Blogs & Comment

Meatless Monday and corporate social responsibility

Are food companies obligated to at least try to sell less meat?

(Photo: Evan Swigart/Wikimedia)

A 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. It’s testament to how meat has recently taken on the role of the culinary bad boy, given questions about animal suffering, environmental impacts and personal health.

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 this regard, a recent effort by cafeteria services provider Sodexo, which serves over 9 million meals each day, makes for a perfect case study.

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 Sodexo experiment starts off as nothing less than a best-case scenario of corporate social responsibility. 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.

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 to plausibly say the company was taking social responsibility too far?

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 toward understanding your own point of view, and hence to being better prepared to engage in thoughtful discussion of CSR.

A case like this strikes me as a pretty good litmus test with regard to divergent views on CSR. 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.