Andrew Stephen: my mission to bring sustainable food to life

The head of the Sustainable Restaurant Association recently celebrated a year in the role. He talks to Nick Hughes about the challenges and opportunities in helping restaurants achieve their sustainability goals.

“What is a sustainable restaurant?” Andrew Stephen pauses for a moment while he ponders his own question.  It may seem an odd point for the man who leads the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) to be deliberating, but the question gets to the heart of Stephen’s and the SRA’s mission.

Consumers, he suggests, want to eat sustainable food rather than at a sustainable restaurant. The challenge for the SRA and its members, therefore, is to take the worthy but sometimes mundane work that goes into making a restaurant sustainable and bring it to life for the customer through the food on their plate.

Stephen, who last month celebrated his first anniversary as SRA chief executive, is as well qualified as anybody to make that connection. He has had an eclectic career encompassing advertising agencies, strategy agencies, film production companies and his most recent role with the sustainability consultancy 2degrees.

He professes an interest in “clever ideas, well expressed and their ability to enact change at scale” and was attracted to the SRA role by a belief in the way that food can make abstract concepts such as sustainability and climate change feel immediate to people and act as a point of connection.

On the surface, the SRA’s members are ideally placed to make those connections. The organisation works with a huge array of businesses from independent restaurants and cafes to international restaurant and hotel chains, ranging from household name brands such as Wetherspoon’s and Nando’s to the university catering services of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Such diversity means the SRA is constantly having to answer different questions for different members based on their individual priorities, resources and sphere of influence.

What binds them together is its sustainability framework, which informs the SRA’s Food Made Good rating system. Members wanting to join the scheme must complete a survey in which they answer questions about their operations, policies and influence in 10 areas ranging from sourcing fish responsibly to supporting the community. Responses are checked against what the SRA believes the policy should contain – so a sustainable fish policy that doesn’t deal with endangered species, for instance, will not receive full marks.

Although Stephen admits that “we’re not at the level of going round truffling in bins”, the SRA then verifies the responses based on evidence in the public domain and correspondence with suppliers. The result is a percentage score which equates to a star rating. “It’s not always 100% correct but it’s an informed, subjective perspective which has been built iteratively over the past six years with thousands of restaurateurs and with lots of effort, sweat, know-how and tweaking,” says Stephen.

Historically, the SRA did not make its full survey available to the public, a policy that runs contrary to the vast majority of accreditation schemes. Stephen suggests the policy was about “making sure that we had more integrity, not less, by making it harder for people to game the system”, but acknowledges that “this is probably outweighed by the benefits of being able to have a really transparent conversation about what a sustainable restaurant is”. The full sustainability framework is now available via the SRA’s website.

As with any accreditation scheme, there are challenges in ensuring Food Made Good is comprehensive and targeted at the most important issues. The framework tends to focus on a restaurant’s direct operations and, while Stephen says he is “desperately interested” in the upstream supply chain and issues such as sustainable sourcing of commodities, “it will never be our primary ask of restaurateurs to think more about that”.

The SRA, as with many NGOs, has to target its work effectively. It is a tightly run organisation with just 15 staff and Stephen says its primary role is to find “practical things that are addressable and to measure that change”.

Measuring change is easier said than done in a sector where generating accurate information is a constant challenge. Sure, tools such as Winnow and LeanPath are having an effect in operational areas such as food waste, but Stephen acknowledges the difficulties businesses still have in recording data across their entire supply chain. “We’d love to know things like how many kilograms of higher welfare beef you served your customer last year because that will give us awesome potential to compare different restaurants. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.”

One feature of Stephen’s tenure is likely to be a concerted effort by the SRA to extend its influence beyond its rating scheme to other areas. He is keen to do more project-based work with individual businesses and, in particular, to ramp up the SRA’s campaigning activity.

This year the SRA is running a different campaign each month aligned with the 10 subject areas that make up its rating, giving members an added incentive to engage. In May, it asked restaurants to put two items of veg on every dish on their children’s menu. More than 1,500 restaurants took up the challenge and between them delivered about 500,000 children’s portions of veg during the month.

Stephen is particularly excited by August’s activity on the theme of “serve more veg and better meat”, which he believes is an issue on which the SRA can drive the greatest change. “We got 30 chefs together four months ago and got them to really ruminate on the question of what is a chef’s role in this. They came up with some really good ideas around meat-free starters or reducing meat portions to less than 100g that we’ve then socialised to the sector.”

Members are not required to engage with every campaign – an acknowledgement that different businesses will have different sustainability priorities. “If I’m a business that serves my customer twice a year, my sense of how important healthy eating is compared to a university that’s feeding students three times a day is very different. The different contexts in which those businesses operate changes the importance of the issues,” Stephen explains.

In a similar vein, he notes that the “better meat, more veg” message is more likely to appeal to a business serving younger, more metropolitan consumers, in line with the trend towards “flexitarian” eating among millennials.

The drive to encourage more veg consumption aligns with the campaigning work of a number of other NGOs, and Stephen says the SRA is keen to collaborate wherever possible. “On our fish campaign, for example, we’ve partnered with pretty much every organisation involved in sustainable fish to create a toolkit,” he says. “Although we do all tend to put our logos on things, we’re certainly interested in how better collaboration can drive more impact.”

He also wants to see members themselves collaborate more openly and effectively to share best practice and influence their peers. “We’re very much trying to get the message out there that you’re not competing on sustainability. We want you to try and have influence beyond your own business and part of that is for us to provide the tools for that to happen.”

The SRA hosts an online community where members can ask questions and share ideas. It also runs regular events and convenes working groups, and Stephen hopes restaurants and other catering businesses will increasingly see the SRA as a place to share ideas about what a good restaurant can do, and for suppliers to help businesses achieve their sustainability goals.

As for his own legacy at the SRA, Stephen’s ambition encapsulates the essence of sustainable business, combining commercial viability with responsible activity. “I’d like to see restaurants that are full serving creative, sustainable food. I guess that would mean we’re doing a better job of driving customers into our best restaurants; restaurants are doing a better job of telling that sustainable food story; and consumers are doing a better job of not leaving their principles at the door.”

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