It seems most things are complicated these days, not least among them: Sustainability. While we assume the term “sustainability” is now synonymous with “the environment,” we need to take a step back. It turns out the key to unlock the credibility of the meat industry’s sustainability efforts is animal welfare, not the environment.
It makes sense, while also providing an interesting plot twist. Midan Marketing’s Sustainably Raised Meat Survey, fielded in July, revealed that the average meat eater is confused about the meaning of sustainability as it relates to meat production. When asked about sustainable meat, many do not immediately think of environmental topics but instead associate it with the animal’s diet and welfare. So while water, waste and energy conservation are important, they are essentially nonstarters. If you want to gain trust around meat sustainability with today’s consumers, you must first explain how animals are cared for.
Put simply: first animal welfare, then the environment.
On an unaided basis, many meat eaters define sustainable meat as how the animal was raised and treated. On an aided basis, more than 40% of meat eaters assume that sustainably raised meat addresses antibiotic/hormone usage and animal welfare, while significantly less assume it addresses topics such as carbon footprint, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.
And, nearly 60% believe that animals raised without antibiotics/hormones is the most important “sustainable-related” meat attribute.
These learnings led me to investigate two companies that significantly influence consumers’ ideas about sustainability: Apple and Amazon. Both have goals focused on carbon reduction and renewable energy and both do a nice job of conveying those goals. Public statements about intentions are the first step in how consumers (and Wall Street) hold corporations accountable, and major companies like these with big environmental goals are shaping how we all talk about sustainability.
But where does the meat industry fit in?
We have to be better understood to be seen as a valuable contributor to these conversations —and there are a lot of conversations coming up. Later this month you will be reading the outcome of the UN Food Systems Summit to be held September 23 in NYC. Then, in November, the world will converge in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26.
We can expect the meat industry’s impact to be front and center in media reports from both meetings. And while we do have a responsibility to improve the environment, the aggregate findings of 14,000 studies, as reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, move livestock production out of the No. 1 slot and firmly place we humans in it. With that, we can expect a shift in the conversation from carbon to methane. This can be good news for the live production side of the business, as it gives us a chance to promote what we have been doing to reduce greenhouse gases, thanks in part to the biogenic carbon cycle. (Here’s a great talking point worth sharing: Efforts by the U.S. beef industry between 1961 and 2018 reduced per pound of beef emissions by more than 40%.)
If we want to have these meaningful conversations about water, energy and waste with meat consumers, we must first get them comfortable with how animals are cared for. Here are few tips to get started:
- Work with your live animal procurement teams to ensure your animal welfare criteria are well stated, understood and adhered to throughout your supply chain.
- Update your website so that your animal welfare efforts are a bold proclamation, not just a vague mention.
- Create videos that show how ranchers and farmers care for their animals and the land.
- Take a good, hard look at your packaging. Is it recyclable? Could you use less of it? And does it adequately tell your animal welfare story?
- Leverage your social channels to ensure animal welfare is a regular part of your messaging, especially as climate conversations trend this fall following the UN conferences.
We always say, “meet the consumer where they are,” and this is the perfect opportunity to do just that. Once we satisfy the animal welfare concerns of today’s meat consumers, we can begin engaging them in serious conversations about our considerable environmental efforts. First things first.