“As a known brand we can lure customers of our meat products to buy our meatfree products”
It was pretty close to unthinkable a couple of years ago, but today more and more meat producers are betting on plantbased alternatives. Imperial Meat Products – known under the brand name Aoste – is part of the Campofrio group, and with an eighteen percent market share is one of the larger European players in the field of processed meat products. I talked to CEO Remco Kok and Marketing Manager of Innovation Thomas De Boes, at their headquarters near Ghent, Belgium.
Explain to me what your plans are in the meatfree department Our aim is to get only half of our turnover from meat and the other half from meatfree by 2025. We consider ourselves a company of butchers and craftspeople, but our craft does not necessarily have to be based on meat as an ingredient. So we started to look for alternatives. And whatever meat we continue to sell, we have to believe in ourselves.
What kind of meatfree products can consumers already buy from you today? We have launched vegetarian slices and vegan spreads, and soon will also be launching burgers. We’re also working with hybrid (or blended) products. Sausages are a big category for us, and it is perfectly possible to produce sausages that are only seventy percent meat and thirty percent vegetables. And we try the same with other meat products. We have developed, for instance, a chicken fillet with more than thirty percent vegetables. We’re still unsure as to how to work with this: is it something you communicate to the consumer, like an asset, or is it better not to mention it at all? Do we create products with visible pieces of vegetables, or do we make sure people can’t notice them? All of this of obviously depends on what the customer appreciates.
Why and how did you start thinking about investing in meatfree products? Two years ago, together with our colleagues from the Netherlands and Luxemburg, we did a strategic exercise about where our company was at. We’ve been operating in Belgium for sixty years, and with our Dutch brand Stegeman even one hundred and sixty years. Our slogan is “more attention, more pleasure” – we want to put our attention in everything we do, so that the consumer can enjoy our products to the fullest. But today you can’t just have attention for your products or your customers at the expense of the planet. Thinking this way, we arrived at some new objectives, which we call 0 – 50 – 100. The 50 refers to fifty percent meat and fifty percent vegetables. The 0 refers to zero percent waste: we don’t want to waste anything: no food, but also no energy (consequently we’ve invested in a solar panel park). The 100 refers to one hundred percent transparency. In our sector, a lot happens behind the curtains. But that doesn’t fit with our vision, or with the world as it is today. So we aim to be entirely transparent in everything we do.
Could that go as far as putting cameras in slaughterhouses, for instance? That’s not something that we do yet, but I think that’s where we should be headed…
Can you tell us something about sales results of your meatfree products, so far? Results are largely positive for now. We remain on the shelves, and retailers want to give them even more space. But we can’t say at this point that the masses are buying them. So we have to see how we can create more visibility for our products.
How do you do that? People know our brand, and that’s an asset that we can use. We need to lure the customers who buy our meat products to our meatfree products. We’ve got a campaign running, for instance, where you get a free meatfree product with a meat product that you buy. Or a coupon for a veggie product on the packaging of our traditional products. Also interesting to note is that we can deliver our meatfree range to the many butchers that we are dealing with. And of course we are more able than small companies to put some marketing budget in these products. We’ve had tv-commercials for our plantbased products, and there’s a foodtruck exclusively for them. Recently we handed out 3500 samples at a student event.
Would you like to eventually sell the plantbased products in the meat section? That would be great, and I think that’s coming. It’s a matter of time. There just have to be enough people wanting those products. Look at organic products: they used to be in a separate section in the supermarket, but now they’re spread among the rest.
Meat producers jumping on the veggie wagon will seem suspicious in the eyes of many vegetarians and vegans. One of their arguments would be that the company might invest the profit from meatfree products in their meat department, so that anyone buying meatfree from them would inadvertently contribute to more animal suffering. It’s rather the other way around: for the moment, we are investing more in meatfree than the profit it brings, so it’s part of the meat profits that go to meatfree. Of course we’ll need to make a profit in the future, otherwise it’s not sustainable. But we’re not committed to meat. We’re no longer a meat company, we’re a food company. We’ll probably change the name Imperial Meat Products at some point. In the future, we want it to be so that whoever buys our products invests in the further spreading of meatfree.
Four or so years ago your company was running a tv-commercial that was making fun of vegetarians. How do you look back on that today? This may sound cheap, but I wasn’t the CEO back then, and I wasn’t supportive of this campaign. In any case, when I see what’s happening now in the company… the change is really structural, fundamental, and I’m sure that the person who comes after me will not be able to go down that road again. We can’t go back anymore.
Do you have any assets in producing plantbased products which smaller, more traditional producers of plantbased products don’t have? I believe so. Our scale in itself is an asset. We can invest in research & development at a larger scale. We can use our equipment to produce meatfree products. We can do a lot of test runs. We have a very extensive expertise in working with ingredients, whether they are of animal or of plant origin. That goes from expertise with machines to knowledge about bacteria etc.
Could meatfree products ever be more profitable than meat products, further down the line? Meat is presently sold too cheaply. It’s become a commodity, and food – certainly food originating with living beings – should never be a commodity. It’s hard to say how things will go. In our case, we’ve still got a lot of costs and investments, and we still need to make the category wider known. But if we can produce larger volumes, it could be a lot more profitable. Especially if meat prices increase.
