Just Salad Introduces a Climatarian Menu

So what's a 'climatarian'?

carbon footprint of dinner
Carbon footprint of dinner.

Just Salad 

Just Salad, an American fast-casual restaurant chain, has introduced a "climate-friendly" menu, where they calculate the carbon footprint and post it on the menu, much like a nutrition label. Chief Sustainability Officer Sandra Noonan said during its launch:

"Our food choices will have a profound effect on the fate of our planet. By carbon labeling our menu, we’re embracing climate-smart eating, helping our guests eat for planetary and human health. A calorie label simply isn’t enough anymore -- we need to know how our food choices affect our well-being at a planetary level. Our new carbon labels will provide that insight, helping guests make more holistic choices that take climate change into account.”

The Carbon Footprint Methodology

Shawarma bowl breakdown by ingredient
Breakdown by Ingredients. Just Salad 

Estimating emissions is a very difficult thing to do. In general, "some ingredients have more carbon-intensive growing and production methods than others. For example, fruits and vegetables tend to be lower emitters, while animal products are higher." But when you try and put accurate numbers to this, you can quickly end up in the weeds. I have been researching this for my 1.5-degree lifestyle project and the data are all over the map, if you can find it at all. Just Salad, in their Carbon Footprint Methodology, (PDF here) explains how they do it:

"The Just Salad LCA tool calculates the kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2e) emitted in the production of each ingredient on our menu, based on publicly available academic databases and peer-reviewed LCA (Lifecycle Assessment) research. For ingredients we were unable to find in these sources, we used proxy ingredients whose emissions should serve as reasonably close approximations."

Sandra Noonan explained to Treehugger which academic databases she used, some of which we have discussed in "What Can You Eat if You Are Living a 1.5 Degree Lifestyle?." But also an important American source, the work of Martin Heller of the School for the Environment and Sustainability at The University of Michigan, which we will be looking at in greater detail on Treehugger. She noted that she doesn't have the budget to set up a lab to do the analysis in house, so they have to rely on the existing sources, even when those sources don't have all the information they need.

Drawing Boundaries

Another major issue in calculations is the boundary; where do you stop counting? Just Salads explains:

"The current Just Salad calculator provides cradle-to-gate estimates, which includes greenhouse gas emissions generated from agricultural production and transportation of each ingredient. Excluded from the calculations are primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging and packaging operations; lighting in processing facilities; packaging disposal; and all consumer stages."

In my research, I tried to calculate the carbon footprint of a takeout rotisserie chicken from a popular Canadian chain and you can get so bogged down; how big is the kitchen? Are the broilers electric or gas? Where is it, and are the employees driving to get there? It never ends, so you have to draw a boundary. However, the one thing you do know is that the footprint is going to be even bigger than you think it is.

Then there is the transportation of ingredients from farm and factory (for processed ingredients) to Just Salad's distribution centers. They use British data to calculate the emissions from transport, noting that "We have yet to find a similar source published by a U.S. source." Given that distances are much longer and trucks are much bigger in the U.S., the numbers are probably off, but it's a good place to start. However, Noonan also noted that transportation was a far smaller proportion of the footprint than they expected. We were surprised too when we found this out earlier, noting that "there are lots of good reasons to buy local but don't worry about the impact of shipping."

What is Climatarianism?

Climatarian on menu
Climatarian menu.  Just Salad

Just Salad calls their menu with the carbon footprint listings climatarian, differentiating it from vegan or vegetarian. I was intrigued by this, never having heard the term; I have long thought we needed something like it. I found in my research that a vegetarian diet can easily have a bigger footprint than a diet that includes cheese or meat other than beef. Noonan told Treehugger that she was surprised at how some of their salads with cheesy dressings came out with a higher footprint than dishes including chicken.

Greenhouse gas emissions by calories
 CC Hannah Richie/ Our World In Data

A look at the Our World In Data graph above demonstrates that the equivalent calories of cheese are higher than chicken and milk is higher than pork.

So a vegetarian diet might not be climate-friendly. A vegan diet is going to be very climate-friendly but keep away from those hothouse tomatoes. Many people also find a vegan diet difficult. So what do you call a diet designed around your carbon footprint? I liked climatarian and asked Noonan if she had coined it; she said no, it has been around.

In fact, according to Kate Yoder of Grist, writing in 2015, it was first seen in 2009 and got exposure in the New York Times in 2015. Yoder wrote:

"The jury’s still out on whether it’ll ever have enough mainstream appeal to stick around. The word may never become popular for obvious reasons — just picture yourself trying to describe the dietary restrictions of 'climatarianism' to your extended family over a holiday dinner... Even if 'climatarian' sounds ridiculous now, it’s good news that a carbon-conscious diet is popular enough to merit its very own word."

It doesn't sound ridiculous to me; perhaps its time has come, and with the help of Just Salad, it may well go mainstream now. And is the public buying it? Sandra Noonan tells Treehugger that since the introduction of the climatarian menu a few weeks ago, sales of the items listed on it have doubled.

We wrote earlier how Unilever will put carbon footprint labels on all its products, noting that "Soon we might count our carbon like our calories." Soon has come more quickly than I expected, thanks to Sandra Noonan and Just Salad, and also thanks to them, I will now proudly call myself a climatarian.

As noted earlier, I have committed to trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Soon to be "The 1.5 Degree Diaries," from New Society Publishers.