Tag Archives: eat less meat

How long does it take to ‘go sustainable’?

A lot of my posts have been in and around how you can get people to change their behaviour.  In particular, how can you get people to act in a way that is more ‘sustainable’.  To me this usually means buying less stuff or eating less meat.  I’ve been thinking about trying to solve this from an advertising or communications perspective because that’s where my (work) experience lies.  However, I’ve come to realise that thinking of the issue of sustainability through the lens of advertising is this is far too simplistic.

This is because advertising, on the whole, works by trying to encourage you to choose a brand when you are already thinking about buying that category.  So, feel like a pint?  Choose Stella over the others for these reasons.  Need to buy some washing powder?  Then this is why Ariel is the one to buy.

(I know this is a gross over simplication, but when you think about a lot of categories, it’s true – all FMCG, fashion, health and beauty, car insurance etc etc).

So, advertising is typically short form (from posters up to 30′ TV ads) which is proven (sometimes) to encourage people to buy more of a particular brand.  The important thing however is how much of the work the consumer has already done for the advertiser.  For example, the consumer is typically  a) in a ‘consuming’ mindset – they have money in their pocket  b) are in the environment (e.g. shop or online) where you are available c) are in the mood to buy from the category (e.g. after work in the pub, or in the supermarket doing the weekly shop).  As a result, all the advertising has to do is to tip people to buy your brand rather than the competitor, which are likely to be next to them.  It’s pretty simple job really.


Now consider that against communications to try and get people to buy less.  This is going to be far more difficult because it’s about reversing the ‘consuming mindset’.  To get people to consider whether or not they actually need to buy what they are thinking of buying in the first place.  It’s about getting people to value the value of ‘stuff’ and what role it plays in their lives.  As a result, it’s about consumerism and meaning and what’s important etc etc.  To do this is huge task that’s going to take a lot more communication than a 30′ ad or a poster.  So, how long does it take to think like this?

Not 30′, more like a year, I reckon.  This is because that’s how long it’s taken me.  To change the way I think about shopping and eating meat – such that I’ve reduced both by a considerable amount.  And I’ve been thinking about this a lot and talking to people about it a lot.  Now, it might be possible to get people to do it quicker than me – I hope so and I guess that’s the challenge – but the recognition of the time frame it’s taken me has helped me frame the scale of the task that faces us all.  It’s a big task.

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The Problem with Food Labelling

I talked to a few people about my week going ‘vegetarian’ (see previous post) and since then a few of them have asked ‘Are you still vegetarian?’  The answer to that is ‘no’, but, to me, the interesting thing is binary-ness of it.  It’s like you are either a vegetarian or not.  There is no middle ground in that you’re allowed have meat every now and again.  This seems like a bit of a problem if we’re going to try and encourage more people to eat less meat.

This is because being a ‘vegetarian’ seems to come with certain criteria.  Firstly, you’ve got to have a reason not to eat meat.  And that reason has to be quite strong in order to overcome the pleasure of eating meat.  And those reasons usually are (meat is murder; Climate Change; poor animal conditions; animals have feelings too).  Further, the vegetarian’s have their own bit on the menu (usually at the bottom), their own restaurants and their own brands (e.g Linda McCartney).  So, in many ways they are set apart and ‘different’ from the mainstream.  To what degree this is desired as a means to make a statement about themselves or to what degree this is merely for the ease of making choices, I don’t know.  But what I do know is that it makes them different and I don’t think that most people want to be seen as ‘different’.  Especially when it comes to something as basic and fundamental as food.  So, I think that the vegetarian’s are shooting themselves in the foot.  By creating segregation, they are deliberately creating a line that people will be unwilling to cross.  People don’t want the finality of restricting their choices.

So, one answer is to create a new ‘label’.  In walk ‘Flexitarian’.  It’s the term for vegetarians who eat meat now and again.  (Apparently Gwyneth is one darling).  Now other than it being the most ridiculous label I’ve heard in ages (Hi, no, I’m not a vegetarian, I’m a flexitarian), it just adds to the desire to cut things up into neat piles.  There are thousands of different foods which make up millions of combinations to eat.  To try and categorise what you eat seems a bit daft to me.

So, what to do?  Well, on the one hand I’m just going to keep my mouth shut and just cook and eat what tastes great.  However, people need to eat less meat. How to do that?   Using the stick of ‘vegetarian’ to seems counter-productive.  Perhaps instead it should be about how great meat tastes if you only eat it once a week.  Make it about the pleasure of rarity, rather than the evil of eating it at all.  Might just work.

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The machismo of nut roast

So, Nick Stern (of the IPCC’s Stern Review) says that the single thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is to go vegetarian.  Now, I LOVE roast lamb and a bacon sandwich, so this could be hard.  But to do it for a week can’t be that difficult.  Can it?

So, this was the challenge.  I was to go vegetarian – and my friend Celia (who already is vegetarian) was to go vegan for the week.  Oh, when I say I was going to go vegetarian I mean ‘vegetarian’.  A fish is not a vegetable.

