and help they seek. The research conducted by the University of Chicago played an influential role in bringing that about. The UChicago student team, under Shaikh’s leadership, provided the model for the new national standard for green food-service establishments.

“The UChicago study was extremely helpful in taking bare-bone facts [about environmental sustainability certification] and helping actually make it practical on the ground in the setting of a retail restaurant as well as an institutional restaurant,” said Arthur Weissman, President and CEO of Green Seal. To date, eight Chicago restaurants have been certified with 13 more currently undergoing the certification process. With the national release of the new certification, it is expected that more restaurants around the country will adopt the green standard.

The University of Chicago Program on Global Environment and Environment, Agriculture and Food working group have continued to work with the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition, and students are currently compiling a sustainability checklist for restaurants. The groups plan to collaborate again in 2014 through another practicum-style series of courses on a related, but distinct, topic.

“We have enjoyed the partnership with the GCRC and their ability to design a program of work for practical adoption. We look forward to ongoing collaboration on topics related to environment and food,” said Shaikh