Did you hear about the fire in the vegan cheese company? The cheese didn’t melt!
So goes a running joke about vegan cheeses. A few years ago, the Vancouver based company Daiya Foods changed all that, and was the first to bring to market a cheese that actually, seriously melted.
But then this week came… the Daiya Drama! Daiya foods announced they were being acquired by the Japanese company Otsuka. Otsuka is not just a big pharmaceutical company (to many that is bad enough in itself) but it also, as all pharmaceutical companies still do, tests on animals. The result is that many vegans are angry, state they will boycott Daiya, consider Daiya products no longer vegan, and call out the Daiya people for being hypocrites that are just in it for the money.
I’ve been combing through some Facebook threads, trying to get a feel of the arguments used against Daiya and its acquisitition, and in this post I’ll take a quick look at why deals like these are not bad. I’ll also give some ideas about better communication in circumstances like these. It goes without saying that I dislike animal testing as much as the next vegan, and would love to have it be a thing of the past as soon as possible.
Facts first. What do we have to go by?
In a video that they posted on their Facebook page recently, the two Daiya founders say that they always wanted Daiya to be a global leader in the plant-based food scene. For that, they realized, they needed a partner. In Otsuka, they found a company “whose fundamental values align well with Daiya”. The partnership, according to the founders in the video “will ultimately enable more consumers around the world to enjoy a plant-based lifestyle”. Daiya will remain an independent subsidiary. Otsuka does indeed do animal testing – you can check this statement on their website.
So, Daiya will keep operating autonomously, but is now owned by a pharmaceutical company that does a certain amount of animal testing of a certain kind. That’s what we know. How bad is that?
Very bad, if many of the comments are anything to go by, or if we look at the petition signed by over four thousand people. The sense that I get is that people feel betrayed. The petition talks about “a stunning blow to the people who thought Daiya’s values did not include animal testing.” Apparently, to Daiya’s present detractors, it seems that while they thought Daiya was in it for all the right reasons, they now feel that Daiya sold out, for reasons of greed. I’ll get back to this.
What can be achieved by a boycott?
A boycott is usually meant to exert pressure on a company. Sometimes, boycotts work and companies or governments do change under pressure (particularly if there’s a lot of media attention involved). Often, however, a boycott is symbolic: there is no realistic expectation that a company will actually change, but boycotting the company gives the boycotters a clearer conscience. I think in this case, there is little to no chance that a small group of vegans could help reverse the sale. Nor is there much chance that the Daiya founders can exert pressure on Otsuka to stop testing on animals – if they want to keep bringing new drugs to the market, it’s something they are obligated to do, unfortunately.
Moreover, even if the Daiya sale could be reversed, or if Daiya would be bought by an unproblematic company, as far as I can see, this would not result in any more or less animals being killed or tested on. Daiya’s hands, in the eyes of some, might be less dirty, but would Otsuka do any less animal testing? Not that I can see. The idea that Daiya sales would actually contribute to animal suffering seems far-fetched to me.
Benefits of big business buy-ins
The Daiya founders’ stated motivation is that they hope Otsuka’s acquisition of Daiya will enable the company to reach more people and help them to follow a plant-based lifestyle. Let’s just take this claim at face value, for now. Is it absurd? Of course, not.
I’ve written before about the advantages of big business getting into plant-based (see Beyond Meat and Tyson and here), and I’ll only summarize them briefly here. Big companies have a lot more means at their disposal than small companies. They have bigger and wider distribution channels and a bigger customer base. With their money, they can obviously increase advertising and expose more and more people to Daiya, or any vegan product. They can boost R&D; so, new products can be developed and old ones can be made even better. Last but not least: once a company stands to win from the sales of plant-based products, it is logical to assume that their antagonism to veganism/plant-based alternatives will decrease.
Playing the definition game
A part of the vegan community jealously guards the definition of vegan products and veganism (the initiator of the petition is called “keeping veganism vegan”). Are Daiya products still vegan? To me, this is a boring question, but let’s see. It is possible to define “vegan” so strictly that we rule out almost anything. It is reasonable to say that a requirement for a product to be vegan is that it doesn’t contain any animal ingredients. I’m comfortable enough with this, as a definition.
