Vegan outrage over a Hampton Creek cookie? Let’s get some perspective.

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!

The narcissism of small differences

You know when you have held an idea for a long time and then discover there’s actually a term for it, that it’s “a thing”? It’s always exciting when that happens.

I have long been amazed at how otherwise very similar individuals and especially groups of people seem to take offense at tiny differences between them. In the animal rights/vegan movement too, all of us who are in it have so much in common, but sometimes we tend to get lost on the differences.

So anyway, there’s an expression for this, and it stems from – wait for it – Sigmund Freud. In his (quite interesting) Civilization and its Discontents, he called this “the narcissism of small differences“.

narcissism

The question of course is: why? Why are groups of people that are so very similar, sometimes so hostile to each other because of the relatively minor stuff that they differ in? Why do vegans infight over feeding one’s cats meat, whether someone like me who indiscriminately drinks wine can call himself a vegan, or whether we should improve the lives of pigs by welfare reforms or not? If some of these things don’t seem small to you, I urge you to look at the bigger picture that we agree on: we all want an end to the suffering, use and killing of animals. At least compared to the general population who has no such ambitions at all, this is a huge point that we have in common. Yes, huge.

One possible explanation for the narcissism of small differences – and one that Freud himself offers – is our need for distinct identities. We may somehow, subconscioulsy, become hostile because our identity is threatened by others who are too much like us, so we overemphasize the (often tiny) differences.

Which brings me again to the vegan club vs vegan world topic. Maybe a club that gets too big is a threat to our identity too. Maybe after a while we are not feeling exclusive or special enough anymore, and that might be why we need to make sure entrance to our ingroup doesn’t become too easy. The membership fee, in this sense, has to be high enough. The vegan police is there to guard the door.

All this has to do with the different motivations we have as humans. All of us vegans and activists have a desire to make the world a better place. But most of us also have much more mundane and less lofty tendencies and aspirations. We also want to belong. We want to be with likeminded people. We want to feel at least a tiny bit important. These frailties will not help us in our cause, but they are all too human. It is good to be aware of them. Always.

 

PS I’m sure there are psychologists, sociologists and evolutioniary biologists who can speak about with much more expertise than I can. I welcome your input, links, studies…

Check this article for further reading, and part of the inspiration for this post

 

 

“Vegan is a distraction”. An interview with Matt Ball

matt
Matt Ball

Matt Ball is a long time activist. In 1993, he cofounded Vegan Outreach, and led the organization as Executive Director for more than 20 years. Today, he is Director of Outreach for Farm Sanctuary. He’s the author of several books on activism, and blogs at MattBall.net. As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the most thoughtful voices and best strategic thinkers in our movement. There’s no getting around him on a strategy blog, so I interviewed him about purity, effectiveness, definitions and dogma in the vegan movement.
Sit down and enjoy another longread.


VS: How would you define a vegan? A vegan diet?

MB: Before considering this question, I think it is important to step back and consider what is happening in the real world. Hopefully, it could help put the focus on what really matters….

You could argue that Jane’s brothers had it better. Andy and Bruce and Gene and Martin were tossed into a bag, on top of hundreds of others. Over many agonizing minutes, they were crushed as more and more were added to the bag. With increasing panic, they struggled with all their might to move, to breathe, as their collective weight squeezed the air from their lungs. No matter how desperately they fought and gasped, they couldn’t get enough air, until finally, mercifully, they blacked out and eventually died.

Jane’s torments were just beginning, however. Her mouth was mutilated, leaving her in so much pain she couldn’t eat for several days. One of her sisters was unable to eat and starved to death. Jane ended up stuffed into a cage with Becky, Arlene, Megan, Tracy, and Lynn in a tiny wire cage. To call it a “prison” would be a gross understatement. They were crammed into the cage so tightly that the wires rubbed their skin raw. Their excrement mixed with that of thousands of others, and the horrible ammonia stench of the piles of feces burned their nostrils and lungs.

Struggling for freedom, Megan was eventually able to reach her head through the wires. But then she was trapped, unable to get back in. Over the next few days, she slowly, painfully died of dehydration.

