Sustainable Catering Practices: The 6 Guiding Principles

Producing an event that is eco-friendly and sustainable means taking into consideration many different areas and making informed decisions.

As event producers and event organizers there is a lot that we can all do to combat climate change and lessen the carbon footprint of a production or event. Sustainability is a guiding light for us here at Happily, which is why our events are carbon zero, and why we are always seeking ways that events can be as eco-friendly as possible. (Hint! The answer is going virtual.)

Decisions around the food and drinks that an event is catered with can have a ripple effect on our communities, our environment and our globe. We are going to explore sustainable catering and summarize the main areas that make a menu better for the future of our planet.

We believe that understanding the basics of food sustainability will greatly assist in making more informed decisions when communicating with vendors, hiring catering companies and planning a menu. For an overview of what a sustainable event looks like, including transportation and sustainable event venues, you can also check out 10 Ways to Produce an Eco-Friendly Event.

Sustainable Catering Practices

What is sustainability?

In general, the term sustainability refers to a capability to maintain something at a certain rate or level. Most of the time, we use the term in reference to the balance between the environment, equity, and economy.

UN World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

What is sustainable catering?

It is essentially about taking into account the origin, the quality and the non-monetary cost of the products we consume, with a focus on their impacts on the environment and society.

The goal of sustainable catering is, when possible, to:

  • Minimize environmental impacts eg. land degradation, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, climate change

  • Contribute to local economies and sustainable livelihoods of workers

  • Provide social benefits, eg. assisting people to make healthy and nutritious food choices

Sustainable Catering Practices

Let’s break down the 6 main principles of sustainable catering

These following principles are guides to making more informed choices when it comes to produce and catering.

There is no judgement for buying strawberries in the middle of December or including meat on the menu, just education around the little and big ways that a menu has the power to be more sustainable.

1. Favor produce that is locally grown and seasonal

While there is no universal definition of what constitutes ‘locally produced food’, the intention is to purchase goods that have been grown as close as possible to the place where it will be consumed.

The first benefit of going as local as possible is a reduction in carbon emissions. On average, produce that is transported over long distances will, of course, create more carbon emissions than food that is transported over a shorter distance.

By now we should all be familiar with the fact that high rates of carbon emissions are contributing to climate change. We are talking about a loss of biodiversity, extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels, loss of coastal habitat and the spread of tropical diseases. All of this has serious and deadly effects on our society, economy, environment, and daily lives.

A good indicator to ensure that food is not travelling further than it needs to, is to favor produce that are in-season in your area. A local farmer’s market can be a great source of wealth for local and in-season produce.

What are in-season foods?

By ‘in-season foods’ we mean vegetables and fruits that are grown naturally in a specific location at a particular time of the year. If you are buying a food that is not in-season for your part of the world, then it has travelled very far from another part of the country or globe to arrive at your local grocer. The transportation and storage of imported foods greatly contributes to a larger carbon footprint, as well as chemical usage to prolong shelf-life.

The second benefit of favoring local produce is that you are supporting your local farmers and economy - whether that be your community, your state or your country.

Seasonal Foods USA Happily

Image: A chart of the general growing seasons for fruit and vegetables in the US

2. Choose food produced by eco-friendly production methods

Not all foods are grown equal. There are different methods of food production that will directly impact the environment in various degrees. Conventional farming can be connected with biodiversity loss, soil erosion, as well as other negative impacts on the environment.

The sustainable choice here is to favor food that has been produced by environmentally friendly production methods, for example, organic farming.

What does organic farming mean?

If a food product is certified with an organic label, then it means that it has been grown with organic agriculture or organic farming methods. Organic foods are either completely produced or involved production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial chemicals. The goal of organic farming is to conserve soils, to enhance biodiversity, to reduce pollution and to minimize the input of agricultural chemicals.

How do you know if a product is organic?

In the US a product needs to be organically certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to trust that it is indeed an organic food. The USDA certification uses many detailed processes to examine how a food was planted, grown, raised, and handled, and can be applied to many various types of produce including vegetables, fruits, eggs, dairy and meat.

