Will WeWork’s New Meatless Expense Policy Backfire?

Will WeWork’s New Meatless Expense Policy Backfire?

The flexible office startup WeWork told its 6,000 employees last week that it would no longer pay for any red meat, poultry, or pork at company events or allow employees to expense meat meals, Bloomberg reported:

In an email to employees this week outlining the new policy, co-founder Miguel McKelvey said the firm’s upcoming internal “Summer Camp” retreat would offer no meat options for attendees. “New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact,” said McKelvey in the memo, “even more than switching to a hybrid car.” Individuals requiring “medical or religious” allowances are being referred to the company’s policy team to discuss options. A WeWork spokeswoman confirmed the contents of the memo.

Other startups have adopted no-meat policies, but these companies are predominantly makers of health and lifestyle products, which attract a specific set of customers and employees whose values and interests align with those policies. WeWork, by comparison, is a growing player in the global commercial real estate business with offices in 76 cities around the world. As such, Felix Salmon comments at Slate, the policy of banning meat (but not fish or eggs) at company-provided meals will likely “cause a ridiculous amount of agita for its frontline staffers and, especially, the benighted HR folks tasked with enforcing the policy.” He also criticizes the policy as internally incoherent when measured against its own stated purpose:

It bans lamb, for instance, and it bans chicken, but it doesn’t ban eggs. Eggs cause just as much environmental damage as chickens do, and much less than lamb does. It’s hard to see much environmental logic in a policy that’s fine with factory-farmed salmon but that forbids people from eating pigeon. (There are far too many pigeons in the world, eat as many as you want.)

Culturally, too, the policy makes little sense. If office managers want to serve delicious and healthy vegetarian food for their employees, that’s fantastic, but the ease of doing so, and the degree to which those employees will embrace the meal, varies wildly from city to city and from country to country.

Accordingly, Salmon doesn’t buy McKelvey’s claim that this policy is about reducing WeWork’s environmental impact, which he argues it could do much more effectively in other ways. Instead, he sees it as a form of virtue signaling or “performative vegetarianism.”

Companies everywhere are putting more emphasis on signaling their values to candidates and customers—moves that are being rewarded in the market in ways they never were before. With that in mind, Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel can see the logic behind WeWork adopting this policy as a matter of branding:

Nothing says “We’re a tribe” like food taboos. Dietary restrictions establish boundaries and define identity. Think of kosher food and Jews, halal meat and Muslims, vegetarianism and Brahmins — or the cultural differences between completely secular vegans and paleo diet devotees. …

With its logistical nightmares, the meat ban represents a costly signal that the company is special. Its very peculiarity is its strength. One way to make what is in effect just another real estate company look culturally distinctive — cool, even — is to adopt a tribal food policy.