How green are those Cheerios? Well, no — you’re right — Cheerios shouldn’t be green, but I mean green green. Increasingly, restaurants and food service companies are weighing the need to green their operations and products but the results are often not what they anticipated.

According to stories in this week’s issues of two food service industry magazines, QSR and Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), greening up the kitchen is an effort fraught with as many potential pitfalls as it is possible benefits. Equally as frustrating to customers as it can be for the companies attempting to clean up their acts, many companies that are greening themselves aren’t seeing the payback or the recognition for which they’d hoped. In the worst cases, others are getting credit — a lot, in one case — they simply don’t deserve. More encouraging is that many food service companies are looking at green alternatives to current practices from an ethical viewpoint and not just profit motives.

“Restaurateurs say an ethical obligation to go green, as well as a desire to reap the benefits of good public relations from eco-friendly moves, drive their decisions to embrace green strategies more so than expectations for solid returns on investment,” according to NRN.

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In a joint NRN/Retail Systems Research poll, 66 percent of restaurateurs surveyed said they believed going green would make their products more appealing to consumers, but nearly as many — 63 percent — said they felt an ethical responsibility to improve their company’s sustainability as well. Another 63 percent hoped going green would boost the public’s perception of their company as being industry leaders. While 54 percent of those polled hoped they would see some sort of return on their green investment, nearly half — 47 percent — said they didn’t know whether they would or even expect any such return.

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From a business and a green perspective, these are encouraging numbers. Sure, they’re not as high as they could be but they do demonstrate a solid movement in the right direction. Except, except … research conducted by Chicago business consultants Maddock Douglas, and Climate Counts, an organization which tracks the impact of corporate doings on the climate, demonstrates a huge disconnect between what companies are actually doing and the public’s perception of those efforts. Maddock Douglas’ research actually extends into 10 different business categories, but two of those categories are concerned with food.

Many companies have proven quite successful in promoting their products as sustainable, but their actual practices are — gasp! — quite the opposite. In the Maddock Douglas survey of 2,032 U.S. adults, General Mills — the maker of brands ranging from Hamburger Helper to Muir Glen — ranked highest among companies in the food and beverage sector scoring 81 out of 100 possible points in public perception. However, General Mills, which also makes Cheerios, scored only 49 points based upon their actual practices.

At the other end, Stoneyfield Farm and Unilever scored well below General Mills in public perception — in fact they ranked below Pepsico, Kellogg, and Kraft — but came in at 81 and 79 points respectively for their actual sustainability practices. Uniliver, incidently, produces Bertolli, Slim-Fast, and Knorr brands in addition to numerous others. Stoneyfield, of course, produces yogurt, milk, and ice cream and — by the way — helps to fund Climate Counts.

Even in the food services industry, those perceptions are misleading. Wendy’s International — you know, the hamburger chain — scored highest among fast food chains in customer perceptions at a healthy 65 points. In actual sustainability, Wendy’s came in at 2. Yes. Two points. In the meanwhile, Starbucks pulled a 51-point ranking for their sustainability practices but scored only 48 for public perception. Burger King received 49 points for perceived greenness, but in practice they’re only eight points above Wendy’s, coming in at 10 points.

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Perception, of course, is just as important as practice. For the companies that are working to decrease their footprint — whether it’s in their kitchen or yours — recognition is vital for a couple of reasons. Looking good never hurts the bottom line, but when doing good goes unrecognized, it will hit the bottom line eventually as customers go to other companies they perceive — perhaps incorrectly — as being more environmentally or socially responsible.

Other than that piddling little issue of ethical responsibility, why should a company sink that much money into an effort that won’t be rewarded, especially when they see competitors raking it in without making any sacrifices? Even more important, how will those companies who are trying to do the right thing survive if all their customers are going to those companies that aren’t?