Making a Green Impact When Dining Out with Green Restaurant Association’s Michael Oshman

December 13, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have with us today Michael Oshman. He’s the founder of the Green Restaurant Association. Welcome to Green is Good, Michael Oshman. MICHAEL OSHMAN: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, sure and for our listeners that want to follow along with your great organization, before we get going here and start the Q and A, go to Michael, how did you come up with this concept and why did you come up with this concept? MICHAEL OSHMAN: When I was 16, my best buddy in Los Angeles, who was already out there hiking, would say, ‘We can’t go in and have that food,’ and I said, ‘Why? It’s tacos and burritos. I’m hungry. That’s what I want to eat today.’ He said, ‘No, they have Styrofoam. We can’t eat there. It’s not good for the environment,’ and so I went and did what every consumer did at that time, which is said it didn’t matter. They already had it purchased and right there at that moment, he gave me about a five minute speech, if you will, on why it matters, why our choice matters, and how if a lot of people made that choice around this issue and various other issues, our economy would change for the better to be one that is supportive of clean air and clean water rather than the opposite. That’s at 16. After a few years, I became dissatisfied with just my impact and I figured, ‘How do we create a systemic change where these businesses could actually have the support that they need in order to make the right choice?’ At that time, you were either pro-business or pro-environment and I thought that’s silly. Business and the environment should be one in the same and so we went out and created an organization that would make it easier, not just easy but easier, to do the right thing, that if you’re saving energy and water and reducing your waste, you would actually be getting employees and consumers that were happier, saving money, and getting better PR than what you were doing before and that’s what we created 23 years ago. That’s what’s happened and we have some of the most impactful restaurateurs that are now certified green restaurants from the corporate headquarters of Chase to the U.S. Treasury, The Special Reserve, The New York Times, Microsoft, restaurant in 47 states and Canada where consumers can go out to eat. They just go on their phone, go on the computer, have that same wonderful meal but use less energy, less water, the garbage is being turned back into new things. The chemicals are nontoxic. The materials are sustainable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Michael, you changed the world when you were a teenager. MICHAEL OSHMAN: Well, isn’t that what every teenager wants to do? JOHN SHEGERIAN: I think they do nowadays, so I’m glad to have you on the show because you’re going to inspire the next generation, which is the whole darn purpose of the show, so I’m glad you said that. You were 16 and you founded this thing when you were 19 and I’m so thankful because I’ve seen your certification for years, never really got it. Now I get it and now I want it all the time. Talk a little bit about that 19 years. The journey, I’m sure, has been fascinating but talk a little about the environmental impact that you’ve literally effectuated in the restaurant industry. MICHAEL OSHMAN: Excellent. I’d be happy to do that and I want to say if you look at history, good things and also bad things, like war, it’s often the teenagers that are out fighting the good and not good fights. I was actually taught to believe in myself that actually what I was about to do could make a difference and so I just encourage all of your listeners who have that great idea that they think is impossible, obviously make it ground and make it rational but if it’s doable, go for it. We’re here for a short period of time and the world needs all of us so that’s my soapbox there. In terms of the past 23 years, there was really that polarization. It was either you were against business and pro environment or pro business and against environment. It’s a generalization but it’s pretty accurate and the conversation is very much shifted. We were one of the first green business organizations two decades ago and we were on the shoulders of a great conservation movement from the century before that but the conversation shifted from being against something to how to create solutions and I think that’s part of what our organization is. There’s a big difference is just be protesting against something and instead be part of the solution. There’s boycotts. We created a word two decades ago called the procott. Don’t just not go to places. Where are you actually supposed to go? That’s a much more exciting and celebratory thing. Don’t tell me the restaurants that I shouldn’t go to. Tell me the ones where I can go and enjoy myself and do it at a lower environmental cost. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Procott, I love that. That’s great. MICHAEL OSHMAN: Procott. When Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize six years ago, the nightly news wanted an old organization that had been doing this for a long time to be on the segment and so they called me up and I had the privilege of being about 20% of that story in the NBC Nightly News that night and the one quote they took from me was we said that the conversation in business has gone from, ‘Should I really do this environment stuff?’ to, ‘How should I do it?’ That’s they’re really just trying to say, ‘Okay, I know I should do it. I know my consumers and employees care. I’ve read a zillion stories. Yes, you’ve finally convinced me it’s good for business. I’m going to stay ahead of legislation. Now just show me how to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt, that’s going to be convenient, or I can trust some organization that’s not trying to sell me the actual product, but that’s advising me,’ and so that’s the conversation that we’re having right now is really just helping these businesses, large and small businesses, take their food service and make it more sustainable. People out there might think, ‘Food service, that’s not what creating the problem. It’s our electric plants. It’s our cars,’ and that’s absolutely true but what most people don’t know is that when you go out to eat, not only are you spending half of your food budget dining out but the food service industry is about one eighth to one tenth of the American economy. If you take the total dollars in the restaurant industry in the United States, it is bigger than 98% of the Gross Domestic Product of countries in the entire world. It would be like country number eight or nine, the restaurant industry in the United States. It is a huge impact environmentally and financially. When people choose to dine in a certified green restaurant, they’re making an incredible impact on the water and the energy. