Friday, December 14, 2007

Food Service Providers (and Beyond): Too Often, Still Clueless About Sustainability

Most of the time when I get a cup of coffee at a café, it's no sweat when I ask them to fill my steel mug rather than use their disposable cup. The attendant gladly fills the mug, and just about always gives me some kind of discount of a dime to a quarter (occasionally more).

Sometimes however, usually at places like an airport café, on an airplane, or at any range of coffee-selling places that are not the typical coffee house, the attendant will either refuse to fill my mug, or will do something completely stupid like pour the coffee into a disposable cup, pour it from the cup into my mug, and then throw the disposable cup into the garbage.

What is it with these people?

I’m guessing that their problem is simple lack of education at two levels.

At one level, many of these folks, working in places like an airport Duncin’ Donuts, are not very well-off and have been concerned with just surviving for most of their lives. Sustainability is the last thing to come to the forefront of their attention. They have learned to do what they are told to make sure they get a paycheck. When they see something a little bit out of their norm, such as a green citizen bringing their own mug to save a little paper or plastic, and it doesn’t cleanly fit into the “small”, “medium” or “large” category, they either refuse to do it, or have to make sure they serve the “right” amount of coffee by measuring it out in a disposable cup.

When I politely ask them to please not do that and try to help by telling them how many ounces my mug is (or just ask them to “please save yourselves a cup pour it into my mug – everybody else does”), these types of folks usually get angry and refuse to serve me coffee unless they use the disposable cup.

The best solution, I have found, is simply to explain what I’m doing, walk away for a few moments, and then come back and try a different attendant, who is usually fine. It’s usually just that one person’s ignorance (and stubbornness) that is the problem. Sometimes, it’s a bad manager who doesn’t have a clue and holds their employees to these dumb rules. But they’re out there. Those people whose way of doing things is just so far removed from the green revolution, and so stuck to wasteful, inefficient routines, that it makes those of us who take pride in living more sustainably wince.

At a second level, many of these folks are just not receiving the proper (if any) corporate education in (1) how to use efficient sustainable practices and (2) why these practices are important for benefiting the company’s bottom line (and, when used at home, help save money). The company is not adequately (if at all) making sure that efficient green practices – from knowing how to handle somebody who brings their own mug, to recycling, to using materials efficiently (I don’t need a bag for a single pack of gum or 12 napkins for my small fries), to using energy and water efficiently – are properly ingrained in the training of its employees.

Too often, I still find that we have a long way to go before internal corporate sustainability training – of employees in how to live and work and use resources in a smart, efficient manner – becomes ingrained at the mainstream level. Then again, too often, when visiting friends and family outside of my little green bubble, even the most basic of green (and often money-saving) products and practices have yet to be put to use. What will it take for this to change?


  1. Sustainability is unfortunately a luxury to the world's proletariat. If you're living hand-to-mouth, a lot of this thinking and talk comes off as petty and arrogant.

    I know I'd probably be pissed if some customer came in to micromanage how I did my job to appease his or her personal cause whims while I had four mouths to feed at home.

  2. Anonymous11:31 PM

    You might want to check out some of the companies who are doing things just a bit differently

    New Seasons

  3. I will look into those two chains. There is also the good work of those who have sought assistance from folks like The Natural Step!

  4. Anonymous7:29 PM

    Yes, one of the local pizza chains here in Portland OR has utilized the work of the natural step, Hot Lips Pizza. I think they have a case study posted on the Oregon Natural Step Website

    I appreciate you gathering the headlines that you do!


  5. Swag, the more you learn about sustainability, the less you will think about it as a "luxury for the proletariat". In fact, I'd say it's potential to improve lives is strongest for folks trying to feed 4 mouths at home.

    For example, the more financially challenged among us benefit much more - proportionately - than wealthier folks from energy-saving actions that help them save money. In their cases, the hundreds to even thousands of dollars in energy, water, gas, health and other costs that they can save each year by cutting energy use, reducing toxins in the home, reducing waste and thus garbage fees, etc. can really add up to make a big difference.

    For wealthier folks, the savings that can be achieved via energy and fuel efficiency, etc. don't add up to nearly as much, in terms of percent of their income, as folks in greater financial need.

    A key point of this post is that the companies and managers who are responsible for the problems I've described are not only missing a huge opportunity to cut costs and boost profits for the company. They are missing an opportunity to do a good thing for their employees by educating them in green practices that they can apply at home to save money. More than enough money for holiday gifts, new clothing, and all sorts of things that can improve lives!