Ethan Brown spent his career hoping to do something about climate change. He began his career focusing on sustainable energy, but came to understand that stopping climate change meant finding a way to divert the world’s demand for meat.

The meat industry is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. Moreover, the industry is an incredible drain on land and water resources. It has already grown to unsustainable proportions without accounting for the world’s growing population and increasing demand for animal protein. Meat-replacement products already existed, of course, but they were either unsatisfying in terms of quality, or unaffordable. Brown recognised this for the opportunity that it was, and decided to take on a market ripe for disruption.

Today, Brown’s company, Beyond Meat, is one of the world’s fastest-growing businesses. His products are sold in over 50 countries, and Brown himself has a net worth estimated at US$126 million. Moreover, his company has brought the world’s first realistic plant-based meat alternatives to market, realising his dream of building a more environmentally friendly food industry.

Early life and career

Brown began his career as an energy analyst for the National Governor’s Center for Best Practices. After his stint there, he worked his way up in a hydrogen fuel cell company, Ballard Power Systems, where he stayed for 8 years.

Brown’s priorities regarding both the environment, and animal welfare were clear from an early age. He grew up around livestock, and began to question the difference between the animals we eat, and those we keep as pets. As an adult, viewing the meat industry from a resource and energy standpoint as well as a personal one, it was obvious to him that livestock was a global problem that needed to be solved.

Making activism palatable to the masses

Brown knew—and frequently stresses—that it’s both wrong and ineffective to try to tell a customer what they should and shouldn’t eat. Rather, a business is best built by giving the customer exactly what they want, improving it and possibly, eventually, cheaper. However, Brown didn’t accept that what we experience as meat has to come from animals.

Meat contains amino acids, fats, trace minerals and water. All of these things can be found in plants, and there’s no reason to think that an animal can turn those things into meat more efficiently than we could. Knowing this, Brown founded Beyond Meat in 2009 to create a better meat, not just another unsatisfying meat substitute. Ten years later the company would be valued at US$3.8 billion on the day of its IPO.

Designing a better meat

Originally, Brown considered getting involved in lab-grown meats, however discarded the idea because it didn’t appear to be commercially viable. Instead, he focused on using plant proteins to create products that delivered the look, feel, and taste of various meats. Processed into burger patties, chicken-less strips, and sausages, these were relatively easy to create compared to the taste and texture of a traditional steak. This allowed Brown to go to market relatively quickly, helping the still-small business to grow and to attract attention. In 2013, it was named Company of the Year by PETA, and 3 years later Tyson Foods, which controls much of the US meat industry, purchased a 5 per cent stake in the company.

In 2018, Beyond Meat began to partner with restaurants, quickly leading it to offer its products internationally, and driving enormous growth. In just a year, the company went from $33 million in revenues in 2017, to $87.9 million in 2018. 2019’s revenue growth is expected to be even more dramatic, considering that the company earned $92 million in the third quarter alone.

What we can learn

Beyond Meat shows us how even highly optimised, low-margin industries like the meat industry can be disrupted. By being willing to rethink what meat is, and justifying that new perspective with convincing products, Brown has been able to build a plant-based meat empire.

Ethan Brown launched his company based on his personal ideology, but also backed by economic forces. Demand for realistic meat-alternatives is high, even among many non-vegetarians. This allowed Brown to compete against the traditional meat industry for customers. Moreover, Beyond Meat’s products are plant-based, so they’re also much more efficient to make, allowing them to compete against much larger businesses that benefit from economies of scale.

Compared to a similar amount of beef, a Beyond Meat burger generates 90 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46 per cent less energy, and 93 per cent less land to produce while using less than one per cent of the water. This makes their products vastly more resource-efficient, and presents an opportunity to innovate and eventually reduce production costs. Brown gave customers what they wanted in an entirely new, unconventional—and much more efficient—way.