“Food – certainly food originating with living beings – should never be a commodity.”
What is your main challenge? Demand. The consumer is outraged about all kinds of things, but more often than not sticks to the same buying behavior. There’s a lot of hype about the sales of meatfree, but we hear other stories as well. For instance that during the recent “week without meat” in the Netherlands, sales of meat products went up as well – together with sales of meatfree. The Dutch NGO Wakker Dier has radio campaigns running against meat discounters, but it’s not clear if that is working or not – maybe a lot of consumers hearing these ads are made aware of low prices and go out and buy these products. I think we have to work together with our colleagues and other stakeholders, because of course we by ourselves won’t be able to push the consumer in a different direction.
Suppose that at some point it will be clear that animal products are on the way out… will your company be able to adapt? We have to adapt all the time anyway – we need to update our machines, for instance. And yes, we need to always be aware of new developments, and need to get on board in time. But I’m pretty sure that in this case we’re on top of it. It’s not that difficult anyway for a meat processing company. We are to a high extent resource-independent. The things we do with animal products we can also do with plant products. For slaughterhouses, for instance, it’s of course a lot more difficult to adapt.
“We are to a high extent resource-independent. The things we do with animal products we can also do with plant products. “
So meat or meatfree, it really doesn’t matter? No one here has emotional ties to meat products? No, there’s no difference. At least not to me. In the factory there might be colleagues who are very invested in meat, specifically. But still, in the end, these people want to make good products. And we’ve seen very positive internal feedback as well. Our product developers are very proud that they can make plantbased products. They see it as an extra challenge.
Concretely: recently two Dutch meat producters – Bobeldijk en Enkco – announced that they are ceasing meat production or selling that department, and will only do plantbased for now on. Can you imagine your company going this way? I think that for the moment it is better to do both meat and veggie. If we were to only on focus on meatfree right now, we’d become a much smaller player with much less influence. Companies like the ones you mentioned have way less impact on the market than we do. If we’d shrink, we’d leave all kinds of things on the table that could be useful. We’d have less financial power, less brand power, less communicative power. We’d be slimming down our logistics and our expertise… And for the moment we can, exactly because we sell meat, draw the meatloving consumer to our meatfree products by means of our meat products. Also, as a meat company we’re in constant conversation with the rest of the meat sector. We’re in all kinds of platforms where we can exert influence, and it wouldn’t be good to have to leave them at this point.
What do you think the future will bring? Society clearly is ready for a change. We’re leaving a world where meat is something for every day. How far it will all go depends on the consumer. Meat may not ever disappear entirely, but whatever meat there will be will be more animal and environmental friendly. And then there’s also cell-based meat, which we are keeping a close eye on.
Charity Entrepreneurship is a research and training program aimed at creating multiple high impact charities with a different focus area each year. They are part of Charity Science Foundation of Canada. In 2018-2019, their research is focused on animal welfare. Their mission is to increase the number of effective charities in the world. Recently, Charity Entrepreneurship published the “Top Charity Ideas 2019” – a list of recommended charities based on months of their research, with six charities focusing on animal advocacy they want to help start through their incubation program (if you’re looking for an entrepreneurial career for animals you can apply for the program until May 15th 2019). I had an interview with Charity Entrepreneurship’s director – Joey Savoie, who has founded several charities and is now working to make it easier for others to start new high impact organizations.
Vegan Strategist: Joey, there are over one million nonprofits and hundreds of charities in the world. Why would founding new organizations be a good way to make a difference? Joey Savoie: The two biggest factors that are easy to forget when considering the number of nonprofits are 1. the scale of the problems that we face and 2. the relatively small size of most nonprofits. Regarding the first, there are, for instance, over one million doctors in the US and several times that worldwide, and yet there are still great problems with pain and disease. The problems of the world, from global health to animal issues to economic challenges, are huge, and many of them get virtually no attention despite their importance. And then there is the second factor: almost all charities are really small. In the UK, for example, 39% of charities raised less than £10,000 over a year, and another 34% raised between £10,000 and £100,000. This means that 73% of charities are raising less money than the cost of hiring a single doctor. The ratios are similar across most countries. When you consider both the size of the problems and the relatively small current reach of charities, there are still plenty of areas where starting a high impact organization could make a significant difference.
Many people seem to start a charity in an area that they are personally connected to. Is that the best idea? I can see several issues with that. For one, the most important causes might not affect the people who are in a position to start a nonprofit. Examples include helping those who cannot help themselves, such as animals. There are also problems that are not as visible to those who have the resources to start a charity but still affect many beings, such as factory farming compared to companion animal welfare. Many people would agree that when we make an important decision, like buying a house, it is good to carefully look at data as part of the process. Similarly, for such a big question as which charity to start, it is important to consider the numbers, and not only what has personally affected the founder. Some people I know have saved a great number of animals, but are not “animal people” themselves, and did not grow up with them as kids. They just looked at the conditions some animals are kept in and considered the numbers of victims, realizing it was an impactful way to help the world, regardless of their personal background. This idea holds true for more than just starting charities; it can also help you pick which animal to focus on helping, or which area to get a job in.
