Many of the 6,000 employees at WeWork Cos. will soon have to make some dietary changes. Earlier this month, the New York City-based shared workspace company announced via an internal memo that it will no longer cover the costs of meals expensed if they include red meat, pork or poultry. Company events will also omit dishes featuring meat. There are still some options for workers not happy with this announcement. Fish will still be on the menu, and “individuals requiring ‘medical or religious’ allowances are being referred to the company’s policy team to discuss options,” Bloomberg wrote.
The company cited environmental reasons as cause for the change, but my initial thought was that there’s more to chew on.
Reducing or removing meat from our diets is an increasingly popular option for those who aim to reduce harm to animals, improve their health, save money and/or reduce their carbon footprint. In fact, veganism — the practice of not eating any food derived from animals, including meat, eggs, cheese and honey — is on the rise, too. In 2014, just 1 percent of U.S. consumers were vegan, rising to 6 percent by 2017, according to “Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017.”
Health is a concern for many who decide to remove meat from their diets, as a diet high in red meat has ties to increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease and often hosts many artificial hormones that can cause health issues in humans. Many celebrity athletes embrace meatless or vegan diets as well, most notably Tom Brady, along with 11 Tennessee Titans football players and many more, often citing their plant-based diet for their improved game.
A desire to not participate in animal cruelty is a time-honored reason for omitting meat from diets. Factory farming often involves chickens stuffed into too-small cages, cows still being conscious during the slaughtering process, unsanitary environments, neglect for sick animals and clipping of tails and teeth without painkillers. Additionally, the human workers at meat processing plants tend to face low wages as well as dangerous and abusive environments.
The decision to go meat-free follows WeWork’s drive to reduce food waste and plastic use. Their citation of environmental reasons for omitting meat is legitimate, as carbon emissions from factory farms are at noxious levels. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted to produce one calorie of meat is 11 times higher than producing one calorie of protein via plants, according to PETA. Beef production alone creates the same amount of emissions each year as 24 million cars, writes the Union of Concerned Scientists, though there are ways to raise the cattle with a lower carbon footprint. Additionally, bacteria-laden runoff from the farms is a top cause of pollution to America’s waterways and impacts the air quality — and thus property values — of surrounding communities, according to a 2010 report from National Association of Local Boards of Health.
While these are all great reasons to reduce meat intake or commit to a vegetarian diet, my gut tells me that WeWork’s decision was one only partially driven by a desire to improve the environment. A likely aspect of the decision? Money. Going meatless just once a week for a year can save an individual $210, according to EatingWell magazine. Yes, I do eat meat, though I often opt for meals featuring beans or tofu for my protein. My most typical meat purchase at a grocery store is a package of bone-in chicken thighs to create my famous homemade chicken noodle soup (OK, maybe it’s just famous to my friends and family). Even when opting for the cheapest package of chicken, I often find that it is the most expensive item on my receipt.
In WeWork’s case, this could mean cost savings for them in terms of less money spent per meal, as well as employees continuing to choose meals featuring meat and simply paying their own way. Still, if ordering lobster is on the table, sign me up!
In terms of employees taking clients out for meals, this opens up a whole other can of worms (excuse the expression). Will clients only be able to choose from meat-free menus? This creates potential for some awkward conversations between WeWork employees and their clients, who might — rightfully or not — become too annoyed with the rule to follow through with a meeting.
However, making clients only choose meat-free options creates another avenue for savings at WeWork. Looking at menus at steakhouses — the traditional go-to for client dinners — the meatless options tend to cost less or not exist. Take McCormick & Schmick’s, for example. According to the menu on their website, the popular seafood and steak restaurant chain offers no meatless entrees. When comparing the fish menu to steak menu, the fish comes out to a few dollars less, on average.
When WeWork employees travel, their room service offerings are also likely to be significantly less expensive when omitting meat or opting for fish. When looking at an in-suite menu at The Venetian, a popular hotel for visitors of Las Vegas, lunch and dinner entrees with meat cost an average of $10 more than those that are meat-free.
By offering only meatless options at company-sponsored events, WeWork also will have fewer dietary restrictions to consider. It can be difficult to meet the needs of vegetarian and/or vegan team members, those who have various food allergies, as well as providing meat offerings. Simplifying the options should provide potential for cost reduction.
Expand this math to the 6,000 WeWork employees and try to tell me money wasn’t at least part of the decision.
While removing meat from the table could be a good way to reduce both cost and carbon footprint, not all companies that tried this found it to be successful. Juicero, a now-defunct company that made juice machines, refused to pay for employee meals at non-vegan restaurants. While this alone likely did not sink the company, this is a difficult requirement to meet (pardon the pun). Even in cities with abundant vegan dining options, the restaurant variety is still typically less convenient than the alternative. As a personal example, I can think of two restaurants within walking distance from my Chicago apartment that have a wide variety of vegan options – this would not ring true in all cities or even other parts of Chicago.
We’ll be on the lookout for any changes to or results from this new WeWork policy. For now, though, share your thoughts in the comments or on social media. I’ll be sure to read. Maybe I’ll even consider sharing my chicken noodle soup recipe.
Lauren Dixon is senior editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.