Chief sustainability officer positions started showing up at a few large U.S. companies about 10 years ago. In the restaurant sector, companies that have added the role include McDonald’s and Yum! Brands.
As of last month, that short list now also includes Just Salad, a New York City-based upstart with about 30 locations. Just Salad promoted Janani Lee to the position from her previous role as the brand’s director of supply chain.
Though the CSO is not a ubiquitous position, it’s an important one to be sure. Collectively, restaurants in the U.S. use enough electricity to power nearly 15 million homes a year, which costs the industry about $20 billion annually. Further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates food waste in the U.S. to be about 30 to 40% of the food supply. Most of that waste is generated by the restaurant industry.
Though it doesn’t take a C-suite seat to save that power or divert that waste from the landfill, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a purposeful leader tasked with focusing specifically on sustainability initiatives as cost savings from such efforts are proven and as younger consumers favor brands that are environmental stewards.
A Nielsen study shows that 66% of consumers are willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. That number jumps to 73% among the coveted Millennial demographic.
It’s no wonder, then, that Lee’s plans from the get-go are ambitious. For starters, she wants Just Salad to increase its savings from its signature reusable bowl program to 100,000 pounds of plastic, from the current 75,000 pounds. The company claims this to be the world’s largest reusable program and clearly has no intention of resting on its laurels.
“We want to go up to 100,000 this year and we think we can do that. We already have a great program in place and we just need to increase that usage and figure out creative ways to bring in the reusable bowl for new and expanding and returning customers,” Lee said.
Currently, about 20% of Just Salad customers are part of the reusable program. Those customers pay $1 for the reusable bowls and receive free toppings every time they visit.
Lee wants to take the company’s signature bowls a step further, however, and eventually transition from disposable, plastic bowls to biodegradable fiber bowls at all locations worldwide. This initiative is in the early stages, though some items from Just Salad’s hot menu are already served in biodegradable bowls.
“Right now, we’re looking for an alternative that’s biodegradable. But we want to make sure we’re doing it the right way. We know it’s a focus and it’s really exciting, but we still have a lot of investigating to do,” Lee said.
Finally, Lee is hoping to develop a 360-degree composting program in collaboration with Bard MBA NYCLab, a year-long consultancy by Bard students receiving an MBA in sustainability.
Composting programs exist in the industry, including at some Just Salad locations, but it isn’t pervasive—yet. Lee expects that to change. The average restaurant produces about 100,000 pounds of trash a year. With more than one million restaurants in the U.S., that equates to more than 100 billion pounds of trash created by the restaurant industry alone. The implications of this volume of waste from both an environmental and financial perspective are significant.
Lee said the Just Salad concept is well-positioned to implement a comprehensive composting program, but such a rollout is complicated when considering disparate waste collection policies across markets.
“Our menu is plant-based. We bring whole foods – whole heads of lettuce, raw beans, Brussels we have to prep. We have really great oversight into all of our products, but we also have a little bit more plant waste,” Lee said. “Composting is hard to do in a multi-unit business and we’re going to start with training to ensure that every store will follow the same pathway and is doing it in the most efficient way.”
She wants a program in place systemwide by the end of the year.
Lee is aiming big in her new role, but she believes she’s in the right place to bring these goals to fruition. Since its founding in 2006, Just Salad has incorporated sustainable practices—using local products like Gotham Greens, participating in the NYC Carbon Challenge aimed at reducing CHG emissions and keeping tens of thousands of pounds of plastic out of landfills.
“Sustainability is baked into our DNA. We’ve always been making these decisions. We’re determined to become the gold standard of sustainability in the restaurant space and beyond,” Lee said. “It might mean a little more investing upfront, but we know there is a return later. One a wide-scale level, there’s no business at all if we destroy the environment. We’re just trying to do our part on a micro level.”