So which animals are most important to focus on? All animals seem important to help. Sadly, many animals do need assistance, but we don’t have the resources to help them all, and so we need to prioritize. Although all animals deserve a suffering-free life, some animals are currently more neglected or mistreated, so you can help prevent more hardship if you focus on them. Partially because they are out of sight, farm animals receive much less money and attention compared to other animals. And then among farm animals, some of them receive less attention than others, and some have substantially worse lives. Factory farmed birds and fish generally have the lowest life quality. When we considered a number of factors, including current focuses and which animals have the hardest lives, we ended up determining that fish look like the most important animal group for activists to focus on.
So given a focus on chickens and fish, what are the top ideas for new animal charities? The interventions we published on our Top Charity Ideas list might still change, but based on the research we have conducted so far, we have concluded that the most promising ideas include:
Campaigning corporations to improve fish water quality – particularly the oxygen levels in the water that fish need to breathe effectively.
Institutional ask research – researching and comparing possible institutional changes, used later as asks during corporate and government-focused campaigns
Feed fortification of egg-laying hens – reducing the suffering of hens through campaigning for feed fortification with an optimal dosage of phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin D3
Increasing the follow-through rate of cage-free pledges – increasing the odds of a smooth global transition to cage-free laying hen farming through working with producers and targeted financial institutions
Animal advocacy career experiments – systematic investigation into the best strategies for getting key positions filled at top animal organizations
Animal research coordination and systemization – cross-organizational planning and systematic consideration of research priorities
How do you know these are the best new animal charities to start? It’s a pretty big area to narrow down to just six ideas. Some of these interventions are not common in the animal space currently (food fortification, dissolved oxygen, careers support) An idea being uncommon or unheard of may be a good sign. Some ideas are promising but are just not at the top of animal activists’ minds. For example, both lack of food fortification and suboptimal oxygen levels cause a lot of suffering in animals, but they are also much less visible than, say, gestation crates. But just because something is more visible, it does not mean it is more important. Narrowing down was challenging, and it’s likely that there are other really high impact ideas out there that we have not researched or found yet. However, when compared to most charity ideas, our suggestions are well backed up by research. Most individuals in the animal movement who might consider founding a charity will not have a full year to consider options or a full-time research team to look into them deeply. These ideas are not the only promising ideas but, rather, some good bets on how to have the biggest impact on animals.
There are now six ideas on your top charity list that concern animal advocacy, and two of them focus solely on research. Can you explain how their effort will translate to decreasing animal suffering? Research is a tricky area. It’s very important, but it’s also very easy to do research that doesn’t have much of an impact. Broadly, research is helpful in making better decisions, say, when a large animal nonprofit is about to launch a large scale corporate and governmental campaign on a specific issue. Often, we are talking about millions of dollars and years of work spent on these campaigns, so it’s really important that we are working on the right issue. Imagine a campaign on making fish conditions better, which would, by the way, be a very important goal given how rough factory farmed fish’ lives currently are. A question that comes up is what to work on specifically, whether it’s the density at which the fish are kept, or the way they are slaughtered, or the quality of the water they have to live in. To answer these kinds of questions, we need to do careful research, talk to experts, and get a deep sense of what would help fish the most. Research can often lead to surprising results. For example, fish tend to group closer than many other animals and thus are not nearly as bothered by density as they would be by poor water quality. Therefore, if a large scale campaign was run on fish stocking density, the fish would be helped far less than if we had spent the same money and time on improving water quality. If someone did one single year of research, they could make sure that large scale efforts are targeted at the best possible areas. So you can see how this small piece of research could massively help many animals.
What are the likeliest ways animal research efforts could fail to have an impact? The key question every researcher or research-focused charity needs to ask is: “how does this end up affecting animals in a positive way?”. If your answer is unclear or pretty nebulous like “it will inform people and thus change people’s attitudes” you really want to make sure that that is really happening. For example, you might want to survey the sort of people who you would expect might change their attitudes, and make sure that your results would really change them as much as you think it might.
What does it mean if something is not recommended? For example, there are no recommendations of plant-based alternatives. There can be multiple reasons for this. An area could be really effective, but just not the right fit for a new charity given the ones already in the field. An area could be promising but needs more research before we can be sure of its impact. Some areas looked interesting, but our research team simply did not have enough time to research deeply. With plant-based alternatives, a couple of these factors come into play. For one, there is a lot of interest in this from the private sector (for-profit). There are quite a few incubators specifically for these organizations that seem like they would be better placed than Charity Entrepreneurship to help new organizations in that specific area.
How does this research apply to existing animal organizations, or where one should fund? Our research is really targeted at new charities that should be founded, so it could be quite tricky to draw lessons for funding existing charities. For example, if there was one superb charity working in a specific area, that might be a great reason for funding that charity, but a reason against starting another charity in that area. I think more lessons can be drawn for current organizations in deciding what they want to work on, but it does depend a lot on the detail. We do hope to release specific writeups of advice based on our research both for funders and for organizations, but would caution people not to generalize from our research until then.
