NRA Recap…From a Sustainability Perspective

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show descended on McCormick Place in Chicago from May 18th through 21st. Yours truly scored a media pass to attend the show with a goal to look at the show through a sustainability lens. I can say that I am filled up by some things, and fed up with others!

I got to listen to Jim Hanna, the Director of Environmental Affairs for Starbucks discuss the financially sound reasons why they are investing in recycling policies and reducing waste. So I am filled up with the notion that more and more corporations are catching on that sustainability isn’t just a fad or a nice warm fuzzy…especially massively influential ones like Starbucks.  It’s good business which is hopefully the carrot that motivates them to move more and more in a green direction.

I was initially filled up with NRA touting a real hydroponics garden on the trade show floor. It was a headlining act in the show! I was quickly disappointed when the garden was a tiny exhibit tucked way in the back. Indeed, the entire aisle devoted to various green exhibitors was hard to find. It seemed more like a quaint, obligatory nod to sustainability and nothing more.

Yes, I was fed up with this surface hypocrisy that was pervasive throughout the show. They said they didn’t print presentation slides because of their commitment to the environment, but still printed feedback forms and daily newsletters full of advertisements and very little meaningful content. McCormick had some recycling bins outside the show, but inside it was garbage can after garbage can full of plastic cups and plates from all of the food samples. Waste was everywhere.

Ultimately, I think sustainability has respectably earned its way into the NRA Show; it’s not going away and so the restaurant industry has to deal with it. However, it has not been fully embraced to the point where it is a major driver of business yet. For now, the industry still seems about making a quick buck off the fact that we all need to eat to stay alive. All other considerations are secondary. Yet I am not totally pessimistic or cynical. This movement is still in its infancy, and it’s too earlier to tell where it’s really heading and what kind of lasting impact it will have. I am filled up with hope. I am just fed up with waiting for the food industry to wake up to fact that healthy people and a healthy planet are in everyone’s best interest.

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