Can I interest you in our carbon menu?
Consider this. You’re in your favourite restaurant. Alongside each dish on the menu is not only its cost, but another figure – its carbon footprint.
Presented with this information would you think more about, or even change, your meal selection? Would you expect others to do the same? There’s one thing for sure. In the absence of this information, most people are unlikely to be giving that much thought to the climate impact of their meal.
And yet the choices about what we eat as a world population are central to the climate emergency. Food production – most notably meat and dairy – is responsible for around 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While people are prepared to make more sustainable choices elsewhere in their lives, a greater inertia kicks in when they’re presented with the idea of reducing their meat consumption. A 2020 survey of almost 7,000 people in the UK revealed that fewer than a third of participants thought it likely that they would halve their consumption of meet and dairy in years to come, though they were far more amenable to making more sustainable lifestyle choices elsewhere.
Sometimes all that’s needed is a bit of a nudge.
The carbon footprint of menus
Carbon footprinting menus is still an emerging idea, though its uptake by restaurants like Wahaca sees it moving more into the mainstream.
Since 2022, UK restaurants with over 250 staff have been required to add the calorific value of each dish on their menus, in a bid by the Government to address obesity. This is a powerful sign of the belief that greater knowledge drives behavioural change in consumers. And what’s good for obesity, could be good for carbon.
A 2022 World Resources Institute (WRI) study looked at the impact of differing sustainability messages on menus. The study found, for example, that messages communicating the benefits of plant-based food “effectively influence selection patterns toward more sustainable options”. Another 2022 study conducted in Germany, found that more climate-friendly dish choices were made both when carbon labels were present and when the lower emissions options of a similar dish (eg, pitta with falafel, rather than beef) were set as default. It concluded that menu design has a “considerable effect on the carbon footprint of dining”.
Making carbon measuring of menus more manageable
Implementing menu carbon footprinting has drawn some criticism, primarily for its complexity. Most restaurants lack the time and expertise to undertake this analysis every time their menu changes. Critics also point to the fact that the differing assumptions and approaches taken by each would make comparisons across different restaurants difficult.
Harry Llewellyn, Climate Research Manager at Net Zero Now, said: “Calculating the emissions data of a restaurant menu is, no doubt, difficult, but our software provides a standardised solution that is easy to implement at scale. At Net Zero Now, we use our vast emissions database to offer bespoke menu analysis, helping restaurants calculate emissions values for each item on their menu. Dishes are broken down into their constituent ingredients, and consideration is given to where ingredients are sourced. Estimates are then generated based on the proportions of each ingredient used in the preparation process to arrive at an overall carbon footprint.
We also offer advice on how this information can be used by chefs to redesign menus and how to best present the relevant information to enable customers to make informed decisions, whether that’s a simplified grading system – like the traffic lights used for food nutrition - or the raw grams of CO2 to give the full picture."
Consumers are increasingly aware of the effect their combined activities have on our climate. Menu carbon footprinting provides a simple way for them to actively choose for the climate, whilst also gaining some knowledge they can hopefully take from the restaurant to inform their weekly shops.
If you’re a restaurateur who’d like to learn more about carbon footprinting your menu, get in touch, www.netzeronow.org.