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Inside WeWork’s decision to go meat-free

Lindsay Baker, WeWork’s global head of sustainability, talks about how the company’s removal of meat from its events, offices, and expense reports fits in with its larger strategy.

Inside WeWork’s decision to go meat-free
[Photo: Ana Tavares/Unsplash]

On business trips in the past, Brian Alward, an account director on the enterprise sales team at WeWork, typically ate meat. On a trip two weeks ago, he chose a caprese sandwich instead of a burger at an airport bar and later a veggie wrap instead of a pork burrito.

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The choices were driven by his employer: In mid-July, WeWork announced that it would no longer reimburse employees for meat eaten on business trips. The coworking giant also said that it would stop serving meat at events, including “Summer Camp,” its weekend-long music festival-slash-camp experience for employees and members. Small self-serve kiosks in some WeWork buildings that used to serve beef jerky took it off the menu. “We have made a commitment to be a meat-free organization,” WeWork cofounder Miguel McKelvey wrote in an email sent to all staff.

The new policy will cut the company’s environmental footprint, since meat is responsible for a large piece of the world’s climate emissions and also a major user of water and land. But it’s also an example of a new approach to corporate sustainability. “It’s emblematic of what I’m hoping is a really different way of thinking about sustainability for a company,” says Lindsay Baker, WeWork’s global head of sustainability, who started at the company in May.

[Photo: WeWork]
Right now, companies typically measure their own environmental impact and then make plans to reduce it. WeWork is doing the same thing, but also wants to go a step further, to create new systems–not just offsets. “We’re asking this bigger question, which is how much positive impact we can have on these things–how much of a difference can we make in the world, rather than just how do we make sure that we’re neutralizing our impact,” Baker says.

Other companies are also working to shift employee eating habits. At Google’s company cafeterias, menus nudge workers to choose plant-based foods by listing vegan options higher or highlighting them. A “blended burger,” a version of which is also sold at the fast-food chain Sonic, mixes mushrooms with meat to reduce the total amount of beef. Google’s chefs have also experimented with creating a plant-based “power dish” that can compete with the most popular dishes on restaurant menus, most of which contain meat. Sodexo, a food service company that makes meals for corporate cafeterias (along with schools, hospitals, and other institutions) is also adding more plant-based meals to its menus.

But WeWork’s choice to stop paying for meat is bolder. Alward says that it has changed his habits. “The biggest challenge with traveling and running around and talking to companies around the world is that meat tends to become autopilot,” he says. The new policy helped him shift away from the default. Alward, like some other WeWork employees, says that he is now also eating less meat even outside of work.

“It’s not a question whether they knew this was possible before,” says Baker. “It’s just a question of what your defaults are and what your routines are.” The change has come under some external criticism, and not every employee was thrilled with the change, though Baker wouldn’t comment about employee pushback, except to say: “Certainly human opinions always range, but it’s fostered a lot of really great dialogue, which is exactly what we were hoping for.”

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By starting that bigger conversation about meat, the company expects that it will have a larger impact on eating habits–both with employees and its thousands of members–than just the changes that directly impact its own footprint. (That impact is also large: By 2023, the company expects that eliminating meat across the company will prevent 445 million pounds of CO2 emissions, save 16.6 billion gallons of water, and save more than 15 million animals’ lives.)

The company is approaching other sustainability programs from a similar perspective. By 2025, WeWork plans to be fully carbon neutral, using a combination of renewable energy and purchasing offsets. But the company will invest in renewable energy where it can help most around the world–places that are disproportionately impacted by climate change–rather than only buying renewables next to its buildings in the U.S. As the company works to reduce construction waste for its buildings, it’s looking for opportunities to reuse materials in a circular way, potentially using waste from other companies. In all of these projects, it aims to go beyond WeWork’s own environmental challenges to help in a broader way.

Other companies have already reached out with interest in implementing similar bans on meat, and WeWork plans to share what it’s learned about how to implement this type of program. It also hopes to inspire the member companies that work in its coworking spaces. The reaction has been positive, Baker says. “What I’m seeing in my day to day here is that there is this thirst for collective action,” she says. “For many of our members and employees, they want to be a facilitate that and think there’s a real opportunity for us to coordinate that collective action.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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