After over a year of this torture, Jane’s feet became tangled in the wire mesh of the floor. Unable to move, she was beginning to dehydrate. But before death could end her pain, she was torn from the cage, her entangled toes left behind, ripped from her body. The brutality of her handler crushed many of her bones, and she was thrown into a truck. For the next 14 hours, she and hundreds of others were driven through the Iowa winter, without protection, food, or water. The cold numbed the pain of Jane’s mutilated feet, but not the acute agony of her shattered bones. She was then shackled upside down, and had her throat cut. That’s how her torment ended.

An unfathomable number of individuals have suffered and are suffering just as Jane did.

Given that this is the current reality, we have a difficult choice to make:

matt ball choiceWe can spend our very limited time and resources worrying about, arguing about, and attacking each other over words and definitions.

Or we can focus our efforts entirely on actually ending the system that brutalizes individuals like Tracy and Gene.

If we take Jane’s plight seriously, the best thing most of us can do at the moment is help persuade more people to buy cruelty-free foods. As tempting as it is, we can’t just remain in our bubble, liking and retweeting what our fellow advocates say. We can’t be distracted by online debates. We can’t endlessly reevaluate every question and debate.

Instead, we have to focus on realistic strategies that start to create significant and lasting change with new people in the real world. As hard as it is, we absolutely must stop paying attention to people who want to create the world’s smallest club, and start paying attention to what actually creates real change with people who currently don’t know about Jane’s plight.

Questions like the above – about our definitions and opinions – seem harmless. But not only do they waste valuable time and resources, they reinforce the idea that our work is an academic exercise. It isn’t – the lives of individuals like Tracy and Andy depend on us actually doing constructive work in the real world.
VS: Do you think it is useful for vegans to point it out when they see non-vegan behaviour of “vegans”?

Three things should guide our actions in any situation:

1. The behavior or practice we see has actual, real-world negative consequences for animals.
2. We have a realistic expectation that our actions will lead to a net good; i.e., there is reason to believe positive change is likely, and it is unlikely there will be any offsetting negative or contrary consequences.
3. There is nothing better (i.e., more likely to reduce more suffering) we could be doing with our limited time and resources.

It is hard to imagine anything we could do that that would have fewer real-world positive consequences for animals than spending our limited time and resources policing the world’s smallest club.

I’ve actually found a pretty clear distinction between people whose primary concern is the purity and exclusivity of their club, vs those who are really working to change the world for animals. The former view everyone as the enemy. The latter view everyone as a (current or potential) ally.

Viewing everyone as an ally is not only necessary for truly helping individuals like Jane and Andy, but it is also much better for our mental health and the sustainability of our activism.


VS: What are some exceptions you would make? Is there non-vegan behaviour you indulge in?

In an interview many years ago, someone* was infuriated that I had once said I wouldn’t police what our daughter ate birthday parties. They justified their anger by saying it would send “mixed messages” if a four-year-old ate a piece of non-vetted cake. I replied that I never knew anyone who said, “Oh, I would have stopped eating animals, but then I saw this toddler having cake!”

You (Tobias) have wisely pointed out that what we personally consume is nowhere near as important as the influence we can have in the wider world. So I think our limited time is better spent figuring out how to be better examples and advocates, rather than trying to be ever more “pure.” And even if we don’t agree with that, the only way to be truly pure is to be dead. But really, is the best case scenario for the world one where I’m dead? Where you’re dead? It would be really sad if that were the case.

matt ballThe evidence doesn’t support that, though. By being a thoughtful, realistic, positive, bottom-line focused advocate, we can have a significant impact beyond what we accomplish with our personal purchases.

There is so much each one of us can do to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, to expand our circle of compassion, to bend the arc of history toward justice.

But making the world a better place has to be our fundamental goal. We can’t be motivated to follow some dogma or comply with some definition. To create the change necessary to make the world a better place, we have to deal with others where they are. We have to be realistic about what change can happen and how it can most likely be brought about. We have to be pragmatic in evaluating our options and choosing the best course of action, given the variables and uncertainties inherent in the real world.

