Behind the Label: Pret A Manger

How do Pret A Manger’s sustainable values extend to all of its locations?

Pret A Manger was founded in London by two college friends who wanted to make a “proper” sandwich with natural ingredients, “the sort of food they craved but couldn’t find anywhere else.”

As the story goes, “Pret grew and grew. And grew.” Since the first sandwich shop opened in 1986, Pret has expanded to 265 shops in the United Kingdom, United States, Hong Kong, and now France. With an emphasis on “good natural food,” Pret emphasizes local sourcing, organic ingredients, and corporate transparency. But how well have these commitments transferred to Pret’s overseas locations, and how will they continue to scale? This week’s Behind the Label column takes a look.

On its U.K. corporate website, Pret a Manger addresses its sustainability challenges with honesty, openness, and a touch of cheek.

We don’t believe in long-winded ‘eco’ policies that simply don’t ring true. This is our Sustainability Strategy; it explains what we actually do at Pret rather than just what we’d like to.

Goals are broken into several categories: resources, waste, sustainable sourcing, healthy food, contribution to society, and the intangible “do more.”

The Good

Among its sustainability goals, Pret aims to send zero waste to the landfill by 2012 by implementing a number of simple steps. For one, Pret donates all of its unused food to homeless shelters at the end of each day, amounting to more than 12,000 meals per week in the U.K. Pret has also rolled out both front of house and back of house recycling in its U.K. locations, as well as new composting measures. Packaging is either made from sustainable sources, or from recycled material and is fully recyclable. Employees are trained to only provide one napkin per item purchased, and to ask customers if they really want a plastic bag.

Pret also feels strongly about the quality of its ingredients, and it is surprisingly open about the challenges involved in sustainable sourcing:

Buying ingredients locally makes perfect sense for a multitude of reasons… Buying decisions don’t just come down to distance, however, and other things come into play – weather and local farming methods being just two. Is it better to grow tomatoes in the sunshine of Southern Spain and then put them on a boat, or to grow them in a poly tunnel under UV light in England?

This open, conversational tone pervades Pret’s messaging. Throughout the site, customers are invited to contact top-level Pret managers with questions and suggestions. And believe it or not, they actually write back! When I emailed Pret’s Technical Manager asking about U.S. ingredient sourcing, I received a prompt response connecting me with Pret’s U.S. Director of Food and head of customer service. I haven’t yet received a concrete answer to my question, but I’m impressed that with a simple email I was provided instant access to people in positions of power within the company.

The Bad

A few months ago, our Behind the Label on Chipotle showed that fresh food and natural ingredients don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with health. The same rings true for Pret A Manger.

Last April, a Daily Mail article revealed the “alarming truth” about Pret’s offerings; namely, that their items contain shockingly high calorie, saturated fat, and sugar counts. A small cup of tomato soup, for instance, contains 4.5 grams of salt – “the same as the amount in nine packets of crisps” and close to the UK’s daily recommended allowance of 6 grams per day. The Posh Cheddar and Pickle Baguette contains 800 calories and 15.6 grams of saturated fat, while the Ham, Cheese, and Mustard Toastie clocks in at 696 calories and 18 grams of saturated fat. “Eek!” the Daily Mail proclaimed. Eek is right.

Also questionable is Pret A Manger’s relationship with McDonald’s, which owned a 33 percent majority share in the company from 2001 to 2008. Pret describes the relationship simply and directly, but somewhat vaguely:

Their international influence and expertise helped in our expansion beyond the UK (something clamoured for by the thousands of tourists who visit our shops each week). McDonald’s did not have any direct influence over what we sold or how we sold it. In 2008, Pret A Manger was sold to Bridgepoint which brought an end to the relationship with McDonald’s.

The partnership is obviously a sore subject, so much so that Pret has retained a PR firm specifically to distance itself from the mega-chain.

The Questionable

Pret A Manger’s success has changed the way many Brits perceive fast food, and its overseas expansion proves that the movement doesn’t have to be limited to the U.K. But how readily do Pret’s values translate across marketplaces? One apparent disconnect is in the different messaging and information available on Pret A Manger’s country-specific websites.

On the U.K. site, for instance, the Pret Sustainability section provides a wide array of information with specific details and action points. In its Ingredients section, we can see that Pret’s meatballs include pork from Farm Assured-equivalent European farms, “mixed and cooked for us in Cambridgeshire.” Milk is “100 percent organic, from dairy farms in and around Somerset, delivered chilled every day,” while pesto is “prepared and blended in New Covent Garden Market to our own traditional recipe.”

That makes sense for the U.K., but what about policies in the U.S., Hong Kong, and now France, where Pret just opened a Paris location?

The U.S. Pret Sustainability section is pretty spare, with the same goals outlined but nothing close to the level of detail and concreteness available on the U.K. site. Curiously, Pret sites for Hong Kong and France don’t even have sustainability sections.

The disconnect was further illustrated during a recent visit to a Pret A Manger in midtown Manhattan by a few of my EcoSalon colleagues. When the women couldn’t locate recycling receptacles in the dining area, they asked the employee behind the counter where they could recycle their bottles and cans. The employee accepted the bottles and cans, but then threw them into the regular trash can.

“With all that they have touting organic all over the restaurant, one would think it was a real sustainable place but I ended up feeling like I was being ripped off with the lack of recycling,” my colleague told me.

Pret A Manger has done a great job at reframing fast food and promoting sustainable practices in the U.K. But if Pret intends to maintain the same mission and goals as it expands, it should ensure that the same policies and messaging are in place across the board and around the world.


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Image: skinnylawyer

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.