Clean Meat and Masculinity

My latest article, originally published on The Good Men Project.

What is Clean Meat?

One of the most revolutionary new product types in development right now must be clean meat. The term “clean meat” refers to the problem that the meat industry has an enormous impact upon the environment. The Worldwatch Institute claims that at least half of all human-caused greenhouse gases come from livestock. Similarly, the United Nations have urged people to move towards a low/no meat diet to help mitigate climate change.

Reducing meat consumption is therefore one of the easiest ways we can help the environment. It does not require buying an electric car or developing new clean energy technologies, and each and every one of us can do it simply by making different choices when we go to the supermarket. Easy, right? Apparently not. While the choice of “eat meat or save the world” might sound like a no-brainer, it seems to be a very difficult choice for people to make.

Enter clean meat or “cultured meat”, which is a way of producing meat in a laboratory by taking a small number of animal cells and replicating them. Clean meat has started gaining significant traction lately thanks in part to a recent investment by Bill Gates and Richard Branson in the clean meat company Memphis Meats. Clean meat opens up the possibility that people will no longer have to choose between eating meat and saving the world: they can do both, as clean meat promises to have a radically smaller impact upon the environment than the traditional meat industry.

The Problem of Masculinity

One challenge the clean meat industry is going to have to address is traditional masculinity. Indeed, traditional masculinity is something of a double whammy for clean meat.

The first problem is that meat is traditionally seen as a signifier for masculinity. A study in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity shows that men create elaborate justifications for eating meat that range from health through to religion, and that these justifications are related to perceptions surrounding masculinity.

The second problem is that traditional masculinity tends to be suspicious of environmental issues. A study in the journal Global Environmental Change shows that men rank disproportionately among climate change deniers, and another in Journal of Consumer Research shows that men find environmental issues “unmanly.”

Clearly, then, a product such as clean meat that relies on disrupting meat consumption through the justification of environmental protection is going to have to find a way to address the “problem” of traditional masculinity. Indeed, any product that appeals to environmental or “mindful” values—which really means the whole LOHAS sector—that are typically perceived as “feminine” needs to find a way of connecting with men. Without a compelling way to reach men, such products are left with a twofold-problem. First, they leave an enormous amount of money on the table. Second, they cannot really fulfil their world-changing mission if half the population remains disengaged.

A Juicy Opportunity

Most challenges also offer an opportunity. In general, brands need to think more creatively about how they address masculinity, not just in order to maximise market share, but to do their part in making the world a better place. Typically, when brands take on the issue of masculinity they do so in a somewhat belated fashion, reflecting patterns that have been happening in society for some time (potentially many years): this is better than nothing, but it’s not really something to be proud of. The clean meat industry has an opportunity to not just reflect changing patterns in society, but shape them.

The binding of traditional masculine identity and meat is still firm in society, even in progressive communities. Questions surrounding the complex relationship between traditional masculinity and the environment have barely been asked, even in the most obvious places such as university gender studies departments. These two intertwining issues that have such a profound impact upon the world could and should be championed by the clean meat industry, offering a commercial and social win-win.

There is probably no other combination of issues that remains so under-explored. If the clean meat industry took this on and got it right, it would become a shining example of business genuinely leading the way.