Are you concerned, as many people within the animals rights movement are, that welfare reforms may hinder progress towards abolition (e.g. by creating a sense of complacency among people when a sufficient level of welfare is reached)? This is an area I would love to see some more concrete research on. I think that right now people just have very different intuitions on the topic without a lot of data. The data I have seen from other charitable areas such as tobacco taxation would suggest that complacency is generally not a big concern. Taking a step in the right direction tends to spread awareness of the area and reduces cognitive dissonance. Another piece of evidence is that despite the fact that many welfare reforms have passed over time, most surveys find that people are more concerned about animal issues now than ever before in history, which would be opposite of what you might expect to see if welfarism created complacency.
You focus on helping people start new charities, but could some of these ideas not be picked up by existing charities? I think for some ideas this is definitely possible, and many of them will likely be done in collaboration with many organizations both new and more established. For instance, the work that has been done on cage-free campaigns would have been very hard to do by only a single new charity. Success will generally require a number of organizations and funders to get on board with an idea.
Starting a charity seems like a tough thing to do. How does the CE incubation program help new or would-be founders? Our incubation program is designed to take a person from a basic familiarity with starting charities to being fully prepared to found and run an organization. The program is an equivalent to a full course at a university in terms of workload. It will run for 2 months from June 17th to August 16th 2019 and the deadline for applications is May 15 2019. Among topics covered are quantitative decision making, cost-effectiveness analysis, fundraising, grant writing, research interpretation, basic statistics or budgeting, and strategic planning. Broadly we are aiming to teach every skill a person would need to run a really great charity. For those who decide to start one of our incubated charities, there are many optional benefits after the program finishes. They aim to ease the transition into becoming a fully independent charity entrepreneur and will include: $50,000 seed fund grants, help in fundraising, ongoing mentorship, free co-working office space for one year in London, legal incubation and access to network of experienced founders and experts. You can apply for the program on Charity Entrepreneurship website and read more on what to expect from the program on our blog. Our program is likely more extensive in terms of help than most incubators and more focused (e.g. this year we’ll be focusing on animal and global health charities and, more specifically, our top recommended ideas).
I firmly believe that plant based foods will ever more replace meat and dairy, and that at some point in the future, people will hardly even believe there was a time when we ate animals.
Now and then, we come across something that gives us a glimpse of how this future is unfolding. We may read about all kinds of amazing innotative plant-based products being created. We may read about unlikely people going vegan, like athletes or farmers. But the most amazing testimony of things to come… comes from meat companies that are actually giving up on meat.
Yes, it’s starting to happen. Here’s a short tale of two companies.
Investing meat profits in plant products The Dutch Bobeldijk Meat Company started up as a butchery in 1975. They added vegetarian products to their range in 2008. In 2015, the company changed its name to Bobeldijk Food Group. They announced that meatfree products were the future, and that they would no longer invest in meat. Factory space used for meat production was freed up to give the meatfree division room to grow. All turnover from meat products was invested in the development and expansion of the plant-based product line (called Vegafit). Bobeldijk CEO Remko Vogelenzang expects that the meatfree division will be able to finance itself by the end of 2019, so that Bobeldijk will be able to get rid of their meat activities. While they have still have lacto-ovo vegetarian products in their range, they aim to make the whole line vegan.
Selling of the meat division Another example, again from The Netherlands, is the company Enkco Food Group. Founded almost sixty years ago as a sausage company, it was initially a cooperation between ten different butchers. In 2003 Enkco acquired another company, which included the vegetarian brand Vivera. Along the way, Enkco extended its vegetarian range, to the point that presently, sales of vegetarian and vegan products are responsible for more than half of their 100 million euro turnover. Enkco will now sell off its meat branch to a larger meat company, and will itself continue under the name Vivera, as a meatfree company.
Roadmap for the future In the case of Bobeldijk, we’re not sure what will happen to the meat division, but unless it disappears altogether, it will be continued by another company (that’s definitely so in Enkco’s case). Consequently, one might make the cynical comment that the net result remains the same. However, these examples are significant in that they show that transformations from meat business to meatfree business – from butcher to meatfree company! – are possible. The companies in question are creating a roadmap that other companies can follow. They also illustrate a pragmatic point: that the new system may have to be built with money from the old system. Finally, they illustrate that, contrary to the fears of some vegans, the money spent on on veg products produced by a meat company does not (or at least not necessarily) go to strengthen their meat activities.
Animal products are on their way out. It’s just a matter of time.
One distinction we can make in the space of all sorts of initiatives that are making a difference for farm animals, is the distinction between non-profit initiatives (basically activism or advocacy) and for-profit ones (business). In this article I ask the question if in the light of the incredibly exciting developments in the private sector, the role of advocacy may need to be re-evaluated.
I’ve been in the animal rights/vegan movement for about two decades now. I founded a non-profit in 2000 and saw the rise of many other non-profits. I’ve seen small groups get really big and professional, sometimes counting more than one hundred paid staff and working with a budget of millions of dollars. And then there’s been the rise of organized grassroots activism like Anonymous for the Voiceless, DXE or the Save Movement, apart from the tens of thousands of vegan and animal advocates who are working individually.
