Google is using data to nudge its employees towards a less meaty diet

When it comes to climate change, there’s an elephant in the room at the various international climate change summits. Actually, one elephant would be less of a problem: it’s a herd of cattle. And those bovine are not just making the room quite unpleasant, their emissions are considerably more damaging to the planet than the car.

Google is using data to nudge its employees towards a less meaty diet

But it’s not just cow flatulence. Livestock as a whole contributes a whopping 15% of our annual carbon emissions – and that figure is only going upwards as more and more citizens in developing countries can afford to eat meat. International agreements can force companies towards greener methods and technology, but the buck ultimately stops with us meat-eating citizens. Individually we may be relatively powerless, but on a global scale it’s us who will decide the long-term health of the planet: and worse, we’re outsourcing the decision to the hugely unqualified stomach.

That’s a hell of a lot of pressure on a species with very little impulse control – and I say that as a meat-eater with very little impulse control. Just telling people to eat less meat doesn’t work, regardless of the health, welfare and environmental benefits. Meanwhile, alternatives like lab-grown meat and eating insects fail to get meat eaters salivating (with good reason in the case of the latter).

Google has spotted that, and taken a different approach: what if we could make a vegan dish that’s so delicious, people vote with their wallets and abandoned meat on their own accord?

Basically, we want a plant-based rival to the cheeseburger. Never let it be said that Google doesn’t enjoy a challenge.

The hunt for the non-killer dish


Fast Company has the story of how Google is setting about this, and in true Google fashion, it’s led by data. The guinea pigs are Google’s own staff on its Sunnyvale campus, where employees are treated to free lunches at one of 14 cafes serving up a variety of grub.

While it would be nice if every employee abandoned meat entirely, that’s not the goal in mind: even consuming less meat is a bonus, as Scott Giambastiani, Google’s global food program chef and operations manager told Fast Company: ”It might be completely vegetarian, or it might be what we call a flipped product, where you’re eating 20% or 30% less of the animal protein.” A burger, for example, might be blended with mushrooms – but the ingredients are taste led: the mushrooms absorb the flavour, making it a more pleasing meal in its own right, while also using less beef.

The article explains all kinds of tricks the company uses to improve employee and planetary health, from the order of items on the menu to the names each product is given. Google, with its company philosophy of constant testing and refinement, has found that its hungry workers are more likely to order a dish that highlights unusual ingredients, cooking methods or country of origin, or one that plays to nostalgia with personal stories.

When all the elements come together, it pays off beautifully. One of the most successful dishes is a vegan taco – or rather, a delicious taco that also happens to be vegan. This particular dish – a tortilla made from quinoa and broccoli, filled with kimchi and Korean-spiced mushrooms, topped with avocado-cashew cream – went through a stunning number of rebrands to ensure enough sceptical diners would give it a try and love it. It started out life as a simple “mushroom taco” before getting a little more specific with the “oyster mushroom taco” tag. It then became the “Korean spiced maitake taco” before finally settling on “spicy multi-nut maitake taco and quinoa tortilla.”google_is_using_data_to_nudge_its_employees_towards_a_less_meaty_diet_-_1

“When they look at that title, if it says vegan, I’m running for the hills,” Giambastiani told Fast Company. “I love vegan, but I don’t want to see it on the menu. I want you to deliver an experience in what I’m about to eat and something that’s exciting. So it needs to look good, taste good, and it needs to sound good on the menu.”

Apparently, this approach works – and while it hasn’t eradicated meat from the Google menu, that was never really the intention. Googlers are apparently 71% more likely to eat healthily at work than outside of it, and nudges like these make all the difference. If the restaurant industry multilaterally followed suit, we might just be able to get back to blaming international governments for the climate mess we find ourselves in.

To read the full feature – including some wonderful photographs of the vegan taco – visit the Fast Company website.

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