We voted on a vegetarian food policy

Written by Tom Greenwood - April 3, 2020

At Wholegrain Digital, we’re committed to pushing boundaries in what it means to be a sustainable business. One area of the sustainability puzzle that’s always felt a bit awkward is anything regarding food.

The science is pretty clear that on balance, plant-based foods have a significantly smaller environmental footprint than animal based foods and that in addition, there are huge health benefits to eating a diet consisting of whole foods, mostly plants. However, food is a highly personal subject that’s deeply rooted in our cultures, family traditions and personal tastes, not to mention our addictions. Any conversations about company policies that involve food inevitably run the risk of making some people feel uncomfortable.

On the one hand, we should all have freedom to decide what we put inside our own bodies. On the other, eliminating animal foods is one of the simplest and most impactful things that we can all do on a daily basis to help reduce our impact on the environment. How do we solve this dichotomy?

Our existing food policy

Since 2015, we’ve held our team Christmas meal at a vegetarian or vegan restaurant in London. We’ve been to some fantastic restaurants including Mildred’s, The Gate and Redemption. This has been a great way to introduce people to plant-based foods as a positive shared experience.

Our 2019 Christmas meal was at Redemption in Covent Garden

In addition, for about five years we’ve had a policy that all company catering should be vegan. This essentially covered catering for events that we organised and any general catering for meetings. What was not covered were any business expenses for food ordered in restaurants and cafes by individual team members.

The question was, should the company policy extend to situations where individuals are choosing food for themselves on business expense, or should it only cover situations where the company is catering on a non-personalised basis? I’ve always been very aware that this question is controversial and I have consciously stayed away from addressing it. However, that recently changed.

Should we have a veggie expense policy?

A couple of months ago, we stumbled on a news article about fellow B Corp iGloo Regeneration, who introduced a vegetarian expense policy. What was interesting about iGloo is that they didn’t dictate this new policy from the top, but voted on it as a team. This article stimulated some interest in our team and there seemed to be interest in following a similar approach, and so decided to go ahead and set up a vote.

It was important to ensure that the vote was fair and constructive, and so I set a few boundaries before going ahead.

  1. The vote would be conducted anonymously and online, so that each individual could vote how they really felt. For this reason, the vote did not include a comment field, which could easily be used to give away the identity of voters.
  2. I would not campaign for a particular outcome. As someone who’s been eating a predominantly whole foods plant-based diet for about seven years, I obviously have my own perspective, but I felt it important that the vote be a genuine representation of the team’s views and not my own.
  3. Like any well-organised referendum, we would not change the existing expense policy unless at least 60% of the team voted in favour of the change. We wouldn’t want a 48-52 situation!
  4. It was stated up front that even if the team did vote in favour of a veggie expense policy, exceptions would be put in place where needed. For example, to protect people with food allergies who might find it difficult.

In addition to the main vote, a secondary question asked whether people thought that “veggie” should refer to vegetarian (i.e. no meat or fish but allowing eggs and dairy), or vegan (i.e. no animal products at all).

The results are in!

If I’m being honest, I didn’t actually think that the vote would result in the policy being changed. However, to my surprise (and a little delight) the final outcome was 36.4% in favour of maintaining the existing policy and 63.6% in favour of introducing a veggie expense policy. Interestingly, that’s higher than the percentage of people in our team that I am aware follow a vegetarian diet.

The results also showed that 88.9% of people stated that they thought “veggie” should mean vegetarian rather than vegan, which is pretty conclusive. This was supplementary information and not part of the vote as such, but the results speak for themselves and we’ve now updated our expense policy to only cover vegetarian foods.

I think this is a step forward in ensuring that our business resources are used as sustainably as possible. It’s also a stepping stone to encouraging more sustainable diets in general.

Rachael adminiring the artistic deserts at Redemption

Rachael admiring the amazing deserts at Redemption

Respecting choice

I feel like this is yet another positive step forward for us becoming a truly sustainable business, but I am also conscious of the fact that it is probably our most controversial sustainability policy ever introduced. I might think it’s crazy that in 2020 this is controversial, but I am acutely aware that it is.

Therefore, the new policy regarding vegetarian foods will be implemented on a goodwill basis. We will ask all team members to follow the policy, but we aren’t going to make an issue of it if someone puts in an expense claim for some non-veg food. What’s more, the policy does not apply to food that we buy for people outside of our company, such as any food or drink purchased for clients or partners. We don’t want anyone to feel stressed, hungry or out of pocket.

At the end of the day, food is a very personal choice and we want everyone in our team to be happy with what they put in their own bodies.

Beyond plants

To wrap up, I’d also like to acknowledge that sustainable food is not just about plant-based eating. There are many other factors that come into play and it’s important that over time, we all learn about food sustainability in a broader sense. Whenever buying food on business expense, we encourage everyone to also consider other factors, such as whether food is local, organic, and seasonal, not to mention healthy.

We’re all on this journey of learning and adapting together, and hopefully we can play our part in creating a society that enjoys delicious food in ways that are more healthy, more sustainable, and more humane. Hopefully this new policy is one small step in that direction.