For a long time, I thought that all this outreach and advocacy by all these groups and individuals was, if not the only then at least the most important way to create change for the animals. I thought that all this awareness-raising about the plight of animals – with leaflets, videos, websites, newsletters, social media, conferences, podcasts, demonstrations, lobbying etc – was sort of all there was. And I certainly never had much doubt about the fact that it was possible to change enough people’s hearts and minds.
A changing playing field During all this time – these last two to four decades, or whatever – there were also commercial initiatives, that were selling vegan products that people – vegan or not – were buying. Many of these companies, however, have traditionally been rather small and have often not been overly ambitious – with indeed many of them probably believing that “small is beautiful”. The last five years or so, however, have seen some important new developments in the business world:
While certainly many of the older, traditional companies are growing faster than before thanks to increased demand, many new startups are distinguishing themselves from the older companies by being more ambitious, more modern, more technological, and often better funded. Think of companies like Just, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, to name just the three most famous ones as examples (these are from the US, but they are in many countries, in many sizes).
We’re seeing more and more interest from investors in this space. Impossible Foods, for instance, has to date raised about four hundred million dollars. The search for the best alternatives for animal products is getting better and better funded. Lewis Bollard of the Open Philanthropy Project mentions 1,7 billion dollars in funding (to companies that actually disclose their funding), by at least different 55 funds that are investing in alternatives to animal products.
Next to old and new veg companies, we’re now also seeing big traditional non-veg food companies or even meat companies getting into this space. They can do this in several ways: developing their own alternatives, acquiring other companies (like Danone acquired Alpro), or investing in other companies (like Tyson invested in Beyond Meat). In the Netherlands, we’re actually seeing the first few meat companies who have announced they will stop producing meat as their plant-based products are now profitable enough!
Time to re-evaluate the role of advocacy? I can’t be the only person to wonder if, in the light of this exploding commercial interest in alternatives for animal products, the role of the advocacy movement (the non-profit part) will remain the same or should somehow change. And I can’t be the first one to wonder whether advocacy or business will make the biggest difference from here on. I’ve seen, for one thing, several people making the move from activism to entrepreneurship, selling burgers where they used to distribute leaflets, activists starting a non-profit that is largely focused on corporate engagement (the Good Food Institute comes to mind), and other non-profits shifting more and more of their focus towards outreach to companies (Proveg International, for instance). Some people who are newer to the cause may also get straight into business, passing any activist stage whatsoever. Personally, I have been in the non-profit/advocacy part for almost all my “vegan career” (EVA, Proveg International, CEVA), but today I’m also involved in Kale United, a financial startup that wants to support vegan businesses with vegan investments).
Mutual reinforcement What advocates (call them activists, or whatever) mainly do is to try to shift people’s attitudes about animals. What businesses mainly do is putting food (and other) products out there, in the supermarket shelves, for people to hopefully buy and like. Advocates usually think: if I can make them understand what is happening to animals and why it matters, people will change their mind and they’ll buy those products. This may work, but we know that there is often a huge gap between attitude change and behavior change. I’ve written numerous times about how a change of attitude (about animals and meat) may come easier after a behavior change, i.e. after people have already shifted, to some extent, for whatever reason, towards plant-based products. If this is true – and I’m convinced it is – you can easily see the importance of merely creating great vegan products and making them available everywhere.
In the best case, we might see some kind of virtuous cycle, where the more people who discover great tasting plant-based foods have an easier time caring about animals, and then consume even more plant-based foods, and eventually may become vegans. (note that bad vegan food or bad advocacy might turn this virtuous cycle into a vicious one).
Probably, neither behavior change nor attitude change are in themselves enough to create a better world. People may do the right thing but if they have wrong attitudes, doing the right thing may not be their permanent position and they may start doing wrong things as soon as wrong things become easier or cheaper. Conversely, so many people have the right attitude about something, but are not doing the right thing (you can find many examples for yourself, I’m sure).
That’s why ideally we need both attitude shifts (the main role of advocacy) and behavioral shifts (the main effect of business). Advocacy and business can be seen as mutually reinforcing.
Where should the focus lie? Still, that advocacy and business might be mutually reinforcing does not necessary mean they create the same kind of impact. While they are probably both necessary, it is quite possible that one has a bigger impact than the other – or that their relative impacts are changing as we progress in time. This is not just an academic question or a pissing contest between entrepreneurs and non-profit activists. Having a sense of the relative impact of either part is important for helping us to make choices: where should our resources go, which careers should people who want to improve the lives of animals choose, etc. Furthermore, having a sense of the impact of both of the non-profit and for-profit parts could help us understand how advocacy and business should ideally relate to each other, and to determine possible new roles for advocacy in the context of the ever bigger corporate impact in this domain.
Shift I can’t help having the feeling that it is business entrepreneurs that are doing a large part of the work that used to be done mainly by activists. And I can see how in the future, that might even be more the case. Let’s assume, for a moment, that businesses keep producing and selling more vegan products, and that maybe clean clean meat takes off and becomes a success. Assume that business clearly helps us get closer and closer (indeed very close) to a vegan world. What if anything, should advocates do in such a case? Is there any way in which they should shift their focus? I am not sure about the answer, but here are a few possibilities (of which I have not yet decided which ones I feel confident about and which ones I don’t).
