Unilever buys Vegetarian Butcher to make more money. That’s not a problem, but a good thing.

When Big Food companies get into the vegan market, they don’t do it for the animals or even the environment, but primarily to make money for their shareholders. Is that a problem?

The reason for asking this question is that Unilever just bought Dutch plant-based company The Vegetarian Butcher. In the online discussions that inevitably follow such news, the comment about idealism versus money-making is among the most read and liked critical arguments. Many vegans and fans of smaller companies are critical of the acquisition, believing the Vegetarian Butcher has “sold out”, and that ideals lost from – or had to make way for – profit.

Jaap Korteweg, founder of The Vegetarian Butcher

Being a good person
I find these discussions fascinating, because I’m fascinated with some of the philosophical issues that are implied in it. This is about the difference between intentions and results, and ultimately about what it means to be a good person, or live an ethical life. Is a good person someone who has every intention to do the right thing (but whose attempts may have little results)? Is it someone who has great results for other beings, but who doesn’t necessarily have the right intentions? Is it both? or Neither?

Intentions versus results
While I – as an eternal doubter and questioner – think that the answers to these questions are not entirely obvious, it seems that within idealistic movements (like the animal rights/vegan movement) – and judging from endless comments on social media – the answer is clear to many: intentions often seem to be more important than results. If you do something for the right reasons (because you want to help animals, for instance), that seems, for many, to be more important than actually having results – especially if those results are achieved for the “wrong” reasons (profit). A less strong way to put this may be that, in the eyes of many, good results become less valuable, or somehow “tainted”, when they were achieved with less than optimal intentions.

Now let’s look at the Unilever-acquires-Vegetarian-Butcher case.

Ideals versus money
Let’s assume that the Vegetarian Butcher’s first priority (their first intention) is to reduce the consumption of animal products, in order to alleviate animal suffering.
Let’s also assume that Unilever’s first priority is to make money for their shareholders. I think these are two assumptions that are quite safe to make, and they leave room for the fact that the Vegetarian Butcher also would like to make some money and that there are people at Unilever who also have certain values and care about e.g. sustainability (the company’s leadership has expressed high ambitions in this field (1)). But let’s just make abstraction of that right now, so that we only look at the noble intention of the VB and the more mundane intention of Unilever.

Now here’s a question: what do these two different priorities tell us about actual results with regard to reducing animal suffering? (the topic that will interest readers of this blog the most) Does a company who wants to reduce animal suffering, actually and necessarily reduce animal suffering more than a company whose first priority is to make money?

At first sight, that seems to some extent logical. If my priority is to help animals, I will not harm animals when harming animals is profitable. If my priority is to make money, I might do so even if that harms animals. Unilever obviously sells a lot of non-vegan products, which harm animals (just as they, like most companies, sell products that contain ingredients that may harm humans).

However when one can make money by saving animals (and this is the first time that the two priorities actually start coinciding) things may look very different. Unilever bought the Vegetarian Butcher because they can see that there is a growing demand for veg*n products. By selling more of these products, Unilever increases their bottom line: profit. BUT they also, at the same time, help animals by selling these products even if that is not their intention or bottom line.

In a case like this, it might be a good idea for vegans to get out of the way, and let companies like Unilever make money, even though that is not the objective or intention that vegans would like other people to have.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons
Insisting on others having the right intentions is not very productive for several reasons. A first one is that it is a waste of energy. Of course you can try to educate people – and we should! – but when people’s heart isn’t changed fast enough, and they can do good things for other reasons, let’s not waste too much time in convincing them that they should have other intentions than they have. Here is social activist Saul Alinsky in his book Rules for radicals. A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals (recommended reading!)

“With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that people do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason – therefore, he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals.”

The second reason why insisting on the right intentions is not productive, is that it may lead to… lower results (in the domain that we are interested in: reducing animal suffering).

What does a cow want?
Let’s look at this from the position of one of the real steakholders: a cow. Let’s suppose this cow can decide who she (together with all farmed animals) will give support to. She’s approached by two people: a highly idealistic vegan, who has set up a nice, small vegan business. And the CEO of a huge company, who wants to make a lot of money for his shareholders by selling alternatives to animal products.

Who is our cow going to trust most to make the biggest difference?

If I were the cow, I wouldn’t care why the CEO does what he does, and I’d invest in them, rather than in the idealist vegan small-time entrepreneur. Because I know the chances of impact would be a lot bigger.

You might say I’m creating a false dichotomy here, and to some extent you’d be right. It is possible to combine impact and idealism (although I wonder if for some people big might be inherently bad – see below). Let me tell you who I would trust most of all: I’d trust a person who’s highly motivated to make the world better for animals, but who is very aware of the importance of scaling his business. Hence, this person will know the importance of raising money, and they will know that not all the money that they raise will come from people who want to make the world better for animals. It will also come from people who want to… make more money. This is the situation the Vegetarian Butcher, who has the laudable ambition to be the biggest butcher in the world, finds itself in. There is a limit to what it can reach on its own, or at least, growth will go much faster with much more capital.

Increased impact with Unilever
The Vegetarian Butcher chose to be acquired by Unilever to realize its ambition, and I think that was a good call.

