Reducing meat should be the next target for ethical companies

GlobalData Consumer 2nd March 2020 (Last Updated March 2nd, 2020 10:21)
Reducing meat should be the next target for ethical companies

Property developers Igloo Regeneration announced that all staff expenses, including corporate entertaining or workshop catering, must now be vegetarian in order to be eligible for reimbursement. While the company itself is relatively small, the move could herald a trend in companies’ approaches to the environment and ethics.

The case for companies refusing to subsidise meat is arguably a positive one; the meat industry’s effects on climate change, the ecosystem and biodiversity have been recorded by multiple scientific fields. The effects of climate change are taken seriously by the insurance sector; insurers’ and reinsurers’ risk modelling now has to anticipate changes in the environment, such as rising flood plains, more powerful storms, fires and drought when assessing premiums. The issue of climate change is becoming so serious that the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority has introduced the General Insurance Stress Test, which will examine the insurance industry’s systemic risks and dependencies in case the world misses its carbon reduction targets. Some are even comparing the effect of climate change on insurance to the effect the 11 September attacks had on insurers, with government regulation restricting price increases, potentially leaving many customers without coverage.

Reliable land use in this shifting environmental landscape comes at a premium. Limited land, an expanding human population and more severe climate events are forcing scientists to recommend the reduction of meat in the diet. Meat agriculture requires substantial land to provide a market-viable herd, and these herds require feed and water to grow. These herds have a substantial carbon cost and the expanding human population is driving up demand globally for meat. Increased land use leads to the degradation of soil quality by the reduction of organic material in the topsoil, especially where harmful practices such as burning vegetation or repetitive tilling are employed. The reduction of biomass and biodiversity in organic materials in the topsoil makes the soil biota vulnerable, and thus the soil becomes prone to erosion or desertification from the rain, wind and sun.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2019 report on land use recommends large-scale changes for farming and eating habits, and meat reduction is high on the list. A move to plant-based foods and sustainable animal-sourced food could free up millions of square miles by 2050.

This is where company ethical and environmental bona fides come into play. Research suggests that meat reduction reduces personal environmental impact; therefore, for a company that considers itself ‘ethical’, it only makes sense to enforce policies that discourage the consumption of meat. This is because it reinforces the company’s stance on sustainability, even if it’s seen as controversial in the press. Igloo Regeneration’s policy to no longer subsidise meat-based meals will provide both a PR opportunity and a justification for ethically conscious consumers, especially those that identify as vegetarian and vegan, to go for the company that shares this value over a competitor. It is possible that larger employers, including the state, will take such steps. The impact of this decision on the wider industry is yet to be seen, but measuring that real effect will present companies and brands an opportunity for further engagement with both their employees and the consumer.

A question hangs over such a decision, however: how will this affect the bottom line? The immediate costs of such a policy will be minimal; vegetarian alternatives do not typically cost more than their meat equivalents. The real threat comes from the perceived unfairness of the policy to meat-eaters, as well as an occasionally hostile press and a revolt against normalising vegetarianism. Of these, the former is particularly relevant; interior company morale should be considered before implementation.

In order to best implement such a change, companies should look to the Igloo Regeneration example. Igloo Regeneration put the change to an internal vote, and admit that they specifically avoid ‘checking bins’ and don’t worry about employees abstaining from steak outside or even inside of work. The goal is to painlessly reduce and leave people to their own devices, the only difference is that meat consumption will no longer be subsidised.  Empowering employees to make this educated decision is the route to a happier, more loyal workforce and an effective ethical policy. This will also appeal to consumers, who will see the company as acting on its employees’ wishes, rather than forcing draconian policy from above.