The best thing I can do in one situation (e.g., a child’s birthday party) might not be the best I can do in another situation (e.g., meeting with a group of new activists). And neither of these might be the best thing you could do in the opportunities you encounter. I can’t know for sure what the best thing to do is in any situations, but I do know it isn’t simple.


VS: To what extent should we use the word “vegan” in our outreach and to what extent other words? When? What words?

I stopped eating meat, eggs, and dairy over a quarter century ago. At the time, and for years after, I was mindlessly pro-“vegan.” Not pro-animal, or pro-compassion, or pro-change. Pro-“vegan.” The word. The identity. The philosophy and “lifestyle.”

matt ball2But in the real world, “vegan” is a stereotype, a punchline, an excuse. People say, “I could never be vegan,” and that is the end of the conversation – the end of any opportunity for constructive engagement, for steps taken that could have a real-world benefit for animals.

“Vegan” is an ego-boost, a divider, a distraction. It is too easy to simply judge things as “vegan / not vegan,” instead of focusing on cruelty to animals, working to end factory farms, and having any real impact in the real world.

When I focused on “vegan,” instead of how to bring about real change for animals in the real world, I was being both self-centered and lazy. I understand the desire to only care about “vegan,” of course. But at best, the word distracts from doing our best to help new people make compassionate choices that have real consequences for animals.


VS: You have said that the greatest hindrance to the spread of veganism … is vegans themselves. Can you elaborate?

I’ve seen the dynamic of “I could never be vegan” play out for years. As discussed in The Accidental Activist, bottom-line-oriented activists experience a huge increase in the quantity and quality of conversations when they changed their shirts (stickers, etc.) from “Ask me why I’m vegan” to “Ask me why I’m vegetarian.”

University of Arizona research in early 2015 bears this out: non-vegetarians see “vegan” as impossible, and “vegans” as angry, fanatical, and judgmental. I have known several individuals who have given up lucrative careers to dedicate themselves to farm animals, and yet been so put off by the actions of “vegans,” that they want to disassociate themselves from the word. This is depressing, but it’s reality. I believe it is better to face reality and adjust so we can really help animals in the real world.

VS: Do we need to guard a definition or some line? Is that important? Is there a danger of watering down the concept of “veganism”?

It can be utterly addictive to debate terms, argue philosophy, and defend positions. It can be next to impossible to turn away from a debate, given that we each think we are right, and should be able to convince someone if we get the next post just right.

In the end, though, we have limited time and resources. We can, of course, spend this limited time trying to convince someone who has wedded their sense of self-worth to a specific position. But this is no more constructive than spending our time arguing with our Uncle Bob. I think we should spend our limited time and resources reaching out, in a constructive way, to new people – people who actually could make a difference with better-informed choices.

As difficult as it is, it would be so amazing if everyone who reads your blog would stop engaging in internecine debates. Ignore the attacks. Ignore the name calling. Give up the fantasy of winning an argument. Give up any concern with words or dogma. It would be so incredible if we were to just focus on positive outreach to new people.

VS: For most of your career, you have mainly worked on person-to-person outreach, rather than institutional outreach. What is the reason behind that?

When I stopped eating animals back in the 1990s, there was really no consideration of doing institutional outreach regarding farm animals. Before I did a more utilitarian evaluation of my efforts, I did try to put pressure on Procter and Gamble to stop testing their products on animals, even going so far as to get arrested.

After that, though, I realized I needed to work where I could have the biggest impact in terms of reducing suffering. But I couldn’t just go to a restaurant or food service provider and ask them to add in more cruelty-free options. This is a capitalist society, and if the demand isn’t there, no company is going to create supply (this played out when some McDonald’s introduced a veggie burger years ago, and it failed). Similarly, I would have no impact as an individual in asking Smithfield or Tyson to stop using gestation crates or move to a less cruel slaughter method.

