Architect Rebecca Daff at her firm's Collins Street rooftop veggie garden.
Architect Rebecca Daff at the rooftop veggie garden of her firm. Photo: Ken Irwin

Justine Costigan

At the super-sleek BMW dealership in Melbourne's leafy Doncaster, the latest, sparkling car models surround a chic coffee bar in the centre of the showroom floor. It's effortlessly urban and sophisticated. But wander up to the glass-encased second floor and you'll find yourself with a most unexpected view. On the roof of the showroom is an area dedicated to the BMW bees. The brainchild of Doncaster BMW managing director Ingo Reisch, who started his career as a beekeeper in his native Germany, the 120,000 bees live in four hives and will soon produce their first significant harvest.

The hives play an important ecological role by helping to pollinate local plants, and their honey, produced from local flowers, brings new meaning to the concept of local and seasonal.

The bokashi bucket food recycling system.
The bokashi bucket food recycling system.

While local and state governments legislate to make sure new buildings are built sustainably, food sustainability and the reduction of food waste is becoming more attractive to businesses. Compost bins, office veggie gardens, beehives and encouraging staff to bring their own food instead of buying take-away means the sustainability message is getting through to the place where we spend much of our time: at work.

When architect Rebecca Daff asked Mat Pember of the Little Veggie Patch Co to come to Geyer's offices on the sixth floor of the Century Arcade on Collins Street, her motivation was more about making the company's outside deck area more attractive than getting on board the food sustainability bandwagon. The Little Veggie Patch Co planted out six moveable plant boxes from some of Geyer's old wooden crates. They're now filled with herbs, broccolini, kale, climbing snow peas, beetroot, carrots, a range of lettuces, strawberries and a lemon tree, all watered by staff on a roster system.

A small step towards sustainability, the new veggie boxes have got staff thinking about how they might best be used. “Most of us live in apartments or don't have gardens so it's nice to think that we can grab some rosemary for a roast we might be having that night or pick some fruit,” says Daff.

The Wayside Chapel in Potts Point has one of the Sydney's best-known rooftop gardens. Planted with flowers, fruit and vegetables, the garden is used to teach living and vocational skills, provides produce for the Wayside Cafe and is a beautiful, inviting open space. Architect Tone Wheeler designed the chapel's garden and has been working in sustainability for more than 30 years. “Green roofs have really taken off in the past five to six years,” he says. Although some green roofs are created for enjoyment only, Wheeler believes that creating a roof for growing food is the only worthwhile approach. “Being sustainable is now entering the third wave – where it's seen as a desirable lifestyle rather than being 'green',” he says.

Local governments also take a role in encouraging food sustainability. At Sydney's Marrickville Council, staff take turns to carry the contents of the council's Bokashi bins home to bury the waste. It's part of a wider strategy that includes supporting the creation of community gardens, a roll-out of the Ground to Ground program (where people collect coffee grounds from cafes and compost them at home) and providing compost bins for apartment dwellers so they can communally compost.

David Gravina doesn't need much encouragement to take food sustainability seriously. At his Bondi Beach Eco Garden guesthouse he composts food, produces his own eggs, grows his own vegetables and produces honey from a couple of beehives – all part of an overarching sustainable business strategy. “Food is a gateway to people's sustainability journey,” he says. Gravina says many people stay because of the guesthouse's great location and leave impressed by the set-up. “The guests love the eggs and several have left saying they want to get chickens too.”

While not every business has space for a garden, many have access to a roof. At the Swissotel in Sydney, the honey provided by the hotel's 200,000 rooftop bees is promoted throughout the hotel and used in its restaurants and cafes. Executive assistant manager Ross Buchanan says the motivation for taking on the beehives was all about sustainability but the positive reaction from guests means the hives are likely to have a permanent home at the hotel. “The reaction is 'wow – I've never heard of that before',” says Buchanan.

Beekeeping is now taking off around Australia, with beekeeping companies in most states. Because they need little space (just an accessible rooftop) and a professional beekeeper looks after them, it is one of the easiest steps towards food sustainability a company can take.

At BMW Doncaster, marketing manager Andrew van der Mei isn't taking his bees' production lightly. He's considering a party to celebrate their first harvest and hopes to put a webcam in the hive so customers can see what they're up to both online and on a large screen in the showroom. “It's a point of difference,” he says. “How many dealerships do you know with beehives on their roof?”