Here are some concrete arguments for why the impact of the Vegetarian Butcher might grow tremendously when they are a part of Unilever, and hence why our cow – and vegans – should get out of the way, and stop fretting over good intentions:

  1. Big companies have more money for advertising and will be able to sell their product to more people.
  2. Big companies have more money for research and development, and, together with their huge expertise (another asset) can make the acquired product better still in all the relevant ways.
  3. Big companies have lots of contracts and long standing relationships with retailers (supermarkets, big catering companies, etc), and can thus reach a lot more people. Unilever is networked in 190 countries.
  4. As soon as they have invested in plant-based products themselves, big companies will have less reason to antagonise or sabotage vegan growth. In the end, the only companies left sabotaging will be the ones that don’t have any share of the plant-based pie.
  5. The work of the Vegetarian Butcher goes on, but now, the people behind it have a lot of money (and time?) on their hands. Maybe they’ll use that to start another big project. Basically, founder Jaap Korteweg has partly made himself redundant for his company, so that he’s freed up to do other projects that maybe no one else would take on (but if he just wants to retire, I won’t blame him. He’s done a great tour of duty for the animals).

Systemic change
Not in every case is the main problem for the critics Unilever’s lack of idealism. There are lots of other concerns. Some fear the Vegetarian Butcher products’ quality will go down or that their reputation will be damaged. Some accept the acquisition by a Big Food company but… Unilever, really?
There is one other concern that keeps popping up in these situations, which I’ll briefly get into now but may do more extensively in another post: that more capitalism is not the solution, that this is not the systemic change that we (or some of us) want, and that all of this may solve one problem (reducing animal suffering) but create or increase other problems.

I agree with the aspiration to not solve or alleviate problems by creating or increasing other problems. If we help a group of individuals, or the environment by doing stuff that makes things worse for others, then that is not the ideal solution. But again, we’ve bumped into the issue of idealism.

What we have is a horrible system with many issues: call it the animal industry, or factory farming, whatever. This system creates massive environmental, animal welfare, public health and social justice problems. Is it fair to expect of alternatives to score better in all these fields at the same time? Does a plant-based company, brand or product line have to do better than animal products in terms of not just animal welfare but also environment, health, social justice?

To some extent, this is a matter of priorities. Avoiding extreme suffering is my own priority. Farmed animals unfortunately score extremely well in that field, so helping them should be, I think, quite high on the list. When big multinational companies create certain problems – like putting small companies out of business (think of Amazon) that can and should certainly be looked into and where necessary tackled, but the graveness of this problem should be compared with the graveness of the problem that is being addressed (animal suffering). In my view, making huge headway in terms of reducing extreme animal suffering is a bigger good than the disappearance of small, local businesses. To some extent this is an empirical question, and it’s possible that if one aggregates all the bad consequences of big multinationals, one would come to a different conclusion. Fact is, I do not think we should wait for ideal solutions or only support ideal solutions that solve all problems.

Is small beautiful?
Sometimes I have the impression that one of the characteristics of initiatives or ventures that are routinely praised for their systems-changing approach is that they are… small. Think about local initiatives, cozy social experiments with neighbors to improve the community, local farms… I can see their charm as well as their usefulness, but often they seem so small and unscalable to me. And also, conversely, I wonder: would these initiatives still be praised by anti-capitalists if they got a lot bigger? Scaling often means making some compromises and straying a little bit from the ideals. Conversely, if you want to stay really true to your ideals, it seems safest to stay small (and have less impact). It seems almost, then, as if being small is a necessary aspect of getting some people’s admiration or consent. It seems that for many, small and pure is better than big and compromising, no matter what the impact.

Again I’m sure some readers will think that I’m painting a false dichotomy here. Maybe they are right, but so far this is the impression I get.
To become the biggest butcher in the world is probably not something that can be done without big money, big investors, the help of big companies. However, more importantly, even if it could be done without that, would the a company that was the biggest in the world at anything be able to gain the praise of people with an anti-capitalist mindset?
To me, scale is not inherently bad, just like being small is not necessarily charming or noble. Sure, there are potential risks in being big, and being big may have – and at present usually has – serious detrimental effects. But we need to consider whether these effects are 1. unavoidable and 2. maybe worth it compared to the positive impact that is being created.

To many, the above will be enough for some to paint me squarely in the capitalist corner, so let me finish by saying that I’m with anti-capitalists in hoping that someday we can replace this system by something much better, even though I don’t know yet what exactly that would look like.

Some points to summarize

  1. Different people and different companies can obviously have very different priorities and intentions.
  2. This is not a black or white thing. Most companies need to make money for their investors or shareholders, but that doesn’t prevent them from caring about things other than money.
  3. Good intentions are neither necessary nor sufficient to have great results
  4. Bad intentions may be good enough
  5. The fact that today one can make money – and that many people want to make money – thanks to the plant based revolution is a great thing, not a sad thing.
  6. Though we should not choose for solutions that make matters worse for other issues, if you wait for ideal solutions that have an answer to every issue, you can wait a long time.

(1) How sustainable exactly Unilever is or wants to be is of course a thorny question. You can read about some of Unilever’s ambitions here and then see them criticized here.

One thought on “Unilever buys Vegetarian Butcher to make more money. That’s not a problem, but a good thing.

  1. Ideals matter because they impact action and incentives. Large businesses are buying into plant-based protein as a way to hedge or diversify and as such aren’t invested in their success like a start-up created by idealist founders. For the large businesses success in plant-based protein is going to come with loses in other areas they’ve made investors….more than likely greater loss. The investments being made by these large businesses are very mirror are just a sort of “just in case” hedge.

    In other words, one shouldn’t expect large businesses to put much of their marketing power and resources into promoting plant-based proteins because there is little net gain in it from them. Increased sales for plant-based protein will come with lost sales in their traditional lines. So the loss of idealistic founders in plant-based protein companies is likely to have negative consequences in terms of the growth of such products overtime.

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