(6 minute read) Engaging people on climate change in a business context can be really challenging. The other day someone said to me “your blog posts look interesting but they’re irrelevant to my generation. I’ll be dead before this all happens anyway”.
Apart from that moment when my heart sank, this statement does raise a really interesting point. With a few notable exceptions, our older generations do not typically feel engaged in the climate change debate because they do not see it as a problem for their lifetime. Likewise it is hard to engage any generation with a nebulous concept involving long timeframes.
Putting aside the knee-jerk reactions that many environmentalists might have to this attitude – to some extent this is correct. Whilst the climate is changing rapidly, it is changing rapidly in geological timescales, which means that a lot of the climate change debate refers to things happening by 2050, or 2100. That tends to switch people off if they know that they won’t be alive to see it, and frankly most of us have more immediate things to worry about. Additionally, people (and their attitudes) are the driving force behind businesses, which are more likely to work in 3-5 year timeframes than 30-50.
How do we re-frame the debate to engage all generations, and therefore business, to the maximum extent possible? Climate change is happening right now – so talking about what will happen in 30-50 years ignores the issues that are right under our noses. This series explores key climate-related behaviours that grab people’s attention in the short term – and specifically how businesses can set achievable goals that provide a range of benefits including to the environment.
Health and diet
Most of us are concerned about health at every stage of our lives. It is recognised that talking about long term health impacts is less effective than short term consequences which is why, these days, campaigns such as those to cut back on alcohol consumption tend to focus more on appearance, weight loss, sleep quality and a range of other short term benefits as well as identifying the long term health impacts on health.
Food production and consumption is, after warmth and water, the most fundamental issue that humans are faced with. Look up any wilderness survival tips and they will tell you the same thing, in the same order:
- Shelter – you can survive three hours without warmth
- Water – you can survive three days without water
- Food – you can survive three weeks without food
Diet is a tricky topic. Even the word ‘diet’ has connotations that many people find difficult to deal with. In this article I use the word ‘diet’ in its original context, that is: “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats”. These days we have a drive towards more plant-based and flexitarian diets (which is a fancy way of saying you don’t place restrictions on what you eat but you do eat mainly plant-based food). This type of diet helps reduce weight, increase energy, promote health and wellbeing … and also happens to benefit the environment. In fact – if the entire red meat-eating world changed their diet to only eat red meat once a week, that could halve the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Now, people can survive three weeks without food. It would hurt, and no one recommends it, but it is possible. Which means that we can certainly afford to make small changes in our diet without starving to death. Below I have set out a few practical tips for how businesses (and individuals) can approach diet in a way that is beneficial to health, wellbeing and the planet.
#1 Meat Free Mondays
This is a well-established, long-running campaign that encourages families to pledge not to eat meat on Mondays (or any other day of the week that you choose). It was started in 2009 by Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney and aims to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of eating meat. This concept of choosing a day or more in the week when you don’t eat meat is one that is pretty easy to achieve and one that I highly recommend if you’re looking for something tangible to work with.
#2 Meat-free meetings
Many of us have had the dubious pleasure of lunchtime meetings. You are lured in with the promise of a free lunch, only to find that you’re staring at yet another plate of dried up sandwiches – usually a large plate of meat and fish-based sandwiches and a smaller plate of vegetarian sandwiches (which, strangely, often also include fish).
I don’t know about you but I don’t get my meat fix by eating a ham sandwich. Why, then, do we assume that these lunches have to have meat as a primary ingredient?
Try working with local business caterers to source interesting vegetarian lunches. Or if eliminating meat altogether is a step too far, try sourcing 3/4 vegetarian and 1/4 meat meals, rather than the other way round. See what happens – how do people react? If you have worked to find something interesting, you’ll probably find that staff talk about how nice the lunch was and barely even notice the lack of meat.
#3 Event catering
Ask any caterer and they will tell you that they always cook more vegetarian meals than have been explicitly ordered because, on the day, the meat eaters often take one look at the veggie option and ask for that instead.
Business conferences are a key area where meat can be drastically reduced. Instead of asking people to tick a box saying ‘vegetarian’, why not assume a plant-based meal as the baseline and ask people to tick a box asking for meat? Not only are you likely to reduce your costs (often more people can be fed for less if you eliminate meat from the menu) but you may well find that you significantly reduce the amount of meat being eaten at your events. This still gives people the option of eating meat but puts the onus on them to choose it, rather than assuming it will be there.
You can go further and simply offer vegetarian meals as the only primary option (not including other allergy-driven requirements). I have been to a broad number of conferences where the event organisers make a virtue of only serving plant-based meals at the event and I have only ever heard positive feedback from that. Going back to the point made above – meat eaters will not starve if they are given a meat-free option for one meal.
#4 Meat as an added extra
Take a look at any staff canteen and you will probably see a couple of meat options, a vegetarian option and maybe a fish option as well. Can you turn this on its head? Start with a day or two per week: make it 2 vegetarian options and one meat option. Then make those days ones where you ensure that the meat option does not include red meat.
Key things to think about
Doing this requires a certain level of staff input and feedback but always remember that people are resistant to change. If you ask key (senior) people in your business they may tell you it’s a bad idea and recommend you don’t do it. But if you can demonstrate a cost saving? They may well sit up and take notice.
It is vital to ensure that you are engaging with the people doing the cooking. Asking for a vegetarian option will not necessarily provide you with a decent response – it all depends on who is doing the catering. If you outsource – engage with your suppliers and, if you don’t get positive responses, consider sourcing alternative suppliers. If you have in-house staff, challenge them to come up with ideas that can be implemented over time. Have a taste-test day where a range of staff members try some of those ideas.
Get staff feedback – what do they like, what don’t they like? Is there general support for increasing the plant-based options across the board? Don’t just ask senior figures (who may skew the results) – make sure to include a range of staff members in your feedback requests.
You won’t be able to do this overnight – you will need to find plant-based menus that people will actually want to eat, otherwise you risk sabotaging yourself and ending up in a worse position than you started. The suggestions above are not an exhaustive list and are specifically aimed at businesses. Individuals have many more options such as vegetarian restaurants, cooking vegetarian meals at home and plant-based packed-lunches. A quick internet search will provide a tonne of ideas.
The good news is that vegetarian diets are increasingly common in todays society so it shouldn’t be hard for you to find interesting menus. The great news is that this approach can benefit employee health, the budget and the environment, all with some basic menu changes.
I am a sustainability coach with over 10 years experience in the sustainability sector. I can help you and/or your business understand how to start mapping out a path to a more sustainable strategy. Contact me for more information.