Would You Like to Know the Carbon Footprint of Your Meal?

Transparency is part of Panera's goal to reduce greenhouse emissions

panera baja grain bowl
Avocado lovers, rejoice—Panera's Baja grain bowl has a low carbon footprint. PRNewsfoto/Panera Bread
Headshot of Richard Collings

For years now, restaurants have been displaying the nutritional value of their meals on their menus. But did you ever wonder what the carbon footprint of that bowl of Broccoli Cheddar Soup you were eating the other day was? Well, fast-casual chain Panera is now going to tell you.

The purveyor of baked goods, sandwiches, soups and salads announced today that it is now labeling items on its menu that have a low impact on the environment in collaboration with the World Resources Institute.

“This fits squarely with who we are and what our values are,” Niren Chaudhary, Panera’s CEO, told Adweek. “Hopefully this will become industry standard.”

These Cool Food Meals, as the World Resources Institute calls them, include more than half of Panera’s menu items such as its Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt, Ten Vegetable Soup, Fuji Apple Chicken Salad and, yes, that bowl of Broccoli Cheddar Soup.

“By labeling Cool Food Meal menu items, we hope to educate our guests on sustainable options and help them understand the correlation between their meals and the climate,” said Sara Burnett, vp of food values, sustainability and public affairs for Panera.

It’s the latest of the chain’s initiatives around sustainability and reducing greenhouse gases. For example, earlier this year Panera began offering the option to opt-out of the use of cutlery and napkins in its more than 2,000 restaurants, and 80% of customers are taking them up on the option.

It’s also part of Panera’s push to offer healthier food. “Panera sells food that [our customers] feel good about because it’s transparent and responsibly raised,” Chaudhary said. “That is our main objective.”

Indeed, single-use plastic has largely dominated the discussion around sustainability and the environment more broadly as it pertains to the food service industry. But food production constitutes 25% of greenhouse gases emitted annually, more than single-use waste, so Panera saw an opportunity to make a difference by being the first national chain to offer carbon footprint labeling for its food.

The World Resources Institute recommends that humans reduce the current average daily carbon footprint of their food by 38% by 2030 to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

“The science is clear that we’re not going to be able to address climate change without changing what we eat,” said Daniel Vennard, director of sustainable diets at the institute. “This new certification is about spotlighting the dishes that help people build climate-friendly lifestyles.”

The restaurant operator started down this path about a year ago by asking how it could take the data available about the environmental consequences of food production and make it actionable for customers.

“We do believe this is no longer a niche issue,” Panera’s Burnett said. “This is something broadly consumers are aware of and interested in.”

As a general rule of thumb, diets that include more grains and greens versus meat and dairy are going to be healthier not only for the body, but also for the planet. “It’s all about balance and the proportion of ingredients,” Burnett explained.

“If it is just meat in a bun, that’s going to have a bigger impact,” Chaudhary pointed out.

Panera said that if every person in the U.S. were to swap 10 quarter-pound burgers and fries with 10 Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt sandwiches and chips, it would reduce emissions by 77 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking more than 16 million passenger vehicles off the road for a year.

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@RichCollings richard.collings@adweek.com Richard Collings is a retail reporter at Adweek.