Is it possible to eat vegetarian in Warsaw or Chengdu? Of course it is. Vegetarians have traveled the world happily for decades, and they can always somehow find a way. On the other hand, what happens if you’re representing a multibillion-dollar international real-estate giant, and you’re looking to expand your footprint in those cities by taking some of the biggest and richest landlords out for a swanky dinner? Obviously, you want to let them order what they want from the menu, and you want to pick up the check. But then you run into your employer’s draconian new meal policy.
WeWork’s 6,000 employees around the globe have now been told that they will no longer be able to expense meals including meat, in a move that will certainly reduce T&E expenses for the fast-growing company but that will also cause a ridiculous amount of agita for its frontline staffers and, especially, the benighted HR folks tasked with enforcing the policy.
The company isn’t simply turning itself into a group of restaurant cops, either: It’s also banning meat (but not fish) from all corporate events on the grounds, handed down by co-founder Miguel McKelvey, that “avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact.”
WeWork, of course, has a substantial environmental impact of its own, almost none of which is food-related. It manages 10 million square feet of office space in 76 cities around the world, including Warsaw and Chengdu; across its 406 locations, some have much higher carbon footprints than others. As a tenant in those buildings, WeWork has very little control over how much energy they waste, but if it wanted to, it could confine itself to LEED-certified buildings. That way, landlords would have a strong economic incentive to make their buildings energy-efficient and therefore attractive to WeWork and other environmentally conscious tenants.
Instead, however, WeWork has created a system whereby, as a WeWork employee, I need to start worrying if I take a client out to lunch and she orders the Brussels sprouts. (After all, any decent chef will tell you that the easiest and most effective way to make Brussels sprouts delicious is to throw some bacon fat in there.)
Internally, WeWork’s policy is pretty incoherent: 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. In New York or Tokyo, it’s easy to bring in a sushi chef who has amazing access to a huge range of fresh fish; in Kansas City or Buenos Aires, it’s much harder, and workers will be much less excited if you do. Vegetarians and pescatarians are a bit like Jews: They’re not only a minority, but they’re a very unevenly distributed minority, very common in some areas and almost unheard-of in others.
WeWorkers across the world will naturally burnish their environmental credentials in different ways. Some of them, to be sure, will cut meat and poultry out of their diet. Others will bike more, or refuse to buy a clothes dryer, or even decide not to have children. It’s arrogant paternalism of the highest order for a billionaire American co-founder, one whose own personal carbon footprint is surely in the top 0.1 percent of global citizens, to impose his own preferred environmental solution on thousands of employees who were probably doing much better than he was, on that front, all along. (McKelvey is building a multimillion-dollar mountaintop house in Utah.)
WeWork’s policy, then, is not really about environmental impact: There would be much easier and much more effective ways of reducing the company’s carbon footprint. And while the policy will surely save a certain amount of money, I doubt that’s the driving motivation either. Instead, this is a perfect case study in virtue signaling. Call it performative vegetarianism: This is a policy that will gain McKelvey plaudits and social status among the woke billionaires of Powder Mountain, at the cost of massive HR headaches and generalized employee resentment in the kind of places he doesn’t particularly care about.
WeWork has thousands of active and engaged employees around the world, who, if challenged to improve the planet, would be able to do a much better job than this. But they were given no such challenge or opportunity; instead, they simply woke up today to a corporate ukase of dubious utility. The edict sends a clear message about the top-down structure of the company: The co-founders are happy telling the rest of the company how to live and work, and don’t require any kind of broad-based buy-in before doing so.
The most realistic outcome here is that the new policy gets quietly forgotten, and/or honored more in the breach than the observance. Ultimately, the imperatives of business development are likely to supersede the ill-considered utopian whims of any co-founder. But the whiff of condescension will linger for a while, and will be harder to eradicate than any stain of bacon fat.