Darden – a green leader in the restaurant industry

News reports tout Walmart’s apparent focus on sustainability. In the food service industry, however, Darden Restaurants Inc. is taking giant strides to be in the forefront of sustainability. And they’re leaving companies like Walmart in the dust.

Darden is the parent company of popular restaurants Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Longhorn Steakhouse, as well as The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Eddie V’s, Bahama Breeze and Yard House restaurants. Five years ago, spurred on by requests from many of its over 185,000 employees, Darden Restaurants launched widespread sustainability efforts.

“Our employees wanted to know how a company like Darden could do more green practices (like) energy efficiency, water reduction, etc.,” said Brandon Tidwell, Darden’s Sustainability Manager.

In 2009, Darden created Green Teams, comprised of over 10,000 of its employees. Teams meet once a quarter to help identify opportunities for becoming more green and recommend new practices and policies.

“They’re the ambassadors within the restaurants to make sure folks were using the new techniques and policies,” says Tidwell.

Darden’s LEED certified Restaurant Support Center sports a large solar array

Among Darden’s many sustainability-related goals is its “15 x 15 over Zero” initiative. It aims to reduce energy and water usage by 15 percent by 2015, with a long-term goal of achieving zero waste to landfills. Established in 2009, by end of fiscal year 2011, Darden had already achieved a 17 percent reduction.

Darden utilizes new technologies to save water and energy in their facilities. They are converting their “in front” lighting to LED bulbs. They’ve altered cooking and thawing processes to conserve water and energy and they’re using up-to-date Energy Management Systems (EMS) in their new buildings, making them “smarter” with automated lighting, heating and cooling.

But Darden is taking its sustainability efforts further afield.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 80 to 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are under some kind of pressure, says Tidwell.

Thirty eight percent of Darden’s food purchases are seafood. It makes sense that Darden has taken a proactive approach with ocean fisheries.

In 2010, after forming a partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Darden began a three-year commitment to rebuild troubled fisheries through targeted Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs). It created the Sustainable Industries Partnership, working on sustainable fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. Started in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, Darden worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), putting cameras on boats and doing data analysis.

The need for seafood is really growing, said Tidwell. Yet experts don’t expect to get much more fish out of the ocean.

“The only way to fill that gap is aquaculture,” Tidwell said.

Darden has been working intensively with aquaculture – in Honduras, in the Atlantic and in other locations. For the past eight years it’s worked to establish the first commercial farm for lobster – an “integrated lobster aquaculture park” in Malaysia expected to be operational by 2017 and to reach scale by 2029.

“Current fishery projects are about on-the-water action,” said Tidwell. “It will improve the health of fisheries in the long run.”

Darden has been trying to bring more attention to the work corporations can do through their initiatives.

“We clearly play a role,” said Tidwell, “We’re committed to bringing more companies – like retailers, restaurants, institutions – to the table.”

This Red Lobster in San Antonio is among the growing new Darden restaurants to be LEED certified.

With regards to its restaurants, Darden realizes that customers come expecting to be served a great meal, receive great service, and that they’re a company that makes a great impact on the community, all of which they deliver.

“But our employees are the ones who really care about (the green issues”, Tidwell said.

“They’re the ones making the difference,” Tidwell said.

To learn more about Darden’s active sustainability programs, check out their website at Darden.com/sustainability. Or ask your server about their green practices the next time you dine out.

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