USDA Organic Labels Explained

Image: Here is a quick explainer on the official USDA Organic label via the USDA

3. Minimize animal products

The most resource intensive foods to produce are animal products. The reasons for this are complex and there are a number of factors that lead to animal products being so resource intensive. This includes the various necessary uses of land, farming, water, processing and transportation.

Here are some general examples of the resources that are needed to bring animal products to our grocery stores:

  • Large amounts of grain need to be grown to result in relatively small amounts of meat, milk and eggs.
  • Forests and land are often cleared for grain production or grazing land for animals, and less forest area results in less natural ways that excessive greenhouse gases can be absorbed.
  • Animal products are often transported over long distances in refrigerated conditions

Sustainability is all about making sure that we are not senselessly overusing the environmental resources that we have been given. The necessary huge amounts of water, farming and land used to produce beef make it the least sustainable animal product, as the graphs below will illustrate.

What does a sustainable menu look like?

A vegan menu is the most extreme end for those seeking a catering menu that is as sustainable as possible. However, a sustainable choice is also simply to minimize the amount of animal products that we consume, and selecting ingredients accordingly. A hint; simply switching beef out for chicken or fish is a huge step towards sustainability.

If animal products are to be used in a catering menu, organic certified produce should be sought out. A certified organic product will ensure that the production methods were as environmentally-friendly as possible, and will also indicate high animal welfare standards.

Food Footprints via Our World Data

Image: Food Footprints via Our World Data

4. Minimize as much waste as possible

Wherever food is made, served and consumed there is potential for large amounts of unnecessary wastage. This could come from the food preparation in the kitchen, the packaging of ingredients, the serving methods or excessive food amounts.

Here are some general ways to minimize food related waste at an event:

  • Purchase foods with minimal packaging
  • Maximize recyclable or biodegradable packaging
  • Favor tap water or drinking stations instead of bottles of water
  • Frozen foods require a lot of energy to refrigerate, favor using fresh rather than frozen ingredients
  • Using non-disposable plates, cups and others utensils for serving
  • Serve appropriate portion sizes to prevent uneaten food
  • Try to avoid providing more perishable food than estimated and have a plan for excess
  • Reuse or donate any food leftovers to avoid wasting edible produce

Video: Yalmaz Siddiqui, the Vice President of Corporate Sustainability at MGM Resorts International, spoke with us about food waste management at our TEDxHappily Countdown Summit

5. Choose sustainable seafood

The degradation of marine habitats and overexploitation of marine resources have been a result of conventional fishing practices.

Of the world’s fish stocks, about 80% is considered fully exploited, overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and seabirds populations have declined due to being incidentally caught by fishing vessels. Fishing gear can also have a physical impact on the denigration of the marine ecosystem.

How to know if seafood is sustainable

When it comes to purchasing sustainable seafood the things that should be taken into account are the level of overfishing of that type of seafood or species, and environmental impacts of the methods that the brand or fishery caught the seafood.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international nonprofit organization whose standards assess the sustainability of fisheries that catch marine or freshwater organisms in the wild.

A MSC blue fish label on a seafood product means that the amount of seafood that was caught does not threaten the long-term health of the population, and any negative effects to the surrounding wildlife and ecosystem were minimized. Also that the seafood was sourced from the ocean, lakes, or rivers from wild and plentiful populations.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Logos

Image: The correct logos from Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to indicate seasfood that meet their standards

6. Choose fair trade products

If a product has a Fairtrade certification, it indicates that its production or the ingredients used have been measured against a mix of social, economic and environmental criteria.

The main goal is to support the ethical sustainable development of small producer organizations and prevent foreign exploitation of agricultural workers in lower-income countries. The global farming industry is the largest employer in the world and Fairtrade ensures a fair deal for the farmers and workers who provide the food, the ingredients and the materials that go into products we buy. This in turn prevents poverty, protects workers' rights, combats child labor / forced labor, promotes gender equality and fights climate change.

Common foods to look out for a Fairtrade certification is:

  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Ice cream
  • Wine