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How we can reduce our meat intake and help tackle climate change

James Payne of brand purpose consultancy Given London says we must reduce our intake of beef and lamb to help combat the effects of climate change.

There is a rallying cry from environmentalists and global research organisations around the need to drastically reduce the amount of beef and lamb which is produced globally for the world’s richest countries.

Last month, a report published by the Government’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said the number of sheep and cattle in the UK should be reduced by a fifth, and last week the World Resources Institute (WRI) made clear that cutting beef and lamb consumption was required to both prevent ‘catastrophic climate change’ and meet a need to feed 10 billion people by 2050. The main protagonists identified as central to driving change in this area include both farmers, government and the diets of the world’s wealthiest nations, but who should lead this?

In today’s global marketplace supply-side solutions are challenging, if not impossible. Restricting beef and lamb production in the UK for example, will ultimately make little difference to the global environment, if it just means that Brazil ends up cutting down rainforest to create more beef farmed for UK export. Because of this, true change should start with altering consumer behaviour to reduce demand globally, particularly when it comes to what we choose to eat.

This hierarchy of consumer-first change can be seen in the success of other environmental campaigns, albeit targeting separate resources and issues. The reduction of single-use plastic bags picked up pace after the introduction of the plastic bag tax in the UK which targeted consumers directly. Its effectiveness at driving behaviour change is what has now encouraged the latest doubling of the tax in every shop. WildAid’s campaign against killing sharks for fins used in soup mobilised Chinese celebrities to advocate against their consumption direct to consumers.

The organisation used a mixture of consumer-facing messaging, from publicising the dangerously high levels of heavy metals in fins, to arguing the shark’s important but threatened role in marine biodiversity. The campaign resulted in a 70 percent decline in sales of shark fins during the 2013 Spring Festival period. And, in a recent drive by Anglian Water to reduce water wastage, the brand focused on changing the habits and attitudes of its consumers. A mixture of education, messaging about money saving and community engagement were used with consumers to encourage change around how water was used and viewed. As a result, water consumption dropped by almost 10% across 20,000 households in Newmarket, the pilot town for Anglian Water’s ‘Smarter Drop’ campaign.

If consumers must be the lead protagonists in the reduction of beef and lamb production in the UK and across the world, what are the specific actionable ways which will inspire their behaviour change, and are there any specific principles behind this? At Given we often use Fogg’s Behaviour Model to explore the options that exist in encouraging behaviour change.

Fogg suggests that a behaviour will change when the combination of motivation to start a new behaviour and ease of doing so are both triggered. A behaviour that’s easy to do may not need much motivation for a trigger to succeed, while a highly motivated consumer may be successfully triggered despite the new behaviour being more difficult. However, the three principles of motivation, ease of change and a trigger all play an integral role.

Here is an explanatory breakdown of each principle and how they could work to change consumer behaviour in this particular issue:


  • How can people be motivated to embrace alternatives to beef and lamb consumption? Our view is that this shouldn’t be led with ‘information’ or rational environmental messaging. Motivation is more often led by emotion rather that rationality, and food, in particular, is about sensory pleasure and enjoyment. How can the alternatives to beef and lamb be presented in an indulgent and desirable way? Thug Kitchen have been incredibly successful at reframing healthy plant-rich food through entertaining and surprising, expletive-rich copy.
  • There can be a role for more explicit environmental messaging that shifts social norms around beef and lamb consumption – if it is delivered in an emotive and compelling way as can be seen by the popularity of recent documentaries such as ‘Cowspiracy and Carnage’. The Greenpeace/ Iceland Rang-tan film against palm oil is another good example of how brands can shift behaviour away from consumption of a specific ingredient using messaging framed in a powerful way.


  • Retail businesses have huge control of what proteins are available to consumers and whether incredibly clever and tasty beef alternatives like the ‘Impossible Burger’ are easily available for people to buy or not. ‘Bleeding’ plant-based burgers are now available in both Iceland and Tesco, products like these encourage consumers to re-evaluate the meat alternatives category.
  • The recognisability of these alternatives can also help drive behaviour change as disguising meat-free options in a form that mimics consumers’ existing food choices makes them even more accessible. By minimising the disruption around making a new choice, the ease of change is greatly enhanced.


  • If a consumer has the motivation, and it’s easy enough to achieve, all that’s needed is a prompt to translate this into action.
  • Retailers and food-service businesses can do more to drive this trigger to better choices in-store or on-menu. Placing alternatives next to beef and lamb options where they normally appear can make choosing something different easier, rather than separating them off within a separate area where they remain unnoticed with no visual triggers to inspire choice.

James Payne is Consultancy Director at Given London, a brand purpose agency that helps businesses grow by doing good.

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