In Defense of "Eco" Fast Food

A pretty scathing critique of "eco-restaurants" recently ran in Newseek. Called Your Carbon Foodprint, the article honed in on the now-fully formed trend of eateries capitalizing on environmentally conscious values to appeal to a growing market -- and, it charges, doing little but greenwashing in the process. The focus is on the vegetarian fast food chain Otarian, which is predictably assaulted it for committing a number of hypocrisies: Its owners don't live in a green home, they still use paper packaging, Et cetera. As real as those hypocrisies may be, here's my defense of the eco restaurant.

The Case Against 'Eco' Restaurants

First, here's the case against them, according to Newsweek's Jennie Yabroff:

Otarian cloaks itself in the smug assumption that you can save the planet by eating lunch. Words like "mission" and "menufesto" adorn the packaging, of which there is plenty. Your order comes on a tray lined with paper advertising low-carbon combo meals. Each item--the Portobello Mushroom Burger, the Tex Mex Burger, the Vego Burger, etc.--is wrapped in more paper and secured with a cardboard sleeve, which is held together by a sticker assuring you it is "100 percent compostable." On the restaurant walls TVs proselytize, and the Web site waxes about (but provides few details on) the chain's sustainable building design, water conservation, and energy efficiency--all that wrapping, for example, is made of recycled materials.
Yabroff also lambasts Otarian's owners for being industrial titans and building a $70 million dollar mansion. But most of her case rests on the fact that the chain is allegedly using faux green values to appeal to consumers, while the truly green thing to do would be to not create packaging-heavy fast food at all. The restaurant is encouraging "consumption disguised as conservation."

Okay, some good points. Rebuttal time.

Now, does this sound like a restaurant I'd like to eat in? Not necessarily. Can all those supposed hypocrisies rub even green-minded folk the wrong way, and could cashing in on the environmental movement seem a little ugly? Sure. But does this leave the net value of such an institution in the negative? No. And here's why.


Otarian's on Bleeker St. Photo via Martini Boys

In Defense of 'Green' Fast Food


Mansion Builders Can Never Create Anything Green
Let's get that pesky mansion-building charge, which Yabroff calls "delicious irony", out of the way. This is the same empty charge that gets leveled at many who promote green ideas in the marketplace and the policy arena -- how many times have you heard Al Gore attacked for living in a big house? It's an ad hominem attack, and matters not at all to whether the restaurant accomplishes any good, or is worth eating in.

Even after years of prominence, the green movement still suffers from this idea that if anyone, anywhere is going to make any sort of a green contribution to society, they had best to live off the grid in a solar-powered hut, and farm their own organic vegetables. Come on -- let's judge the restaurant on its actual merits.

What About the Greenwashing?
Yabroff's laundry list of the hypocrisies committed by Otarian are indeed, at the very least, annoying. Using recycled paper to congratulate oneself on the use of recycled paper is surely greenwashing -- or is it?

Sure, to an extent. But remember, this is still a business -- a business that needs to compete with titans of wastefulness like McDonald's and co. And it's a business that is doing a much better job on the green front than nearly its competitors, even if by truly green standards it's far, far from perfect. Vegetarianism, composting, recycling, sustainability -- these are ideas that certainly aren't widely circulated in fast food institutions. By engaging each, Otarian is making headway in an industry that has more room for improvement than any $70 million mansion.

So using materials to point out that it's doing a better job of conserving carbon than its peers -- and Yabroff admits that it is -- may be a necessary step. Many people to this day aren't aware of the benefits of composting or using recycled paper, and still need to be sold on the ideas; hence the "proselytizing".

I wouldn't argue that a restaurant that so uses compostable and recycled packaging, spreads the message of sustainability, and promotes vegetarianism should stop doing these things, even in a mildly hypocritical context. It should just do them better. Because as long as Otarian and its ilk are merely appealing to people who want to have their carbon guilt assuaged, and are actively seeking such blatantly "green" dining destinations, Yabroff is right.

But if the restaurant can attract clientele on the merits of its food, convenience, and promise of being more environmentally conscionable, then the values it proselytizes can catch on. Being over the top on all the green points isn't helping anything -- if the messages were tactfully applied, there's indeed a distinct benefit in bringing such ideas to new audiences.

Not as Green as Eating In
Finally, the crux of the argument, Otarian's biggest sin:

It treats environmentalism as another marketing gimmick, suggesting customers can have their Choc O Treat and eat it, too. As Cathy Erway writes on her blog, Not Eating Out in New York, "It's easier, cheaper, and overall more advantageous trying to be green while cooking at home." The best thing anyone can do for the environment is simply consume less--fewer cars in the garage and fewer restaurant meals. But that's an idea that's hard to wrap in pretty lavender paper.
Cathy, who happens to be a friend of mine, is right -- eating in is exponentially greener than any fast food meal currently in existence. But the point Yabroff misses is that doesn't mean anyone's actually going to give up eating out. It's like saying hybrid cars -- or electric cars, for that matter -- are pointless, because it's obviously greener to ride your bike. Which is true. But it's far from pragmatic. The benefit of these market-friendly 'green' institutions (the Prius, Whole Foods, Otarian's) is that they make distinct, incremental progress -- and pave the way for more. If Otarian's is a success, other players in the marketplace may take note and serve to emulate, or improve upon, its practices. They provide a real alternative, while still a flawed one, where such an alternative is needed.

Are there inherent contradictions in Otarian's restaurant? Many. Is it the greenest way to eat? Far from it. Is it annoyingly self righteous? Maybe. But it does advance a number of worthy ideas in the public sphere, and potentially turns a new audience on to green eating ideas. And it serves as an alternative to other wasteful, meat-heavy fast food offenders -- and maybe even as a catalyst for further change. I'm glad it exists -- and wish the chain success.

More on Green Fast Food
McDonald's Happy Meals Banned in Santa Clara County, California
Fast Food with Less of the Junk?
McDonald's Happy Meals Evidently Invincibler

Tags: Consumerism | Vegetarian

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