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.

9 comments so far

  1. Ian Welch on

    I wrote a blog about McDonald’s in hospitals. I would appreciate your thoughts on this topic.

    Regards,
    Ian

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I have mixed feelings about McDonald’s in hospitals. I was visiting a relative at a hospital yesterday, and the food for visitors was so terrible (quality and availability) that I honestly wished there were a McDonald’s there, even though I don’t eat meat. Chains like McD’s provide highly consistent, tasty food, and such food isn’t going to hurt you if consumed in moderation. I’d be *very* concerned of course if McD’s were running the food for the hospital itself, or if it were the only food option in the building. But I’m not entirely convinced that their very presence is so terrible.

      • Ian Welch on

        Thanks. I took a tough stance yesterday and softened up on it. Just found your site and appreciate it. Ian

  2. Michelle on

    Don’t forget that are very distant ancestors lived on a diet of meat and wild berries and vegetables. I like reading your blog but you forgot about those of us who raise animals. We supply a very vital part of society’s food needs. The price of meat would be less, but people in the middle want to be paid well for little work. Another reason meat prices are rising is the unceasing need for gasoline by the Western world. As a farmer, it is easier to raise corn and sell it than to raise corn, feed it to our animals, and then sell the animals. Animals take lots of labor. As farmers, we work long hours and strive to make our animals comfortable. My husband and I don’t raise our animals in confined buildings. Meatless Mondays hurt more sectors of the economy than you stated. Also, people need to stop trying to tell others how to eat. If they want to kill themselves by food before 40, let them. It is their choice.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Sorry, but how our ancestors lived isn’t at all relevant. And while I’m sympathetic to the farmers who currently earn a living raising animals for meat, the fact that they make their living that way is not a very convincing reason for supporting the product. The same goes for tobacco farmers, etc. And the beautiful thing about Meatless Monday is precisely that no one is “telling others how to eat.” No one is being forced into anything.

  3. Jeffery on

    Presumably Sodexo has some economic latitude here to experiment with the program; ultimately, however, if the costs are immediately high, or intractable over a trial period, it seems unlikely that Sodexo can make the the case for its continuation. Not all actors bear responsibility for the multitude of social problems that we currently face; the presence of meat in our diet is so thoroughly entrenched in consumer habits that it would be hard to fault Sodexo for abandoning a well-intentioned effort of this sort, if it couldn’t be properly funded through its operations. This stands even if someone (in or out of Sodexo) is inclined to give a lot of weight to anti-meat arguments.

    But I wonder what kind of educational efforts went into the program. This may have an impact on how well its perceived, whether consumers really understand the principle at stake, etc. If it was sprung on consumers without much notice and without some well-placed communication, I can imagine easily how it impacted sales.

    (Side note; When the food service provider Bon Appetit offers “low carbon” day at our university cafeteria everyone seems to flock to the sandwich stand nearby, which offers the regular high carbon foods. I guess this is because there is virtually no meat offered on “low carbon” day. So Sodexho is not alone in this kind of problem.)

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Jeffery:

      I think your point about economic latitude is important, as is the point about the magnitude of the problem. Of course, we need to differentiate between a) big problems about which individual companies can do literally nothing, and b) big problems about which individual companies can do something concrete. If a company’s program reduces meat consumption even a little, it thereby reduces the total amount of animal suffering, which is prima facie good. (In other words: meat consumption isn’t a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ — unilateral action CAN help.) But generally I think your point is right: meat is part of our culture, and while that isn’t self-justifying, it does make it hard to justify putting much of a burden on individual companies.

      Chris.

  4. mary on

    is Sodexo granted a monopoly franchise like at most hospitals? if so, i can’t see how you say that “no one is “telling others how to eat.” No one is being forced into anything.”

    a hospital is not a place that offers many eating alternatives. when faced with an emergency situation, you can’t leave the premises. if there’s no alternative restaurant, then how is that not forcing someone by categorically banning the option? i assume they don’t delete meat entres on the menu board every monday. i assume that whatever meat options that are normally offered are still on display. if a person (not knowing it’s meatless monday) asks for a cheeseburger and is refused, then it seems to me you are forced to pick another option.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Mary:

      The story cited says that on Mondays, Sodexo “offers more plant-based meal options.” It doesn’t say that meat was entirely unavailable. Beyond that, most cafeterias do vary their selection from day to day. If you prefer lasagna, but ask for it on Thursday, you may be disappointed.

      Chris.


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