A step further is to say that no animals may have been harmed in the making of a product. This still makes sense, but the question here is: :how far do you go? In this case, the parent company performs some obligatory animal experiments (note that we don’t know which kind of experiments – not all experiments cause the same kind of suffering, obviously). Does this exclude Daiya products from being vegan? And if one boycotts Daiya for this reason, shouldn’t one also boycott any business that sells vegan products but also profits to some extent from some kind of animal (ab)use? Non-vegan supermarkets would, it seems to me, be out of the question, under this definition. As would any non-vegan restaurant. And, forget about consuming any great vegan product from a company that also produces anything non-vegan.
Just to be sure, I wrote to Vegan Action, which certifies Daiya and other many products as vegan, to ask them their opinion. This is the answer I received:
“We do indeed still consider Daiya vegan. The product line/brand is all vegan – does not contain any animal products and is not tested on animals. That’s the criteria we use. If we didn’t allow companies that are owned by parent companies to apply for and use the Certified Vegan Logo, there wouldn’t be any Certified Vegan products!”
Pushing it that far seems irrational and impractical. What’s going on here, I think, is a case of disillusionment and thwarted expectations: people expected Daiya to be a vegan company (rightly or wrongly). We thought they were one of us, and now we feel betrayed. And, we double down on betrayers! They are black sheep. While most of us have no qualms shopping in a non-vegan supermarket, we may not shop in a once vegan supermarket that introduced animal products all of a sudden. Likewise, we may dislike an ex-vegan much more than someone who was never vegan at all. Thwarted expectations. Human, but not entirely rational.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the communication on this issue. Most people (I’m not exempting myself) suck at communication. Vegans and others who are part of and very passionate about an ideology may be even worse than average. We get very, very sure of ourselves. That sometimes prevents us from thinking. Or, it makes us believe that we have all the answers already, that we’re the good guys and the other ones have made mistakes. And, that they can be chastised for those mistakes. It’s the problem with the world, kind of.
Here are a few things we can do to communicate better:
Practise slow opinion
Social media push us to react very quickly. Before we respond, we could ask ourselves questions, try to take the perspective of the other party, wonder if we have all the information that we need. We can think deeper and longer about things than we usually do. Fast opinion often doesn’t create any meaningful addition to a discussion, and only adds to anger and hate. We have enough of that, and if we want to change the way we interact with others, we need to step on the brakes, take a breath, and think again. I’ve written more on slow opinion here.
Remember that none of us is a mind-reader
So many people in their comments stated that the Daiya founders sold their company because they were greedy. Presumably these vegans are mind-readers, for how else could they claim to know the founders’ true intentions behind the sale? If we doubt their stated intentions, are we sure enough that we are right, so that we can utter these kind of horrible accusations?
Moreover, say the Daiya founders’ motivation to sell the company is financial. Do we know what they plan to do with the money? Maybe they’ll use it to invest in another great plant based company? Maybe they want to make significant donations? The thing is, we can’t know.
In general, there is a lot of cynicism going around about the corporate world (politicians and celebrities are another easy target of that kind of cynicism). Especially if our opinion might be wrong, it is very delicate to call others traitors or sell-outs or whatever. The Daiya founders are people too, as are all the Daiya staff. It is undoubtedly not pleasant to read all the sh#t that people write about them. And, it’s not motivating, but rather it might alienate them from the vegan movement. A good rule on social media is not to write something about someone that you wouldn’t say to them face to face. So often, we forget about the humans behind the social media conversations.
I think the fact that big companies want to acquire plant-based companies is a terrific sign. I do believe a partnership with a big company can indeed help Daiya to reach more people. Is this the founders’ real motivation? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Is this an ideal partnership? Probably not, but it’s not an ideal world either. This is what success will look like. It will not proceed along a road of purity, but it may be a bit messy and mixed at times. We’d better get used to it.
I’m not saying companies should be beyond reproach just because they offer great vegan products. As consumers, we’re definitely allowed to remain critical. Maybe Otsuka and Daiya will prove me naive at some point in the future. Till then, I’ll try to be open and rational rather than cynical, and I’ll try to have some faith in people, including those in the corporate world.
Want to read more about how our movement can deal with the business world? Check out my new book How to Create a Vegan World.