In recent days it has come to light that Hampton Creek, the maker of Just Mayo and Just Cookies, produces one cookie with white chocolate chips, which contain milk powder. As could be expected, many vegans expressed their disappointment on Hampton Creek’s social media channels, sometimes gracefully, sometimes less so.
Hampton Creek’s mayo, dressings, cookie dough, and all but this one cookie in their food service range, are vegan. In the short time since it was founded, the company has been incredibly successful. It was able to raise almost one hundred million dollars of venture capital from Bill Gates and other big shots, allowing them to put together a dream team and invest a lot in research and communication. But Hampton Creek also helped demonstrate that a plant-based future is interesting to invest in. And they have helped further normalize plant-based eating with the enormous media attention they have garnered. More concretely, however, their products are now helping to make a vegan diet easier for everyone, and are being used by big food service providers in the US. And while they were at this, they have inadvertently stimulated Unilever to create their own vegan mayo. Talk about results!
So what exactly is the shit-storm about? Some time ago, Hampton Creek signed a contract with the nation’s largest food service provider, the Compass Group. Hampton Creek would supply Compass with plant-based alternatives for their range of (non-vegan) cookies. Apparently Hampton Creek was, so far, not able to find vegan white chocolate chips that met with Compass’ approval. According to Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, it was a package deal: either HC supplied five vegan cookies and the one almost vegan macadamia cookie, or they wouldn’t get the contract and thus have no impact for the animals at all. So HC decided to move forward, and supply Compass with their imperfect offering, while working on finding or developing suitable vegan white chocolate chips.
Many of the commenting vegans demonstrate incredulity at Hampton Creek’s inability to find or develop suitable white chocolate chips. I’m giving HC the benefit of the doubt, and am assuming that creating even one non-vegan product is not something that they would do without good reason, because they must know it creates confusion. So I’m assuming that time or other factors were of the essence and that they were afraid of losing the contract – in which case, again, they would have had no impact for the animals at all.
Should Hampton Creek have held off cooperating with the food service provider until they had all vegan alternatives? Let’s assume Compass was patient enough and wanted to wait awhile. Would it have been better for Compass to go on, in the meantime, distributing their non-vegan cookies while they were waiting for Hampton Creek? I don’t think so. Like Tetrick says, every day that less animal products are used, is good for the animals. Maybe we have to admire Hampton Creek here for daring to get their hands a bit “dirty” on a non-vegan product. This whole situation makes me think of the issue many vegans have when individuals chose to go vegan in steps rather than overnight. What if someone who went vegan overnight is actually someone who did nothing until they could be perfect (i.e., go vegan overnight) and thus missed their chance of doing good for the animals by reducing?
Some vegans state that they can’t understand that Hampton Creek, in the time that this non-vegan macadamia cookie has been on the market, has not been able to come up with a vegan white chocolate chip. But who are we to say that this should be Hampton Creek’s priority right now? The little bit of milk powder is such a detail relative to the bigger picture (and yes, dear vegan friends, I know how cows are treated for dairy), and maybe Hampton Creek is in the process of developing very interesting and more life-saving products and contracts that take up their attention.
Maybe Hampton Creek could have been more pro-active in its communication about this, and could have anticipated (and maybe prevented) this kind of backlash. They could have explained their reasoning from the get go, rather than keep quiet about the offending cookie and only getting in the conversation when the vegans found out. On the other hand, it has to be said that Hampton Creek and CEO Josh Tetrick have been quite responsive on social media.
Other than this, I have a lot more difficulty understanding the reactions of the offended vegans than I have understanding what Hampton Creek did. I can read several things in these reactions, which I go into a bit deeper here, as they – in my humble opinion – are revealing for the often quite unstrategic ways of thinking that is rampant in the vegan movement.
Black and white, all or nothing thinking
Hampton Creek has done a ton of good for animals. It was, in fact, founded with the idea to do exactly that. In the eyes of the offended vegans, however, the presence of a tiny bit of animal ingredient in one product (milk powder in the chocolate chips in one product among their whole range of products) seems to annihilate all Hampton Creek’s efforts and good deeds. I saw many commenters saying they were unfollowing the company and wouldn’t support them or buy their products anymore. Not 100% vegan, so no good, right? This all-or-nothing thinking gets us nowhere.
