Full stomach, clear conscience: the rise of ethical eating

This article was originally written for the Londonist

An association designed to help restaurants become more sustainable launches this month, catering for Londoners’ growing appetite for ethical eating. Not content just to be served food that looks good and tastes delicious in convivial surroundings, the eater outer wants to be able to do so with a crystal clear conscience too. Diners of course want fare that’s fine, but they also want it to be environmentally friendly and sourced sustainably from local growers, served up by chefs that are as committed to their community as to their cooking.

So the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has been established, founded by Giles Gibbons, Mark Sainsbury (Moro and The Zetter Hotel) and Henry Dimbleby (Leon), in response to what they say is a dual demand from both restaurant owners and consumers. The point of the association is to offer owners information and advice on how to become sustainable, as well as providing the conscientious consumer with some guidance on finding eateries that have embraced more wholesome ways of feeding people.

They say “sustainability is about a business managing not only the financial but also the social and environmental impact of its operations. By taking sustainable action, restaurants can make a huge difference on issues such as climate change, animal welfare and food waste.”

Sustainability is one of those words that’s often bandied about but starts to lose its meaning if it’s not properly defined. What will the SRA demand from restaurants in order for them to be able to claim they’re sustainable? On their website they list the values and actions they expect members to commit to in order to pass the ethical and eco test. This includes embracing the belief that “food sits at the heart of our culture – and it’s not just what we eat that matters but how it’s grown, made and served that makes for a satisfying meal.”

Members are expected to do the things green Londoners do. Things like using low energy light bulbs and recycling and reusing so called waste, sourcing food that’s local and seasonable, organic and fair-trade, and using eco friendly cleaning products. If you do all these things at home it makes sense to demand the places where you eat out do the same. The SRA also encourages restaurants to serve tap water (of course!) and install waterless urinals, to support local charities and sign up to the fair tips charter, and to build up healthy relationships with farmers and suppliers.

Sustainable restauranteering isn’t a new thing, a number London eateries have been pushing their ethical and eco credentials for a while. The Shoreditch Trust’s two restaurants, Water House on the banks of the Regent’s Canal and Acorn House in the middle of King’s Cross, have been serving up highly rated food with a clean conscience for a few years. Konstam, also in King’s Cross, says over 80% of its food is sourced within the area covered by the Tube. The Duke of Cambridge up the road in Angel is totally organic, even the tampons for sale in the ladies loos have tiptop eco credentials.

If the height of environmentally friendly eating is eschewing meat, then London’s longstanding vegetarian and vegan cafes and restaurants have been leading the way for some time. Manna in Primrose Hill has been serving beautiful vegetarian meals since the 60s, while more recently swish Saf in Old Street has been proving that vegan dishes can be gourmet and cocktails can be potent and prettily organic at the same time. There are many other cafes and restaurants across this fair city of ours that are doing great things for people and the planet.

Nudged into action by the launch of the SRA, we’re embarking on an eco eating crawl. We’ll be breakfasting, lunching, dining and drinking at eateries that openly claim to be sustainable and those don’t but are by default. We don’t want sustainability shoved down our throats, but we do want to be quietly aware that our choice of eatery is a good one, not just because the food is star rated. If you have any suggestions of places we should definitely try let us know. Let the eco eating begin!

Find out more about the Sustainable Restaurant Association at www.thesra.org

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