BizEnergy talks to Janine Bolton, founder and president of Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice, about how to become a LEAF-certified restaurant.

BE: First of all, what’s the story behind starting LEAF?

JB: I worked in foodservice in my younger years and throughout university, and I was always bothered by the amount of waste I saw—food, energy, water, supplies—all types of waste. After learning about the LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from a friend, I thought that there needed to be something like that specifically for foodservice. After doing some research I found that there really was nothing like that in Canada on a national scale, and so I set forth to develop a program that would address these issues.

BE: What’s the process for becoming certified?

JB: In order to become certified, a facility must work with one of our LEAF Accredited Consultants, and have an on-site evaluation completed. From there, the LEAF AC provides a report of their findings and makes recommendations for how the facility can reduce their environmental impact, and conserve energy and water, which can also save the facility hundreds or thousands of dollars each year in operational costs. Once the facility meets the required number of points for level 1, 2, or 3 certification, the application is sent to our Advisory Board, which acts as an External Review Committee, for approval.

BE: Why did you decide not to allow online or self-certification?

JB: Online and self-certification is like marking your own test, and simply doesn’t hold a lot of credibility in the eyes of the public. It’s very important to have a qualified and independent third-party visit the site to conduct a thorough and accurate evaluation. For this reason, LEAF requires all facilities to undergo an on-site audit, and provide proper documentation of claims. We also require yearly follow-ups, to ensure the facility continues to operate as sustainably as possible. [Editor's note: for complete information on what's required for certification, take a look at LEAF's criteria overview (PDF).]

BE: Sounds like “greenwashing” is a problem in the restaurant industry.

JB: I think greenwashing is a problem in every industry. Consumers are starting to care more about where their food comes from, what packaging their take-out comes in and what their favourite restaurants are doing to be more sustainable. Whenever there’s a demand for something, some people will always look for the cheapest and easiest way to capitalize on it. That’s why it’s important that their is a program like LEAF to set a standard in the industry, and take the guesswork out for consumers.

BE: Is LEAF the only organization offering green certification to Canadian restaurants?

JB: No, there is at least one other organization that I know. [Editor's note: The US-based Green Restaurant Association also offers certification to Canadian restaurants.] LEAF is the only program to expand as far as we have nationally, and have Accredited Consultants in most major Canadian cities. We are also beginning to work with different types of foodservice facilities. We are currently working with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and also recently launched our certification program for cafés and coffee houses that specifically address these types of facilities.

BE: What have been some of your challenges in getting restaurants to invest in certification?

JB: I think the misconception that “going green” is going to cost a lot is our biggest barrier. However, restaurateurs are starting to realize that becoming more sustainable not only doesn’t have to cost a lot, but it can save hundreds or thousands of dollars down the road. This is a big reason as to why publicly funded institutions are now getting on board. It’s the case where $5 spent today will save you $10 or $15 tomorrow. It just makes good business sense, and that speaks to people.

Another misconception I come across is that people think that we’re going to tell them to replace all of their kitchen equipment, which simply isn’t financially or environmentally responsible. That said, a few simple changes in operating practices can make your kitchen a lot more efficient and cost-effective.

BE: What recommendations would you have for restaurants who may not be ready to undertake the certification process yet, but would still like to reduce their environmental impact?

JB: You don’t have to be completely “green” to start the process. In fact, LEAF Accredited Consultants are there to help you where you are today, and show you how to reach your goal. Restaurateurs can also become members of our website, which has tip sheets, a supplier database, and information about how to reduce their environmental impact, without having to become certified.

BE: What kind of feedback have you gotten from restaurants who have been certified? Have they noticed any positive changes? Any feedback from patrons?

JB: We’ve had extremely positive feedback from both restaurants and patrons. I would direct people to the video of our launch event on our website, which has come great commentary from people about the program. I think the most beneficial thing that restaurants find is the recommendations for exactly what they can do to improve.

For another perspective on LEAF certification, check out our article on Cowbell, Toronto’s first LEAF-certified restaurant.

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