If only vegetarian expenses are allowed at work, where does that leave meat eaters?

Meat-free expense policies are gaining traction but remain a controversial decision for businesses

Should employees be banned from expensing meals which contain meat? It’s a step that has already been taken by one UK property development firm, which only permits employees to claim vegetarian dishes as subsistence.

Manchester-based Igloo Regeneration, which decided in December 2019 to become a "vegetarian company", says its goal is to reduce the environmental impact of the meat industry. It also encourages employees to use trains and does not provide company cars. Its policy means that all catering, corporate entertaining and staff food expenses will only be paid for by the company if the meals are meat-free (Igloo considered a vegan approach, but deemed it too restrictive). 

"We're not checking the bins," Igloo's director John Long told the BBC, but he admitted that "a lot of people thought it was challenging when we first talked about it." The firm maintains the decision is "reflective of the company purpose to do well by doing good for people, place and planet."

So, is this an example of cost-cutting corporate "greenwashing", or a move that should be adopted by more businesses?In Igloo's case, the company – a "responsible" real estate firm with sustainable investment principles – put the proposed initiative to a staff vote, which passed despite a few dissenters.

Last year, students at Goldsmiths voted to became the first university to remove beef from its menus as part of efforts to become carbon neutral by 2025, and last month, students at the London School of Economics voted to follow suit. Virgin Atlantic, meanwhile, has been quietly removing beef from its in-flight menus for the past few years.

It’s a worthy cause – The Telegraph's science editor Sarah Knapton warns that global warming "could turn out to be the most devastating consequence of human progress", and avoiding meat and dairy is the "single biggest way" to reduce our impact on the planet according to one study published in the journal Science. The total carbon footprint of one beef roast dinner meal alone emits 27210.95 grams of CO2, according to research by Viessmann.

But should students or staff be judged – or financially penalised – for continuing to eat meat? 

"If you decided you really wanted a bacon sandwich, then that's fine, but the company won't pay for it," says Kate Marfleet, head of Igloo's values team, of the company's "self-policing" policy. Now that the business has declared itself vegetarian, future employees at least are forewarned. Likewise anyone trying out for the world’s first 100 per cent vegan football club, the League Two side Forest Green Rovers (dubbed "the greenest club in the world"), would know the drill, as do its supporters (vegan pizzas and fajitas instead of burgers and chips at the ground, for example).

Kirsty Rogers, employment partner at DWF employment lawyers, believes the Igloo policy is sound. "Making a change of this nature, having consulted the staff first, seems like an appropriate and modern way of engaging employees to make a positive impact on a business's environmental footprint.

"Vegetarian constraints are satisfactory, provided that there is a reasonable degree of flexibility to the policy; it should allow for discretion and variances where there are dietary and medical requirements."

Where should businesses should draw the line when advocating different lifestyle choices? Credit: Getty

Others may disagree. As one vegetarian colleague of mine asks, is this really the way to win hearts and minds? Might such a dictatorial stance polarise the discussion around sustainable food choices and make vegetarians seem militant in the eyes of committed omnivores?

Helen Jamieson, the founder and managing director of human resources consultants Jaluch HR, has concerns. "Woke behaviour like this is increasingly excluding, rather than including. It's 'either you’re with us or against us'." 

An anti-meat policy was introduced by the co-working company WeWork in July 2018 (no red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and no reimbursement for non-vegetarian meal expenses). The firm, which announced the new approach in a memo to staff, cites environmental reasons for ditching meat from its budgets – but this does not extend to events held by members who use their office spaces. 

At the time, WeWork estimated that it would save 445.1m pounds of CO2 emissions by 2023 – impressive if so – but the move was described as "an ideological crusade" and "every libertarian's nightmare" by the New York Times. The UK's TUC trade union body, meanwhile, said that employees "should not be left out of pocket if they choose to eat meat".

So can our bosses dictate what we can or can't eat? According to Jayne Harrison, head of Employment Law at Richard Nelson LLP, the practice of eating meat is not protected by UK law, meaning that any policy to reimburse just vegetarian food is not legally discriminatory against meat eaters.

"The rules toward ethical veganism differ," she told The Telegraph, however, "with an employment tribunal case suggesting ethical veganism should be protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, as it can be seen as a philosophical belief," she explains. So – ethical vegans can be discriminated against in the eyes of the law, but not so meat eaters. 

But Harrison also notes that "the company may be seen as imposing their corporate values onto their employees' personal lives, which could cause a backlash, as they begin to feel a loss of control. Employees do not like to feel like they are losing out from company changes – meaning regular meat eaters might protest against the ban on expensing meat dishes."

And then there's the issue of placing environmental responsibility on the shoulders of the staff. As one Twitter user comments, "there are bigger fish to fry regarding a company’s environmental impact. For example, flying employees across the world for meetings when the same job could be done via Skype."

Dr Tom Calvard, a senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Edinburgh Business School, sees the adoption of vegetarian-only expenses as "extreme" step. "Restricting meat and dairy budgets as a 'treat' would be more constructive and reasonable than removing them entirely.

"Furthermore, all foods have dramatically varying carbon footprints. A better overall approach to workplace dietary policy would be to inform employees about the environmental credentials of suppliers of all types of food and drink to the workplace, along with information about meat-free alternatives and healthy, varied diets.

"Introducing blunt measures in isolation without explanation and justification of the bigger picture risks perpetuating backlash and ignorance without enabling choice and persuasion."

It's one thing to challenge expense claims for First Class train tickets or Michelin-starred meals for client entertaining. But might companies start to clamp down on fast food in a bid to tackle obesity, or non-organic meals? I am all for opening up the conversation around sustainable food, and I'm in favour of more vegan and vegetarian options in workplace canteens. But better a carrot-not-stick approach – introducing Meat Free Monday initiatives, say, or offering discounts on coffees poured into reusable cups – than a blanket ban on claiming back the cost of a bacon sandwich scoffed in overtime hours. 

Do you think companies should place restrictions on what foods employees can expense? Tell us what you think in the comments below.