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What does it mean to be a certified green restaurant and, Michael, does it cost me a lot of money? MICHAEL OSHMAN: Okay, so what it means, first of all, is that it’s not some airy fairy hey, I signed a pledge and I feel good now and now consumer should come to me. What it means is that they’ve met some empirical standards that are on, completely transparent, energy, water, waste, disposables, chemicals, food. They need to hit 100 points to become a two-star certified green restaurant and get 10 points in each of those categories. You don’t have to understand what that means. It’s on the website but essentially, they have to make steps across the board. We help them make it. They don’t have to switch distributors. They don’t have to make a bunch of switches. We actually come in and work with their vendors, their waste haulers, so that they can run a restaurant and then we can come back a month later and say, ‘Okay, your distributor now carries a great napkin and package. When you meet with them on Monday, carry the 85% consumer waste napkin versus the one you did before and buy these three chemicals. Here’s the product numbers,’ so we make it very easy for them. In restaurants, time is almost more of an expense than dollars. It can be, for an average restaurant, 50 bucks a month, which for most restaurants, is nothing, especially when you consider that it’s very, very easy for us to save for restaurants $150 a month, $200 a month so they’re netting $1,000, $2,000 at the end of the year after their cost. They’re getting great media. Seventy-nine percent of employees say they’d rather work for a green restaurant, not throwing everything away, not putting toxic chemicals on their hands and consumers, if given a chance of going to three pizza shops in New York or Chicago or wherever they’re going to eat lunch that day, if they find out that one of them is now a certified green restaurant, 79% will give preference to the restaurant that is a certified green restaurant doing the right thing and they can see everything the restaurant is doing on our website. They can see how many steps they’ve made. They can see the exact steps so this is really, really transparent. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s Take it from two perspectives, Michael. (a) Take it from the restaurateur’s perspective and how he interacts with your website and (b) how your consumers interact with your website and finds restaurants that are GRA certified. MICHAEL OSHMAN: To answer your question of consumers, they just go to JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on it right now. It’s a great website. MICHAEL OSHMAN: They can use it anywhere. They put their city. They put their cuisine. They can even put the level if they want a two or three or four star. There’s different levels of certification. They find their restaurant, they go out to eat, and that is it. It’s simple. They can find it on their phones anywhere they go. There’s also on AAA and CitySearch. We have a bunch of partners that list it for the consumer. On the restaurant side, I’m going to ask the listeners a question: Does anybody know that recycling is not a good thing? Does anybody know that getting a light bulb that’s LED that uses 80% less energy is not a better thing? Most of us have heard these things 100 times, 1,000 times and so those people that haven’t done it, it’s not because they haven’t heard it or even been educated on it. It’s called convenience. Make it easy for me, somebody even do it for me, and I’ll be delighted to save the money and energy. Many people are so busy it’s difficult to make any change, less in the consumer side, more in the restaurants. If we tell the companies, ‘Here’s all the chemicals,’ they’re going to look at it and it’s going to collect it and eventually be recycled. What we do is we find out where are you today as a restaurant? Oh, good, you’re recycling already. We’re not going to waste your time telling you how to recycle. Oh, but you’re not using this package. We find out everything they’re doing and everything they’re not doing. We pour over their invoices and find the real record of what’s going on. Then we work with their vendors so that’s the key. That is the key to this formula is we’re giving them these 10, 15 suggestions with product numbers that are already, by the time we give them the suggestions, available in vendors that they already work with. That is why they’re able to be successful because at the time of action, 98% of the work has been done for them. All they do is push the button and tell the distributor, ‘Yes, these product numbers the GRA emailed you, I want those. Recycler, everything you talked about last week, yes, I want you to pick those up and pick them up at whatever prices you had mentioned,’ so that is the secret formula, if you will. We do most of the work for the restaurateur so that they (a) don’t have to spend the time but even more importantly, they’re not going to get purposefully- or restaurateur by the fact that we’re delivering the suggestions or solutions directly to the restaurant rather than a manufacturer or distributor who’s selling it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wonderful, and I’m on your website now and it’s just wonderful. I’m finding all of my favorite restaurants and things. They’re all green certified so I’m loving it so we’ve got about a minute-and-a-half left. You’ve talked about your history and all the great things you’re doing. Michael, where are you taking GRA in the future? MICHAEL OSHMAN: Well, we’re in 47 states and Canada and our main focus is just getting more restaurants. One of the things consumers can do besides dining at certified green restaurants is they can download and print and put in their wallet these suggestion cards so that if they go to restaurants that are not certified green restaurants, it lets the owner know I like your restaurant but I’m one of many who would prefer that your restaurant becomes a certified green restaurant so for consumers, dine at a certified green restaurant if there’s one near you and if there’s not, tell the manager. Tell the owner and unless we all speak up, they don’t know but if we do, it doesn’t take a lot, a few consumers, and then restaurants call us and they make fabulous changes and then it’s something you can feel proud of because you know that restaurant did it because of your email or phone call so that’s one thing. Two, we’ve done some major, major expansion over the past few years. We’re negotiating with our first stadium right now. I can’t tell you the details yet but we have the major corporations. We have the major chefs and we are just taking this formula and making it bigger so that there can be many more restaurants doing this because the real shift to one of your earlier questions that kind of brings this to a close is environmental impact is the restaurants they’re going to. They’re reducing their impact compared to 95% before in energy by 30 and water by 20 and that’s wonderful. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wonderful. MICHAEL OSHMAN: What most people don’t think about is when those 15 restaurants in that one community do it, that’s not a lot, all of a sudden, the distributors are getting requests to carry that better napkin, to carry that better chemical. They need to and then all of a sudden, they carry that chemical or napkin not just to 15 restaurants, but to 200 restaurants, so the ripple goes from the consumer to the restaurant to the distributor to the manufacturer, who then stops producing the negative product and starts producing more of the positive one. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Well, Michael Oshman, thank you so much. You’re the pioneer of the green restaurant movement. You’re continuing your mission to educate consumers and restaurateurs, affecting change one bite at a time, and you’re truly living proof that green is good.