Advocates could more intensely focus on supporting business For people used to working in a non-profit context, this may sound like having things upside down: isn’t it business – with their structural stream of income – that should support, sponsor, donate to… non profit initiatives? Sure, but the other direction works too. There are a lot of things, apart from helping creating more awareness and thus more demand, that advocates can do for business, thus increasing the chances of them becoming very successful (we’re assuming that their financial success dovetails with their positive impact for animals) Some of the things that activists, and especially non-profit organizations, can do for businesses, including, especially, startups are creating awareness among their members and supporters of the brand and products, crowdfunding, helping to lobby for legislation that is vegan-business friendly (or challenging to the meat industry), doing PR and being in the media, litigating against offenders, getting people to taste products at events, etcetera. Companies obviously do many of these things as well, but less so if they’re just starting. Also, there might be credibility issues. A company has a commercial agenda and NGOs may sometimes be in a more objective position to lobby.
Advocates could mainly get out of the way We could choose to trust in a virtuous cycle of supply and demand, where growing demand provides a growing supply and thus further increases demand as it becomes easier for everyone to shift more and more in the vegan direction. In this sense, once past a certain point, a vegan world or a close-to-vegan-world could become almost an inevitability. Activism then should focus on further reinforcing this trend, as speeding it up by just a single month means a massive reduction in suffering.
Advocates could focus on closing the gap Plant-based may become the new norm, but as there may always be bad things that are both legal and profitable, there maybe be no guarantee that business alone would abolish all animal products. So there could be a role for activists in making sure we complete 100% of our mission and a achieve a sustainable state of affairs. Important in this regard is that we help cement new norms and practics in laws and regulations, so that it will be a lot more difficult to ever slide back.
Activists could go for fairer across the board Many activists have a lot of concerns about how the whole vegan thing is being commodified and incorporated into the capitalist system. I have been less anti-capitalist than many of my fellow activists so far, because I believe there is no way around the system if want to help animals in the short term. But should our project be highly successful and we manage to replace most animal products by plant products, it would definitely make sense to start focusing on the problematic aspects of capitalism (this is not to say that focusing on this is entirely useless or futile at this point) Advocates should then make sure vegan products score well on as many accounts as possible. Plant based is not everything, and vegan products may, in addition to being socially unjust, still be unhealthy, ecologically damaging etc. It will be necessary to further perfect our food once most of it is plant based. This does not belong to the core lobbying activities of AR people, so this role could obviously be played (and is being played) by other organizations and movements. Obviously, unhealthy and unsustainable foods will also exist in other systems than capitalism, but it is easy to see how the present system encourages, or doesn’t penalize, such negative trends and tendencies.
Advocates could focus on awareness raising and attitude change Advocates do what they do for the cause that they believe in. Entrepreneurs may be motivated by the same causes, but in addition many of them are also motivated by profit (this applies even more to the investors, although part of them might be impact investors). I don’t consider motivations incredibly important at this point in time (it’s fine for me if people, do the right thing for less than the ideal reasons), but I do agree that if we want sustainable change, where the risk of a reversal is minimized, we ideally want everyone to care about animals. I believe that once our society is mostly plant-based for whatever reason it will be a lot easier to see that animals have interests and to install regulation to protect them, so that there is no going back. Still, there would undoubtedly be room for further awareness-raising on this topic.
Vegans and activists could consider investing instead of donating, and spend their time making money instead of advocating As investing in a company, as opposed to donating to a non-profit, may yield a financial return, and as companies are doing great things for animals, one could argue that investing is a better option than donating – certainly if one opts to donate the return on the investment. Given the amounts of money being invested in the private sector and the companies getting into it, however, it could be argued that a bigger difference can be made by donating than by investing, at this point – an argument also made by Lewis Bollard in the aforementioned newsletter.
Vegans and animal rights people could shift their focus more towards the suffering of animals in the wild, as they might be the first ones to take this topic seriously.
Some preliminary conclusive thoughts
The advocacy part and the business part need each other. We can assume (though we can’t be certain) that vegan/animal rights activists have, with their efforts, helped raise demand for meat and dairy alternatives (even though surveys show that animal rights is still ranks very low among people’s motivations for buying meat alternatives), thus helping to create a market for the companies. Conversely, when animal rights and vegan groups advocate against animal products, they need to be able to present alternatives. The more available and better these alternatives are, the more effective and convincing advocacy will be. So the relationship is a mutually reinforcing one.
There will always be a need for advocacy. Advocacy is mainly directed at making people change their attitudes. Yet changed attitudes are not sufficient, as even in a world where almost every agrees that something is bad, bad things still happen. We need changed minds and easily accessible alternatives – that’s where business comes in.
In the light of the increasing role business is playing, we may have to start thinking about the possible changes in the role and shapes of advocacy in the future. I don’t have the answers to this question, but I feel fairly confident that the relationship between advocacy and business should be, at this point, mainly collaborative and supportive, rather than confrontational.
