While independent operators grapple with what sustainability and social responsibility mean and whether they come with a return on investment, the bottom line is customers are seeking out socially conscious restaurants.

Closing your eyes and covering your ears to avoid hearing about it is no longer a smart move. It probably never was, but the latest report from Technomic further cements that: Sixty-three percent of consumers are more likely to visit a foodservice operation they view as socially conscious.

Wade Hanson, a principal at Technomic and one of the authors of “Building a Better Foodservice Business Through Sustainable and Responsible Practices,” says these features are no longer “nice to have,” but an expectation. Fifty-three percent of foodservice operators believe having an actionable social responsibility strategy will be necessary to remain competitive in the next two years.

He says it can be even more critical and complicated for the independent operator, who is fighting for market share and struggling to understand what matters most when it comes to social responsibility and sustainability.

Only 45 percent of independent operators believe employees understand those issues. And 36 percent believe customers do. So how can operators know what to do and where to start?

It’s a tricky question. Social responsibility is a broad topic that can include everything from GMO to light bulbs to maternity leaves. Technomic’s study broke it down into 35 subtopics to better understand what matters most.

Hanson says consumers primarily look at two things: Do operators treat their employees (wages, good working environment, etc.) and whether they provide a safe and healthy product. Something more specific and very basic, like recycling, matters too, because consumers can identify with something they do at home.

“If you can implement one, two or three of these things in a visible way,” Hanson says, “people will know you are taking steps to be more conscious. You don’t have to do 35 things.”

The challenge, especially for independent operators, is determining whether implementing sustainable solutions and other socially responsible practices actually pays off. Already-thin margins make any investment hard to rationalize without a measurable ROI.

But waiting for that may cost you more in the long run. “It may be too late,” Hanson says. “There’s too much of a learning curve.”

He says operators, suppliers and manufacturers must to come together to better measure ROI and create best practices. Until then, take steps now to become more socially responsible. Your customers care, and they’ll notice.