Things have changed significantly in the past three decades. The animal advocacy movement as a whole has gained significant political and market power, such that corporations are more likely to listen and cooperate. Demand for meat-free options has grown in breadth (if not depth) such that working with institutions can have a lasting impact and further drive the cruelty-free demand / supply cycle. There is so much potential – more than half of the people in the US are specifically concerned with the treatment of farm animals!

Some of the most important and consequential work being done right now is at the institutional level. e.g. banning the most barbaric practices from factory farms, increasing the availability of cruelty-free options, and building the companies that will create the products that will replace animal products.

But as long as people want to eat an animal’s flesh, animals will be treated like meat. Of course, this isn’t saying that all animal exploitation is equally bad, or that abolishing gestation crates or battery cages isn’t an important step forward.

What we do know, however, is that even in “humane” meat situations, there is suffering – often, egregious cruelty. We’ve seen this regularly, including PETA’s recent exposure of the horrors of Whole Foods “humane meat.”

The continuing necessity of work on the demand side, combined with my background and opportunities to date, leads me to conclude that at this moment, I can have the biggest impact on the advocacy side. I don’t know if this will continue to be the case, however. There is a ton of exciting work going on now that wasn’t the case even 10 years ago!

VS: What do you think of reducetarian outreach?

matt ball2 (1)The reducetarian approach is rooted in one vitally important psychological insight: people are more likely to attempt and maintain a change that seems achievable, rather than something that seems far beyond where they are now. This has been shown over and over again – not only that the more realistic a change is, the more likely people are to attempt it, but also that the more stepwise a change, the more likely people are to maintain that change.

But as currently embodied, the reducetarian movement misses another important psychological truth (as discussed by Dr. Gordon Hodson): goals must be not only reasonable and achievable, but clear. “Eat less meat” is not a clear goal. Reach out to just about anyone considered to be a likely target for dietary change and ask them to “eat less meat,” and they will almost universally reply, “Oh, I don’t eat much meat.”

They often add, “Just chicken.” But of all the factory-farmed animals brutalized and killed for food, the vast majority are birds. Yes, nearly everyone cares more about mammals than birds. But as Professor of Veterinary Science John Webster has noted, modern poultry production is, “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animals.” Combine this with the fact that it takes more than 40 chickens to replace the meals produced by one pig, and more than 200 birds to replace one cow, everyone who “eats less [red] meat” and replaces even a little of it with birds is causing a lot more suffering.

Like doctors, our first duty as advocates should be to “do no harm.” The initial test we should run on any potential campaign or message is, “Is there any chance that my efforts will actually lead to more animals suffering in the real world?” Unfortunately, I think the “eat less meat” campaign might fail that test.
VS: Speaking of chickens, you recently helped create One Step for Animals, which emphasizes decreasing chicken consumption. It’s clear that that would help save a lot of lives and suffering (as chickens are both such small animals and so intensively raised). Do you think there’s any truth to the idea that this is speciesist, or that it encourages eating other animals?

Encouraging people to cut back on or not eat chickens is just that. It is in no way saying that people should eat cows, or pigs, or dogs, or chimpanzees.

One Step isn’t concerned with speciesism, but rather, realism. One Step takes starts with all the statistics and known psychological truths. Just as importantly, though, One Step refuses to be driven by definitions. One Step refuses to engage or appease the dogmatists. Rather, One Step for Animals is concerned only with results in the real world: reducing the most suffering possible. You can disagree that their approach is likely to do that, but “reducing suffering” is the only metric by which One Step (or any group) should be judged.

VS: What is the number one piece of advice you would give to vegan activists?

Rather than considering how popular something is with your circle of friends, judge everything by the likely consequences your actions will have with non-vegetarians in the real world. To a first approximation, this will mean calculating how your actions will impact people’s consumption of chickens.

For more tips and suggestions, people can read my books and writings: aa handboek
If you like a linear discussion, The Animal Activist’s Handbook is probably your best bet.

If you like collections of essays and short stories, The Accidental Activist.

If you don’t want to buy a book, A Meaningful Life is a good start.

 

 

*I am happy to say that this interrogator and I are now friends, and she now regrets asking that question years ago.