World-traveling meat: The unintended consequences of sustainability

World-traveling meat: The unintended consequences of sustainability

A mounted jackalope head hung over the meat counter at the back of my town’s butcher shop when I was a kid. (For the uninitiated, that’s a mythical taxidermy creation that crowns a jackrabbit with deer antlers.) The beef this fierce creature guarded came from local cows that had lived primarily on grass and hay. For quite a while, grain-fattened beef has been more to America’s liking. But recently, as  local, natural and organic foods have gained popularity and distribution beyond small community outlets like that butcher shop, grass-fed beef is making a comeback.

But guess who’s raising  a growing chunk of Americans’ grass-fed beef? Australian farmers. It’s traveling around the world to us frozen.

So here’s a question: What do you do when one sustainable action or trend causes unintended, perhaps unsustainable, reactions?

The American Grassfed Association proclaims grass-fed beef healthy for people, animals, planet and community. Grass-fed cows certainly live in a more natural state than cows that are fattened up on a rich diet of corn – and are often confined to feedlots, rather than roaming in pastures.

Grass-fed cows take several years longer to reach full size (and thus ROI) than grain-fed ones. Feeding cattle grass only, with no additional grains (like corn), may seem intuitive, but it’s difficult in most regions of the U.S. without stockpiling plenty of hay for winter feeding. The costs associated with this, and for all the space grass feeding takes, make it harder for American grass-fed beef producers to compete against Australian imports, even if those imports have left carbon hoofprints across the globe.

There’s not a clear-cut guide to weighing the sustainability-related benefits of grass-fed beef against the issues of international transportation and refrigeration. (And, of course, there’s more complexity to the pros and the cons than we’ve talked about here.) While you likely have no power over the economics of imports and exports, you can be cognizant of the side effects generated by sustainable actions and trends that you support.

Here’s another, related sustainability conundrum: Biofuels (and the high need for animal feed corn) have driven up demand for corn and soy, giving landowners in the Western Corn Belt plenty of reason to convert their property from native grassland to corn and soybean farms. One study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences points out that today’s remaining grasslands are being converted to agricultural uses at rates that haven’t been seen since right before the Dust Bowl. The loss of grassland presents a critical conservation issue, and the study suggests that the good prices for corn and soy growers could be limiting the economic viability of other effective, beneficial types of biofuels.

As you develop and track your sustainability goals, you should consider side effects like these. The path toward sustainability can sometimes become a tunnel, and it’s easy to stop looking outside it once you’re headed in a good direction. Opening up the tunnel vision is beneficial for several reasons:

  • You could be an innovator in your industry: If there’s a more sustainable, more effective way of doing business or meeting goals, lead the way – even if the better path is the road less traveled.
  • You can ensure you are, in fact, benefiting people and the planet – not just your own sustainability story.
  • You won’t be caught unawares as savvy consumers, who desire transparency, become more aware of these conundrums (especially pertinent if you target a greener audience).

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Posted on

December 17, 2013

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insights

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Courtnay Hamachek

VP Operations

Courtnay oversees our day-to-day operations to keep us running smoothly and support our growth. She establishes project management systems and processes to help our teams anticipate bottlenecks, prevent process issues, and keep projects on time and on target. Courtnay has built extensive experience over 25 years in all aspects of marketing, from account services and project management to design and production.

Aaron Crecy

Digital Marketing Director

Aaron is responsible for planning, executing and measuring digital marketing strategies for Shelton Group and our clients, with an emphasis on inbound, content, SEO, social media, email and paid initiatives. He constantly researches and explores new tactics and strategies to improve digital campaign performance and results.

Aaron brings to the table more than 20 years of marketing leadership experience with premium consumer-facing brands. He came to Shelton Group by way of Malibu Boats, where, as Director of Global Marketing, he oversaw strategic marketing planning and execution for multiple product lines, with specific emphasis on social media and digital. Prior to that, he served as CMO for a leading daily fantasy sports operator, guiding it from startup to the industry’s third-ranked site.

Scot Case

Senior Consultant

A sustainability strategy consultant since 1993, Scot has served as non-profit leader, as a partner in an environmental marketing firm that he grew and sold, and as an executive in a multi-billion-dollar, international company. He has published dozens of articles and case studies, was co-author of the original “Sins of Greenwashing” study, testified before Congress, and been quoted on NPR, Good Morning America, CNN, The New York Times, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal. Scot was also highlighted in an Emmy award-winning documentary on sustainable purchasing.

Casey Ward

VP Account Services

Casey manages our relationships, growth and development with a specific group of clients that includes Environmental Defense Fund, Cotton LEADS and CertainTeed Insulation. She provides leadership and support for the account team members who manage the day-to-day processes for these clients. She contributes to strategic direction for each client and guides our creative efforts to ensure everything we do builds toward meeting – or exceeding – the client’s goals. Her ability to simultaneously see the big picture and pay close attention to the details helps her champion her clients’ needs and identify new growth opportunities for them.