By Laura Milani Alessio
Photo by Jason Smith

Andrew Stevens, fourth-year ”
—Andrew Stevens, fourth-year
College Student

For many businesses, adopting sustainable environmental practices can seem like a luxury rather than a necessity.

Even among Chicago restaurant owners who strive to conserve energy and use more locally grown food, relatively few have made the thorough changes required for green certification.

That problem led to the launch this winter of an unusual UChicago course sequence that is delving into the economic, environmental, and logistical challenges facing city businesses that want to implement sustainable practices. Working directly with prominent local restaurants and business leaders, the students aim to help create a green certification for Chicago restaurants.

Developing such a certification is a complex scholarly task, requiring insights from many disciplines. The challenge has attracted undergraduates in Economics, Environmental Studies, and Public Policy as well as graduate students from the University of Chicago Chicago Booth School of Business and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. Divided into 10 research units and five methodological groups, the class last quarter produced a 186-page “Preliminary Winter Report” that outlines environmental impacts, cost effectiveness, consumer preferences, and the feasibility of adopting various sustainable practices.

Fourth-year Andrew Stevens, a double-major in Economics and Environmental Studies and a member of the project management committee, says it’s exciting to be involved in an academic project with direct relevance to the urban environment.

“I think we’re going to really see some big changes in urban food policy over the next 10 to 20 years,” Stevens says. “Restaurants have huge environmental impacts in terms of the raw resources they consume.”

The students' work could make an important impact, says Ilsa Flanagan, director of UChicago's Office of Sustainability.

"What we lack in the sustainability field are rigorous standards based in research," Flanagan says. "This certification will put meaningful criteria behind what it means to be truly sustainable. It's clear that our students have deep interests in sustainability, and this is a powerful way for them to engage in the issue while enriching their education."

Tailoring solutions to Chicago

Some national standards for green business certification already exist, but no one has tackled how to make such guidelines work in a city like Chicago, says Sabina Shaikh, Economics Lecturer in the College and director of the Environment, Agriculture, and Food Working Group. Shaikh, who is teaching the course, titled “Environment, Agriculture, and Food: Economic and Policy Analysis,” says Chicago restaurant owners face distinctive sustainability challenges.

“They don’t think the existing national standards are at all tailored to the situation in Chicago—everything from the seasonality of food, to the availability of composting infrastructure, to climate,” says Shaikh.

The Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition, which provides green certification assistance, approached Mark Lycett, director of the University of Chicago Program on the Global Environment, in the hope that student researchers could shed light on what prevents many businesses from adopting more environmentally sound practices. “We came to the University of Chicago really wanting an answer from a research standpoint of what might make it more appealing for restaurants to become locally recognized as a green restaurant,” says Eloise Karlatiras, executive director of the group.

Studying the problem has taken the students beyond local restaurants. About 25 students recently trekked to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium to tap the expertise of Brooke Havlik, the aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Educator. Havlik says providing more sustainable seafood options may mean phasing out some imported fish such as orange roughy, which can live more than 130 years and are slow to regrow populations. Local alternatives such as lake whitefish are more sustainable, in part because they mature and reproduce more quickly.

Return on investments

This Spring Quarter, Shaikh and her students are focusing on developing and implementing recommendations for a locally based standard, and examining the economics of certification. “Obviously there’s a private cost to the certification process,” Shaikh says.

“We want to measure the restaurant’s return on that investment—things like reduced energy usage and waste management cost, which pay back over time, as well as the practices that generate larger social benefits like reduced pollution, water conservation, and awareness about environment and health.

"Our restaurant partners have been valuable assets to our research. Jeff Maimon at Frontera Grill emphasized the efforts they've taken to go beyond what most consider the usual restaurant operations, from LEED certification and local food sourcing to community engagement."

Helen and Michael Cameron, who own the Uncommon Ground restaurants in Chicago, hope their work with the students will clarify how investments in green technology bring beneficial returns. Recently named the Greenest Restaurant in America, Uncommon Ground has implemented more than 100 sustainability measures, ranging from a solar thermal system to an organic rooftop farm.

“Because you need to invest in green technology, sometimes people think that being green is more expensive. But that is a complete fallacy,” Helen Cameron says. “Just changing the aerators on your faucets will immediately save a considerable amount of water usage.”

The solar thermal panels that heat water for the restaurants cost $30,000 upfront, offset by $15,000 in state rebates and tax breaks. Cameron estimates that the panels now save the restaurant up to $8,000 per year on water heating.

Building economies of scale

Another emphasis of the course this spring is on the creation of economies of scale for green businesses. This will be of particular value for issues like composting in Chicago, says Alex Murray, a second-year Economics major serving on the course’s waste management committee.

“In Chicago, efforts to do organized composting have been hard to get going,” Murray says. “We’ve been looking into getting larger institutions involved in order to help defray the initial cost.”

Maheswari Govindaraju, an MBA student at Chicago Booth who was enrolled in the course last quarter, looked at economies of scale to promote food donations to cut down on waste.

“I spoke with a few food depositories, and they said restaurants often aren’t willing to be reliable sources for donations because the waste quantity is so small compared to the effort and cost involved in sending it to a pantry,” says Govindaraju. “A recommendation we are considering is having restaurant associations form a group that could have one food pantry truck that comes at 10 or 11 o’ clock to collect food from all the restaurants in one locality, and they can share the cost.”