It’s hard to believe that a fast-food burger chain would actively set a target to reduce red meat consumption by its customers. After all, that generous meat patty smacked in the middle of two fresh buns is the reason why such restaurants exist, right? But Sweden’s beloved Max Burgers is doing just that, and sales across its 120 stores have never been better.
Max Burgers may not be well-known outside its Northern European base or its collection of growing stores in the Middle East, but it’s been quietly implementing a strategy over the last 10 years to reduce red meat consumption. Remarkably, the company is now chasing an ambitious target to increase purchase of non-red-meat meals to 50 percent of sales by 2022.
Setting this type of target might seem astonishing. But it looks like Max is on track to do so, with the company already hitting the 33 percent mark last year. It comes hot on the heels of the successful launch of its Green Family range in 2016. Featuring five vegetarian burgers, including a vegan option, it was the most successful product launch in the history of the company, driving a 10 percent increase in turnover.
Kaj Török, Chief Sustainability Officer for Max Burgers, explained in a recent interview that a number of factors contributed to the success of the Green Family: “Firstly, the campaign specifically reached out to flexitarian consumers rather than vegans or vegetarians, and this was very important. There was also a range of new products, not just one.”
The interest in plant-based proteins is on the rise globally, but especially across Europe. As Török pointed out: “It’s the vegetarian or flexitarian amongst the group that often makes the call on where to head out for dinner. We welcome these consumers because they are well-informed, have money, and help attract a new segment of burger eaters that have traditionally avoided quick-serve burger restaurants.”
But it’s not just about attracting customers. Back in 2006, Max Burgers made a commitment to tackle climate change. When the company researched its carbon footprint, however, meat patties represented the biggest part of the climate problem. That meant getting serious about red meat — which is why in 2008, the company introduced carbon footprinting on the menu and decided to offset its greenhouse gas emissions.
It was the Green Family launch, then — not the carbon footprint label — that provided the momentum for the sizable shift in consumer appetite away from red meat. And since the introduction of the Green Family, the company has been meeting its targets so quickly it’s had to revise its plant-based target several times.
More importantly, Török stressed, it will have a considerable impact on climate emissions: “Selling every second burger as a non-red meat option will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 percent, from 2015 levels.”
A 30 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2022 is an impressive goal. A review of other burger chains doesn’t show similar beefy target-setting, but for one big exception — McDonald’s recent commitment to a 36 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. To help reach that target, McDonald’s says activities around beef production will be prioritized. That’s likely to mean the meat you do eat at McDonald’s will have a lower climate footprint and be more sustainably produced in the future. It’s commendable action, and with McDonald’s purchase power it could lead to significant changes in global meat production. But there’s no mention of tackling the issue of the overall consumption of red meat.
As World Wildlife Fund Food Policy Manager Duncan Williamson explains: “From an environmental perspective, it’s absolutely critical we re-balance the food system. We need to produce meat better and eat less meat. It’s about eating more plant proteins and a more varied diet. Restaurants have a key role in leading this change through less meat and alternative options to meat that are delicious.”
Yet, for food providers whose business model centres around selling meat, such messages can be a hard thought to swallow. And while it’s becoming standard practice for burger restaurants to have vegetarian or vegan options on the menu, setting actual targets for meat reduction is a gutsy move for a 50-year-old quick-serve hamburger chain.
Setting such ambitious targets has required Max Burgers to think about ways to support consumers to make the switch from red to green: giving Green meal choices more prominence on self-service machines and showcasing them in popular monthly burger campaigns. According to Török, while these nudge-type activities are useful, it ultimately always comes down to taste: “Taste is everything. The goal is always to ensure that green burgers taste every bit as good as red meat burgers,” he emphasized.
So, how far does Max Burgers really believe it can shift the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for red meat?
“That’s a question for the future,” Török said. “I believe we will eat less but better red meat. It needs to be healthy, fair and produced with the lowest carbon footprint possible and under the best animal welfare conditions. We are always looking at ways to improve on that.”
Despite its progress, it’s clear that Max Burgers has big sustainability ambitions for the future. Török hinted at an exciting new announcement coming in mid-2018. What the next revelation will be could be anyone’s guess, but it’s this type of commitment to constant improvement that’s proving to be a win for the company, its customers and the climate.