Meatless Monday and Social Responsibility
Meat has recently taken on the role of the culinary bad boy, the gustatory rebel without a cause. Meat is the leather-wearing trouble-maker that scoffs at moral authority, making some people tsk-tsk and making others swoon.
Witness the fact that, couple of weeks ago, the New York Times announced a contest, asking entrants to provide their best argument as to why eating meat is ethical. In other words, the idea is to provide a rebuttal to what is by now nearly the default position, which is that meat is ethically problematic. And it’s not hard to see why. Even if you aren’t convinced that contributing to vast animal suffering is unethical, there are the very significant environmental impacts to consider. And when meat is thought of as a product that you either sell to consumers or feed to your children, health impact certainly becomes part of the ethical equation: how much beef you consume is between you and your colon, but how much you foist on others is open to scrutiny. So if meat If meat isn’t outright unethical, it’s certainly not the most socially-responsible product I can think of.
So, given the current ethical presumption against meat, do food companies that see themselves as socially responsible have a responsibility to minimize, or at least reduce, the amount of meat they sell?
In that regard, see this interesting report about how one company — Sodexo — worked to reduce the amount of meat eaten by its customers. The company runs cafeterias at hospitals and government buildings and so on, and serves over 9 million meals each day. And about a year ago, Sodexo announced that it would participate in the “Meatless Monday” program, urging customers to eliminate or reduce the amount of meat consumed just one relatively painless day each week.
The result is an absolutely perfect case study in the debate over corporate social responsibility.
The Sodexo experiment starts off as nothing less than a best-case scenario of CSR. Sodexo, in introducing Meatless Monday in its cafeterias, was arguably pursuing a win-win strategy. Serving less meat is good for the environment, good for consumers’ health, and (since meat is an expensive ingredient) maybe good for the bottom line. As an experiment, at least, it’s not crazy from a business point of view. So Meatless Monday presented the possibility of social benefit without pain: the holy grail of CSR.
Notice also the lack of sanctimony here. There’s nothing preachy about Meatless Monday: it’s just a way of saying hey, there are some really simple, painless steps that all of us can take to make the world a slightly better place.
But wait: it’s too soon to celebrate. It turns out that among Sodexo’s participating cafeterias, almost a third saw a drop in sales, and some saw a drop in customer satisfaction ratings. So much for the win-win! In the face of a significant drop in sales, a corporation’s managers face a true ethical dilemma, torn between social responsibility and responsibility to vulnerable shareholders. Should the company’s managers stick with Meatless Monday — ostensibly the socially responsible choice — or give it up and bring sales back to their previous level? Which matters more, social benefit or profits? Or, more precisely, how much would sales have to drop in order plausibly to say that the company was taking social responsibility too far?
A case like this strikes me as a pretty good litmus test with regard to divergent views on corporate social responsibility. It’s easy to be in favour of the win-win stuff. If a company can boost profits while doing some good in the world, who could complain? And if you can help others (or society) at no cost to yourself, maybe you’re even obligated to. But fewer people, I suspect, are willing to argue for a corporate obligation to engage in socially beneficial behaviours that not only hurt profits but also reduce customer satisfaction.
The next step in the litmus test, of course, is to adjust the ethical inputs, namely the strength of the ethical ethical arguments against meat. If you’re generally supportive of Sodexo’s move, how much weaker would the arguments against meat have to be in order to change your mind? And if instead you think Sodexo’s experiment is unjustified, how much stronger would the case against meat have to be to convince you that a company is justified in at least attempting to pursue socially-good objectives through its business practices? Answering such questions is a crucial step towards understanding your own point of view, and hence to being better prepared to engage in thoughtful discussion of corporate social responsibility.