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Why sustainable businesses should consider plant-based workplaces

Tracking environmental impacts often doesn't include food consumption. Here's why it must.

Adapted from "The Plant-Based Workplace: Add Profits, Engage Employees and Save the Planet" (Gigi Carter, 2018) by Gigi Carter. All rights reserved.

Nowadays many businesses view their environmental and sustainability efforts from a reputational point of view; being perceived by customers and the broader public as socially and environmentally responsible is the right thing to do. This goes beyond mere legal and regulatory requirements, since having this socially responsible reputation is necessary to attract the best talent, especially from the millennial generation workforce.

I recall attending two different recruiting events at or near local universities, where almost every job-seeking student I spoke with asked, "What does your company do in terms of environmental sustainability?"

This question was asked even before "How much does the job pay?" and "Would I need to relocate?" Furthermore, companies that place a higher emphasis on environmental sustainability perform better financially than those which do not. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article provides an in-depth business case for sustainability and highlights:

  • The top 100 sustainable global companies realized significantly higher sales growth, return on assets, profit before taxes and cashflow from operations;
  • Companies with "superior environmental performance" had a lower cost of debt by 40-45 basis points; and
  • Share prices were higher among top sustainability companies, even during the 2008 recession, resulting in an average of $650 million in incremental market capitalization per company.

When I worked in operations, we regularly tracked various environmental and sustainability measures to assess the site’s environmental impact. Measures such as energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, recycling rate and zero waste-to-landfill are common examples. However, I have yet to come across a company that includes the workplace food environment in its calculation of these measures.

I recall attending two recruiting events where almost every job-seeking student I spoke with asked, 'What does your company do in terms of environmental sustainability?'
A group of environmental and sustainability researchers in Europe looked at the hypothetical impact of cutting meat, dairy and egg consumption in half, replacing those products with plant-based foods. The results of this analysis showed that the entire European Union would reduce nitrogen emissions by 40 percent (for a total greenhouse gas emission reduction of 25 to 40 percent), with 23 percent less land use per capita. Even though this study only looked at the environmental impact of food from a regional point of view, the data are still relevant to our current discussion since the workplace is a microcosm of the broader community.

Running the numbers to assess the environmental benefits of a plant-based workplace can be handled in a similar fashion to existing Environmental Health and Safety metrics any business tracks and manages through a scorecard. For example, companies can measure the environmental impact of high volume food items based on existing measures they may already be tracking, such as CO2 equivalents. This will allow them to offset CO2 levels by implementing a plant-based workplace. If a workplace cafeteria replaces a 5.3-ounce beef burger with an equivalent size veggie burger, the company can expect to offset almost 64,000 ounces in CO2 emissions, saving 3,500 liters of water per burger. If the goal is to move towards a completely whole-food, plant-based workplace, a company can simply measure the baseline starting point (baseline number of whole-food, plant-based options divided by the total food options) and track a percentage of plant-based food items towards the target goal level, knowing this transformation will contribute to a lighter carbon footprint.

The company also may consider offsetting carbon emissions by sourcing vegetables and fruits from local and regional farmers, since these sources represent a lower carbon footprint due to shorter transport distances. For example, the company might set a goal of having 80 percent foods from local sources (say, less than 150 miles from the workplace).

In summary, whether businesses care about environmental sustainability because of concern for future generations, the reputation of the company or to increase shareholder value, implementing a plant-based workplace can provide businesses an opportunity to raise the bar above typical environmentally conscious practices. Furthermore, when prospective candidates ask, "What does your company do in terms of environmental sustainability?" the response the business can proudly give is: "We’ve implemented a plant-based workplace."

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