So, how was it?  It was pretty easy to be fair, but with only 2 ‘highlights’.   The first was a client dinner at The Summer House, a beautiful restuarant on the canal in Maida Vale.  The problem was that there were two vegetarian’s – Elinor who’s a permanent vegetarian and me, the fly-by-night one.  However, they only had one vegetarian option on the rather extensive menu and then they only had one portion of that one option.  So, we shared that – which turned out to be a rather weird deep-fried risotto cake – and got them to de-king prawn some king prawn and tomato pasta dish which we also shared.  So, thumbs down to The Summer House but thumbs up for getting on with your colleagues better.

The second was having Ross, Gordon and Ben round for Sunday lunch before going to watch the Man Utd v Chelsea game in the pub.  Now, it’s May and therefore the perfect excuse to have roast lamb – a double hit of manliness.  But no, it was nut roast recipe instead which is something I’ve never cooked before and only eaten once – at Schumacher College on week 3 of the MSc.  But, it was pretty special.  So, it was an afternoon of yin and yang as we ate nut roast and gravy (made with ‘nutrional yeast flakes'(?)) which tasted very good – good enough for everyone to stop moaning about the fact that they were eating nut roast.  Man Utd won the game and no-one went for a burger afterwards.  Or so they said.

So, what did I learn?  That going vegetarian was easy and from now on I’ll be eating a lot less meat than before, but when it comes to going out, I think I’m going to stick to the meat/fish options – it’ll make it more ‘special’.  Just like the bacon sandwich on the morning after the week was up.

(As a post-script to this, here’s a US magazine who launched a Go Vegetarian 30 day challenge)

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To get people to do less, you have to give them more

In doing a bit of part time tutoring with a friend at the London College of Communications, we asked the students to come up with a simple, creative solution to a difficult problem.

The problem was ‘How do you get people to eat less meat?’

This is interesting of course from a sustainability point of view as Nicholas Stern says, the single thing we can do to reduce our carbon footprint the most is to become vegetarian.  Now, imagining that marketing can change people’s belief system about meat and get them to cut it out altogether is too big a challenge.  However, encouraging meat-eaters to eat less meat seems a reasonable and achievable thing for marketing to tackle.

The students came back with a range of interesting ideas.  These included humanizing the animals – by giving the chicken a name like ‘Eric’ in a Disney way –  so people would feel guilty about eating something with a familiar first name.  Or telling people that eating meat was bad for you and placing a bag of vegetables and pulses next to the meat with the same nutritional content.  Or even promoting Fundamentalist Christianity because apparently in the Bible it says ‘Thou shall not eat animals’ or similar.

But whilst there were lots of interesting and potentially valid ideas, the majority avoided addressing the reason why people eat meat in the first place – it’s really tasty.  There’s just no denying that a bacon sandwich, a well cooked fillet steak or a Sunday roast tastes fantastic.

Generating ideas which side-step this basic truth seem less like to succeed than an idea that would in someway address it.

Now, you could be comparative – ‘Is that tasty burger worth a painful death for a cow?’.   But I don’t think that this is going to work.  People know that burgers come from cows and they still eat them.  Telling them the cow suffered before it died isn’t really a big deal if you’ve accepted that it’s going to be killed to be eaten anyway.

So, I don’t think that coming up with righteous reasons not to eat meat that sound like they’ve come from a bunch of vegetarian do-gooders is ever going to work.  Because they won’t embrace the fundamental truth that people like eating meat because it tastes great.

Instead, what if you embraced this fact and put that at the heart of your message in a way that satisfied your objective of encouraging people to eat less meat?

There was one student who did just this.  Their idea was about encouraging people to eat meat once a week because it would taste better.

To put that into a proposition would be something like: Meat tastes even better the less often you eat it

This takes the truth about why people eat meat and makes you understand how you can savour and heighten the delicious flavour by experiencing on a less regular basis.  And it makes sense.  People understand the basic principle of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and that you appreciate something more when you’ve had to wait for it/save up for it/look forward to.

So, if you have the ham, cheese and pickle sandwich every day, then the meat for dinner might not taste as good as if you just went for the cheese and pickle ones instead.  Or if you have a non-meat dinner a couple of nights a week, then it makes the beef on Saturday night and the roast chicken on a Sunday taste even more special.  This isn’t about getting people to stop eating meat altogether, it’s about reducing the number of meals eaten a week which include meat by one of two, which would add up to a lot of animals in the course of a year.

This sort of thinking seems to be absent from a lot of messaging about climate change.  We seem to be stuck in a world where the messaging has been written by the equivalent of the vegetarian do-gooders.  Take less flights, use less plastic bags, turn the heating down, buy less stuff.  This may work for the Green Do-Gooders who seem to have written them, but I doubt it’s going to work for the mainstream majority who like flying, using plastic bags, having warm houses and buying stuff more than worrying about the possibility of something called Climate Change.

The messaging needs to evolve and start with embracing why people enjoy doing these things in a way that ultimately encourages them to do less of them, rather than starting from the premise that doing them at all is bad.

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