By Jennifer Molidor, PhD
Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are overwhelming our planet. Thankfully, these enormous threats are being met by a bold new wave of environmental activism.
But there's one place where our movement hasn't brought mass extinction and the climate crisis to the table: The literal tables at environmental events — from local board meetings to international conferences where meat-centered menus are still the norm.
With holiday parties rapidly approaching, now is the time for environmental groups to walk the talk by adopting Earth-friendly menus for their events.
The global scientific community agrees that we must reduce meat and dairy production to tackle the most pressing environmental disasters of our time. To do that, we have to change what we eat. Plant-forward changes and significant meat and dairy reduction must begin with the meals served at environmentally focused events.
The catering industry is no small potatoes. Catering sales in the U.S. are worth more than $11 billion each year. Over the past three years, the industry has grown by nearly 8 percent annually. Changing event menus can make a big difference in reducing the environmental impact of U.S. food production and shifting the way people think about food.
For every 100 people at a holiday party or event, a plant-based menu can save more than a ton of greenhouse gas emissions, nearly an acre of habitat and 13,000 gallons of water. Those benefits are tallied up in Catering to the Climate: How Earth-friendly Menus at Events Can Help Save the Planet, a new report by the Center for Biological Diversity, where I work.
Making this catering shift can bring other environmental savings. For example, those plant-based choices can eliminate two tons of manure and the toxic byproducts of improperly contained manure that contaminate public waterways and lands. In fact, the manure footprint of most animal-based dishes is greater than the actual weight of the food served. On the other hand, dishes free of animal products have no manure footprint.
Catering to the Climate found that planet-friendly menus are a hugely effective way to fight the climate crisis. Each person who selects plant-based dishes at a day-long event cuts as much greenhouse pollution as would be emitted by 41 miles of driving, powering the average home for one day or charging 2,100 smart phones.
In addition, that one person's low-impact meal choices would spare more than 400 square feet of farmland, prevent about 100 pounds of manure pollution and save 250 gallons of water.
When an event planner multiplies that across their entire guest list by serving plant-based dishes as the default, the environmental savings are substantial. A low-impact menu can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 85 percent, water by 72 percent and land use by 93 percent, in addition to nearly eliminating manure pollution.
Menus that focus on plant-based dishes aren't just virtuous — they're also trending. People are increasingly seeking foods that are healthier for them and the planet. And for environmental events, serving plant-based meals sends a message that connects the movement with its own values and actions.
As we celebrate progress made in 2019 and start planning out a new year, environmental event planners should cater to the climate with delicious menus that honor the work we're doing and support a sustainable food system.
Jennifer Molidor is a senior food campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.