If you look at indicators or metrics for success that the vegan movement might use, a very important one might be this one:
How many people did we provide with a great vegan taste experience?
When people get the idea that vegan food can be good, there is a lot of chance they will be more open to arguments for veganism or to the idea that farmed animals matter (I’ve written about this on many occasions).
Of course many people – vegans and non-vegans alike – buy vegan products in supermarkets or try vegan dishes in restaurants (or at home) every day. However, I’m talking about reaching the ones who are not prone to do this by themselves: people who might have prejudices against vegan food (that it’s boring, tasteless, too difficult to prepare etc). Given that they are not willing to spend money on veg products or dishes, how can we put something vegan in their hands and mouths?
One way is what I have called stealth veganismbefore: simply not mentioning that a product, a dish or even a restaurant, is vegan, so as to avoid the prejudice. But let’s look at other options.
Providing people with a bite of something vegan is, of course, logistically more complicated than giving them a flyer, sending them an email, or making them watch a one minute video (the usual ways in which vegans do advocacy). You need to invest in the food, get it to the people, prepare it, serve it (and then ideally follow up to estimate the impact, and help them take further steps). While we can’t force-feed anything to anyone, there are several ways in which we can shorten the distance between the unwilling customer and a (great tasting) vegan product.
If you look at it logistically, the easiest way, of course, is that the producers offer samples of their products themselves, on places where a lot of people come, shop or eat. That could be at a fair, a busy place in the city, or in restaurants and supermarkets themselves. A producer (or store) wants to sell as much product as possible, so it makes sense that they get as many people as possible to taste their products, trusting that sampling will lead to more sales.
All of this is very obvious, so let me offer you a couple of less obvious ideas for getting unwilling people to take a vegan bite.
1. Passing out vegan samples in cafetarias, of the food that is available there I recently heard about what I suspect is a particularly efficient setup to hand out samples: imagine a company cafeteria (or other restaurant), where customers have (every day or on certain days) the option to put a vegan dish on their tray, rather than a meat dish. By default, sales of the meat dishes would be much higher than the vegan sales. But if there would be people passing out samples of the vegan dish (or just of the meat alternative from that dish – e.g. a veg nugget) at the entrance of the cafeteria, while customers are waiting in line, the percentage of vegan dishes sold could be increased dramatically. The person (a representative from a company producing meat alternatives) told me up till half of the customers chose the vegan dish! Vegan advocates could do this work, but it could also be done by the people from the catering companies. The great thing is that if one or a couple of big catering companies (think Compass, Aramark, Eurest…) would roll out such campaigns, this would be a way to structurally cover a big part of the population. It could be done in schools as well as in company restaurants. On the meta-level, veg organizations lobbying with caterers to do this sort of thing, and maybe offering them a campaign framework like Meatless Monday or a meatless week or month, could potentially be quite impactful, especially if we’re talking to very large companies.
2. Promotions of “mixed brands” I call a “mixed brand” here a brand or company that has both meat and veg products in their range. These companies have some means at their disposal to convince their own customers – who are already familiar with their brand – to try their new veg products. I’ve seen cases where the packaging of the meat product has an ad for a vegetarian variation, which you see when you remove the lid at home, like in this example, by the German company Rügenwalder.
But there are other possibilities. Check out these (and forgive me the crude, schematic drawings):
These ideas may obviously require some logistical efforts, and it’s easy to see that they are not directed at vegans, but I think there is a big potential here to reach unwilling customers where it matters: in the stomach.
Companies might have very good reasons to try these tactics, as it becomes more and more important for them to gain a larger and larger foothold in the vegan market. An extra motivation might be that in some cases there could be a higher profit margin on the veg products.
Also, consider the added value of a big, trusted brand. When meat eaters see a vegetarian version of a product they know and trust, they might be more likely to buy it than when it’s from a brand they’ve never seen before. A graph by market research company GFK that I recently saw (and which I’m not putting here for proprietary reasons), showed the market penetration (i.e. how many people had actually tried the product) of vegetarian sandwich slices in Germany. For the veg variation by a well-known meat brand, this was no less than 48%, while for one of the more well-known vegetarian brands, it was a mere… two percent!
3. Vegan advocates as a food sampling army There are many vegan advocates in the street spreading moral messages to passers-by, by means of videos, flyers, and conversations. That’s great, but I think these interactions would be a lot more powerful if there was also the component of food sampling. A vegan nugget (probably one of the most convenient savory products to distribute) can be a conversation starter, can make people less defensive about discussing animal suffering (as they realize there is not all that much to lose), etc.
I think that for the animal protection movement, there are possibilities to organize samplings on a much larger scale than we are doing today. Potentially, we could be giving out tens of thousands of vegan samples every day, in the street, at festivals and fairs, with or without any special occasion.
Kane Rogers and Mei Wong, two Australian activists, run the campaign “The food you choose” in Melbourne. This campaign focus heavily on trying to get people to taste vegan food. Kane and Mei have quite some experience with passing out samples. I asked them for their top tips for running great food sampling sessions. Here’s what they suggest:
Don’t tell them it’s vegan… at first. As labeling a product as “vegan” for now still seems to be a turn-off for many, it’s better not to talk about it from the get-go. Some alternatives to put on your signs or banners could be “Free, Sustainable Food”, or “Cholesterol Free Food”. Adapt to your audience. Once people have tried the food, you should ask them what they think of it. It’s important to get their reaction first, so they can’t change their mind later.
