Certificate for a fake restaurant obtained through the Greener Restaurants program of the National Restaurant Program, provided to TreeHugger.
A few weeks ago word started coming out about how the new Greener Restaurants program from the National Restaurant Association, which appears to certify restaurant's efforts to tread more lightly on the planet, wasn't worth the paper the certificates are printed on--thanks to no independent verification. TreeHugger finally tracking down the NRA's Chris Moyer, who insists the program is still in the pilot stage and that all the greenwashing claims are based on confused information. Let's sort it out:
A Fee, Plus a Few Clicks, Means You're a Greener Restaurant
As you can see in the video above--created by an anonymous self-proclaimed industry insider--so long as you've paid a $250 membership fee a restaurant can simply go on the Greener Restaurants website and with a few mouse clicks receive a certificate, signed by the president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, Dawn Sweeney. At no stage are any of these claims actually checked by either the NRA or a third party.
TreeHugger went through the same procedure and verified that no step has been omitted in the process and, yes, within five or ten minutes at the most depending on how many green steps you claim (and they are all decent steps towards creating a more sustainable restaurant) you can get your green credentials, ready for printing and proud display.
NRA Claims Program is 'Recognition', Not Certification
Shortly after this video surfaced and the story was picked up by The Greenwashing Blog, Greenpeace, the NBC affiliate in Chicago, and others, the National Restaurant Association tried to clarify the situation by claiming on its website:
We are very clear in all program components that Greener Restaurants is not a certification program, but is based on self-reporting and encouraging an open dialog with restaurant guests. The program is currently in its pilot phase with a planned industry launch soon. The consumer-aspect of the program will launch at a later date and will clearly show the transparency of operator efforts.
Indeed when TreeHugger spoke with the NRA, Chris Moyer emphasized repeatedly that the program is still in pilot phase and that it is not a certification program rather a recognition program. He also stressed the educational aspect of the program.
"Our goal is to make sustainable practices mainstream," he told TreeHugger. "Our hope is to get more people involved, engaged and get more people on board...try to get people to take one step, to have that a-ha moment, and then take the next step and the next step."
When pressed about how quickly one can get one of these certificates, Moyer again points out that it's just a pilot program now.
"We have a number of businesses playing around and doing things of that nature. We made sure everything was accessible to everyone. That's one of the great things of being in the pilot stage: You find out what works, what doesn't work, what needs to be enhanced, what needs to be tweaked. That's why we really look forward to launching this thing publicly, to the industry, this summer, and we'll move down the road."
Big Changes Required Before This Program Is Fully Launched
While it may just seem like word smithing, the difference between certification and recognition is quite significant--one which creates confusion for consumers, that no amount of "open dialog with restaurant guests" will ever rectify. If the topic is organic versus non-organic agriculture, no one would stand for this sort of thing, self-reporting with no verification.
In the end, few to no customers are likely going to investigate claims made by restaurants after seeing one of these certificates in the window--nor should they be expected to--no one is, in actuality, going to enter into that dialog upon which the NRA claims the validity of this program hinges.
Customers Don't Trust Self-Reporting
Let's assume that the program is in good faith in pilot stage--press releases to the contrary not withstanding, once you're on the Greener Restaurants website there's nothing telling you that (at least at the time this article was written) and restaurant patrons won't know the difference. In which case there is vast room for improvement. To launch a program which looks like certification to consumers, and which they then discover isn't verified, is decidedly boneheaded.
The NRA's own stats tout 44% of adults saying they are likely to make a restaurant choice based on its progress in the areas covered by the program. At the same time, another survey by the Green Restaurant Association (yes, very similarly named...) shows that 82% of customers will stop going to a restaurant once they find out that its falsely claiming to be green. Furthermore only 6% trust self-reported claims, while 94% trust independently verified claims.
There's certainly some chance of bias in those GRA claims seeing as it runs a certification program of its own--and they were released just as the National Restaurant Association program started getting some light shined upon it. But even accounting for that, the message seems to be clear: Self-reporting of green claims simply doesn't cut it. The NRA ought to know this and see the problem, as it really is clear as day.
No Verification Could Defeat Program's Credibility
In the coming months before this program is fully launched--Moyers wouldn't give a hard date for that, only reiterating, "We're looking to get this out there as soon as we can this summer"--this is where all of the NRA's efforts ought to go if it truly wants to make sustainability more mainstream.
The educational efforts of the Greener Restaurants program are commendable and clear; let's give credit where credit is due. But until there's some third-party verification of the claims that go into receiving one of these "recognition" certificates restaurant patrons ought to be very wary when they see them.