Trash Talk: Leslie VK Campbell on Sustainable Restaurant Design

The SustainLA founder wants the food world to go greener

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SustainLA is a conservation program with restaurants that reduces garbage drastically.
Learn how SustainLA leads LA based restaurants towards more sustainable operations while improving efficacy. (Photo: SustainLA)

Updated Jul 25, 2018 @ 4:50 pm

SustainLA started as an experiment. Leslie VanKeuren Campbell convinced her boss Gingergrass to eliminate Styrofoam and implement a recycling and food-waste program for the restaurant. The impact was immediately measurable: Customer loyalty increased, employee moral improved and the profit margin was impressive. Her boss was convinced and Campbell, a 15-year veteran of restaurant and event management, was inspired. SustainLA was born.

Today SustainLA is busy with restaurants around LA, and working with events like Belgium Brewing Company’s Tour de Fat to ensure they divert 90% (or more) of their garbage away from landfills. Clean Plates caught up with Campbell to talk with her about her dedication to the planet.

Q: What do you think surprises people most about SustainLA?

A: My clients are relieved to learn that living sustainably does not mean living expensively. Our job is to help organize a system that supports the triple bottom line: we want to make sure the business remains economically viable, participates in social responsibility and is good to the planet.

Secondly, it’s all about the garbage! We evaluate everyone’s needs individually, but our first step is usually sorting through the trash—by hand. Our “Garbage Audit” determines what goes to the recycling, the compost and to the landfills. It sounds weird, but it’s actually pretty fun.

Q: You started SustainLA in 2009. What has your journey been like?

A: The year I left the restaurant business to start SustainLA was the best year of my life. I had no income; it was an opportunity to put my philosophies to the test! My husband and I took very simple steps to rearrange our priorities and time; I confirmed for myself that it is absolutely possible to develop a simple yet productive life. SustainLA helps to make that transition on a larger scale.

Q: It seems like things are constantly changing in the world of sustainability; how do you stay educated?

A: We are dedicated to staying up-to-date regarding legislation on both a local and national scale. I am a LEED Green Associate, as well as certified with UCLA’s Global Sustainability program. It’s important to stay current so when new ordinances go into effect and things like recycling and reuse systems are legally implemented, your business is ahead of the game.

Q: What is your favorite part about SustainLA?

A: I feel so lucky to do something I’m passionate about. I have fun calculating the diversion rate—how much waste can actually be steered away from the landfill—and I love helping each client set their own goals and determine their needs. A misunderstanding about sustainability is that it’s complicated; it actually makes life easier, for individuals and restaurants alike. I know we’ve created something really special for a niche market; I’m looking forward to growing my team as the need for sustainable business and living becomes more necessary and desirable.

Q: What’s your advice to people who want to live more sustainably but aren’t sure how to begin?

A: Take it one step at a time! A lot of change comes from examining how we manage our time. Small changes, like bringing your own bags to the grocery store or heading to the farmers market can make a huge difference. Educate yourself about all of the options, then decide what works for you.

Image courtesy of SustainLA.