WeWork Cos., the SoftBank Group Corp.-backed startup that rents out co-working and office space, recently told its 6,000 employees worldwide that it won’t pay for any meals that include red meat, poultry or pork. It justified the policy as environmentally friendly.
“New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact,” co-founder Miguel McKelvey said in a memo, “even more than switching to a hybrid car.” (As someone who remembers “Diet for a Small Planet” propagandizing for vegetarianism in the 1970s, I wonder about the newness of that claim, which has also been called into question.)
Intentionally or not, there’s more going on. The meat ban is an exercise in brand building.
In today’s “meaning economy,” what we buy carries value-laden significance. It defines our identity and marks our tribe.
The shift from function to meaning as a source of economic value also shapes who works where. Instead of trying to be blandly inoffensive, workplaces embody the cultural values of their tribe. That’s why we see Google employees refusing to work on Defense Department projects or companies boycotting the National Rifle Association.
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.
“Any food taboo, acknowledged by a particular group of people as part of its ways, aids in the cohesion of this group, helps that particular group maintain its identity in the face of others, and therefore creates a feeling of ‘belonging,’” observes ethnobiologist Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow in a much-cited paper. Think of the ban as team building.
Of course, group cohesion also fosters exclusion. For all the lip service to diversity, corporate tribalism enforces legally acceptable homogeneity. You can’t racially discriminate, but you can use Stuff White People Like as a guide to approving expense reports. A meat ban keeps out the kind of Neanderthals who make a big deal of loving bacon and probably have too much testosterone.
Slate’s Felix Salmon is correct that WeWork’s anti-meat stance will “cause a ridiculous amount of agita for its front-line staffers and, especially, the benighted HR folks tasked with enforcing the policy.” It’s a practical nightmare for people filing or monitoring expense reports: Can you go to restaurants that serve meat if you stick to vegetarian dishes? If so, do you have to list what each person at the meal ate? What if an important client or landlord insists on ordering the lamb salad or the Brussels sprouts cooked in bacon?
Given WeWork’s business challenges, however, taking an anti-meat stand may make sense. The company is, after all, a real estate business trying to look like a tech startup. Its business model requires taking on long-term leases while renting out the space to short-term tenants. It can’t survive on function alone. It needs a mystique.
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.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her books include “The Power of Glamour.”
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