Distrust of corporations
One commenter says: “You’ll happily disregard your morals and ethics and exploit animals for a share of the market and financial gain (…). What an absolute shame.”
Among many vegans (and other activists for social issues) the default attitude towards companies and the corporate world seems to be one of distrust. One aspect of this is to always reduce companies’ and CEOs’ motivations and intentions to mere greed. First of all, a desire to make a profit doesn’t seem to be the main motivation of Tetrick and Hampton Creek. They very obviously have a social mission and are definitely not a profit-only company. Secondly, we need to take into account that a venture like Hampton Creek is beholden to its investors, and does need to make a profit – otherwise it simply wouldn’t exist in this system. Thirdly, when a company like Hampton Creek does good business, they will acquire more impact and influence to change things for the better for animals. In that sense, the fact that money is a driver for many people can be seen as a positive thing, at least when it’s combined with some ethical fiber – which Tetrick and HC certainly seem to have.
Mistaking an ally for an enemy
I see it happen again and again: a company or organization does a lot of good, but watch out when vegans don’t agree, on when the company slips up! While there are more than enough horrible companies in the world, we seem to reserve a disproportionate part of our anger for the ones that are actually our allies. What we may be witnessing here is the so-called “black sheep effect”, where members of a group can be more hostile and unforgiving towards other members of the in-group when they make a mistake, than to people not belonging to the group. Offending in-group members are then seen as traitors. A lot can probably be explained by the fact that our expectations of them (they were one of us!) weren’t met. It’s the same with ex-vegans.
Putting purity and rules over pragmatism and results
“Every decision here,” Tetrick has responded on social media, “is based on this fundamental principle: what will increase the probability of maximizing good (including alleviating suffering) for the longest period of time.”
Our movement is often obsessed with veganism and vegan rules, at the cost of results. Yes, Hampton Creek technically is not a 100% vegan company. But what if this creates more good for the animals in the long run?
Ignoring the importance of institutional change
In an article on this subject on Ecorazzi, the author writes: “Ultimately, I do not care what they do. They are a company created to make products to fulfill consumer demand, whether vegan or non-vegan. What I care about is what we do, individually. We need to continue to educate – clearly and simply – so that we change how our friends, colleagues and family perceive animals.”
I’m presuming I don’t need to explain why institutional change – which Tetrick set out to generate – is crucial for our movement, and that we won’t get there by just convincing one individual at a time to go vegan. We need institutional partners: companies, NGOs, governments, schools, hospitals and many more. They can have an incredible impact on supply and demand and help change the playing field for everyone.
A holier-than-thou attitude
In the comments of many offended vegans, I seem to be able to read that non-vegans can never be right, while vegans can never be wrong. I get the impression that the people who are very very very vegan, sitting behind their computer, think that they are better, more pure, more praiseworthy than the company they are criticizing: a company that in a short period of time has done an amazing job in changing the food system. Incidentally, I’ve seen so many vegans lecturing Tetrick and HC about the issues related to dairy. Do we seriously think that Tetrick is not aware of these issues?
Hampton Creek is a great company, which is doing its best to create a better food system. It’s still a company in an imperfect world, run by imperfect people. So it will be imperfect. But it’s doing a ton of good. What if we would focus on the incredible amount of chicken misery that Hampton is preventing, rather than on the tiny amount of animal ingredients that is for the time being, and probably for good reasons, still in their products?
In other words: can we please get some perspective? When we’re no longer in the situation that 65 billion animals a year are being killed for food (excluding sea animals), then maybe we can get very worked up about the dairy in the chocolate cookie in a great product range of a great company. Until then, let’s focus on the big changes instead of the details. Let’s have some trust that some people really want to do the right thing, also in business. Let’s reserve our outrage for the really bad folks. And let’s follow our vegan rules as well as possible, but let’s be prepared to break them when it helps more animals.
My upcoming book How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach (June 2017, Lantern Press), contains a whole chapter on how the vegan movement can relate to the corporate world.
PS: if I got my facts wrong, somebody let me know!