Making Sense of Sustainability

photo: Andre LaRiviere at Boneta

credit: Kyle Bastien Photography

Andre LaRiviere is a leader in the emerging sustainability sector. He has worked as a CBC Radio executive producer, is a trained Chef and has spent many years as a food writer. Currently, he is the executive director of Green Table, a network of restaurant professionals creating a roadmap towards sustainability.

Why are you so interested in sustainability?

I met some people in San Francisco in 2005 who were using simple green tools like reverting to a local economy and water conservation. I knew we needed something in Vancouver to help people understand the contribution they are making by going green, but to also look at it from the bottom line perspective. It is important to put it in terms you can readily communicate to all your stakeholders, whether they are your investors or customers. We diverted 52 tonnes of organic waste to compost, used 300,000 fewer litres of water and saved 30,000 kw of electricity reducing our operating costs by $800.

Why do restaurateurs find it hard to go green?

There is no quick return on investment with the exception of maybe some light bulbs. Consumers are looking to greener options, but in an economic downturn business owners are hesitant to invest in green because it has a premium cost. It is not a slam dunk that if you put out a greener restaurant that you will get greater customer loyalty.  You have to take the time to understand how it applies broadly across your operations, get your staff on board, and invest time, energy and money to get the benefits of going green.

If we are not there yet, how far off are we?

We understand what needs to be done. The ideas of local food systems, more sustainability, more organics or whatever it is – these concepts are fairly easy to understand. In order to move towards sustainable models we need to find ways to work with the existing systems. We are looking at systemic change. Even though we try to make this a step by step process, there is inertia to break through. I want Green Table to be a facilitator. We are looking for solutions on how to change those systems without tearing them down and starting over.

What does it mean to be sustainable versus self-sustaining?

It is a matter of degree.  If you apply enough technology you can take a restaurant and make it a completely self-sustaining property by growing your own food, handling your own waste maximum energy conservation. It is not impossible to create something that is self-sustaining, however it is not a system. In a way, it is like the 100-mile diet. It is a wonderful example of a local economy at work but could we move the entire food system over to a 100 mile diet? No, it is not feasible. That is what I think the difference is between sustainability and self sustaining. Sustainability has to make sense.

What can we do to make sense of it?

Today is my daughter’s seventh birthday.  Teaching a little person to eat has helped motivate me in my work. It is the next generation of eaters that will really help this change come about. We need to make sure they understand the value of food and have a much closer connection to it, whether their parents take them to the farmer’s market or they grow food in their own back yard. The food systems we have now are based on not having any connection. It is traveling food. It is disconnected food. The more people can connect to their local food and understand the value of that, the more it will drive change.


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