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Green practice: You are what you eat

Every Issue

Cite as: December 2009 83(12) LIJ, p.74


Catering for your clients is a great chance to make greener choices.

Whether your firm provides the occasional client lunch or has an industrial kitchen on site, catering can have significant environmental effects.

Seemingly small decisions about food, materials, transport and waste can have big consequences for resources, landfill and emissions. The most environmentally sustainable practice is to take an holistic approach to catering, considering the origin and production of ingredients, the preparation and delivery of meals and the practices of your supplier.

Although budget and time may restrict options, there are many ways firms can make better environmental choices at little or no cost.

What’s on the plate?

When it comes to ingredients, there are many relevant considerations. For example, your firm may prefer food that has one or more of the following qualities: organic, free-range, genetic modification (GM) free, local, sustainably farmed or fished, protects animal welfare or promotes fair trade.

Organic farming systems rely on scientific understandings of ecology as well as traditional methods, such as crop rotation.1

These practices, as well as being free of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, help to ensure soil fertility and weed and pest control, as well as preventing salinity and chemical run-off.

Organic farming reduces greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. As agriculture is the second-highest contributor of greenhouse gases in Australia (with fertiliser emissions accounting for a significant part of these emissions), achieving reductions in emissions from this sector is significant.

The market for organic food is growing rapidly2 and it is increasingly seen as the sustainable food choice. Another growing trend is to buy local. Many foods travel huge distances to reach the plate, which adds to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and often undermines the environmental benefits of organic farming methods.

However, there are two important things to bear in mind: first, it will not always be possible to have it all (for example, buying local may reduce access to organic or fair trade produce). Second, serving organic food on plastic plates that are sent to landfill sends a mixed sustainability message to those you cater for.

Taking an holistic approach means looking beyond the food on the plate and trying to reduce the effect of all the other aspects of food preparation and disposal.

What’s the plate made of?

The utensils used to serve food are just as important as what’s on the menu. Serving meals on china crockery is the option with the lowest environmental impact and is often also the most pleasant option for diners. However, this may not always be feasible or practical.

If disposable plates, cutlery and cups cannot be avoided, ensure that they are recyclable or compostable to avoid creating waste for landfill. Many good options for disposable crockery are widely available, such as biodegradable crockery and cups made from cornstarch or PLA (polylactide). As well, there are reusable or recyclable products such as the KeepCup.

Another important step is to ensure that compost or organic waste bins are available at the function. Contamination is a major issue with compost, so you will need to make sure that your employees and guests know what goes where.

Putting it all together

Organisations that take a “whole of system” approach to sustainability consider not just the food production, service and disposal, but also the efficiency of all aspects of the business including the kitchens used for preparation and the vehicles used for transport.

An example of a business that takes such an approach is Original Foods Sustainable Catering, a Banksia award nominated catering company in Melbourne.3 According to director Sam Lynch, clients have positive reactions to being served sustainable food in sustainable ways.

For example, Original Foods uses Australian bush herbs and spices because they are more robust and require less water to produce than many traditional spices. Such details are important points of differentiation and send a strong and more memorable message to clients about your approach to sustainability.

Sustainable food choices are getting easier as more caterers offer organic and sustainable menus and office suppliers offer “homebrand” organic, fair trade or local products. However, no one factor makes a meal sustainable.

Whether it’s a working lunch or the annual end of year party, food, transport and waste can all be easily managed to minimise the impact on the environment without compromising on flavour or the dining experience.

Eating green is simply about making active choices and, as with every sustainability issue, taking an holistic approach is key.

An holistic approach to food would consider:

  • Ingredients: organic, local, sustainably farmed, fair trade, low packaging, vegetarian options.
  • Preparation: Energy efficient cooking and washing appliances.
  • Service: Using reusable crockery and cutlery if possible or biodegradable disposables if required.
  • Clean up: recycling and composting where possible.
  • Awareness: Promoting the event to clients as socially and environmentally sustainable.


JULIE FRASER is vice-president of the Young Lawyers’ Section (YLS). This column is coordinated by the YLS. For more information on the YLS, see www.liv.asn.au/members/sections/younglawyers.

1. Accreditations exist (such as NASAA or Australian Certified Organic) which entitle sellers to label their products as organic if they meet certain criteria.

2. The global organic food market grew by 13.7 per cent in 2008 to reach $53 billion: see www.researchand markets.com/reports/41531.

3. See www.originalfoods.com.au.

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