Do the big reveal Let the person know they just ate a plant-based product. People don’t like to be duped, so make sure you don’t make them feel like they are fools who have been tricked. One way is to ask people “what do you think this was made from?” People may be shocked, so tell them that most people can’t tell the difference. This will prevent them from getting upset, and reinforces the idea that vegan food can taste just as good as “normal food”.
Tell them where they can buy it If you really want to make the biggest difference you can for animals or the planet, it’s important to help people buy the product for themselves. Keep your focus! You’re not talking about the benefits of veganism as a whole, or why someone should eat a plant-based diet in general (unless someone asks, of course). You’re just focussing on this one great product and why they should buy it. For many people, this could be their very first experience with vegan food. It’s really important that this moment is a happy, positive one that makes them walk away with a great memory. If the person doesn’t like the product, or has strong feelings about vegan food or veganism in general, so be it! Don’t try to change their mind. Hopefully they’ll change their own, in due time.
There is great potential for structural partnerships with the producers of these products, where the vegan movement could become a structural partner for them, possibly even getting paid for the sampling services. Imagine how many vegan nuggets a group like Anonymous for the Voiceless, with many hundreds of chapters all over the world, could hand out!
Do you know of any other ideas to close the gap between vegan food and reluctant eaters? Let me know in the comments!
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.
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:
Big companies have more money for advertising and will be able to sell their product to more people.
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.
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.
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.
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
Different people and different companies can obviously have very different priorities and intentions.
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.
Good intentions are neither necessary nor sufficient to have great results
Bad intentions may be good enough
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.
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.
Most “ethical vegans” (people who avoid animal products for moral reasons) would agree that the goal of the animal rights movement is the abolition of the use of animals for human purposes. In that sense, they are all “abolitionists”. The term abolitionist is derived from the people who advocated for the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th century in North America and Britain. But to what extent can those who advocate the abolition of animal exploitation compare themselves to, and draw inspiration from, slavery abolitionists? Were the goals and tactics similar? Is there anything that can be learned from their failures and successes? I interviewed Dr. Wlodzimierz Gogloza to help us answers these questions. We’ll focus on the anti-slavery movement in NorthnAmerica.
Dr. Gogloza is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Maria Curie Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland, where he teaches classes and seminars in the history of ideas, the legal traditions of the world and management studies. He has co-authored one book, co-edited seven scholarly volumes and published dozens of academic papers on various subjects including the radical fringes of the American anti-slavery movement, the British individualist tradition, and early managerial and organizational thought. He also volunteers for Open Cages/Anima International as a legal advisor and a campaign coordinator.
Vegan Strategist: First of all, who were these nineteenth century slavery abolitionists? What actually defined them?
Wlodek Gogloza: The first thing to understand is that within the North American anti-slavery movement, the so-called abolitionists were a minority. No more than 300,000 people identified themselves as abolitionists before the Civil War. The population of the United States at that time was around 31 million. Moreover, the self-identified abolitionists were very scattered across the North: even in the northernmost states where the anti-slavery movement was strongest, there were just a few places where one in ten people were abolitionist. Abolitionists were basically those who agreed with the three demands of the American Anti-Slavery Society (the main abolitionist group in the US). The first demand was immediate abolition of human bondage (sometimes called “immediatism”, as opposed to gradualism). The second: no compensation whatsoever for slave owners and no forced emigration (“expatriation”) of former slaves. The third demand was for all former slaves to be granted civil rights. These three goals carried the same weight, and if someone rejected even one of them, they would not be considered abolitionists.
Some of the most influential and best-known American abolitionists include William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Abby Kelley Foster, Lucretia Mott, Wendell Phillips, Joshua Leavitt, and Charles Sumner. They did not always see eye to eye on every question relating to abolition, especially on how the emancipation of the slaves should be achieved, but they all agreed that the three above mentioned demands were non-negotiable.
Those demands don’t seem too controversial in our present-day eyes…?
And yet they were extremely controversial at the time. It was especially the uncompromising anti-racist stance of their last demand that made the abolitionists seem like crazy fundamentalists.
Racism was much more widespread than it is today, and even among the anti-slavery activists, there were many people who harbored racist attitudes. The idea that the Afro-Americans should have the same rights as white citizens appalled even people who regarded slavery as an abomination.
President Lincoln, for instance, wanted to help slaves, but due to the stigma attached to the abolitionist movement, he tried hard to distance himself from the abolitionists. One man who campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 complained: “I have been denounced as impudent, foppish, immature, and worse than all, an Abolitionist”.(1)
So within the broader anti-slavery movement, what would be the demands of those who didn’t belong to the abolitionist fraction?
Some people were in favor of some kind of compensation for slaveholders, others wanted to send the freed slaves back to Africa. Lincoln, for instance, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the seminal “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, were proponents of the latter idea, known as colonization. Others still wanted to get rid of slavery in a more gradual fashion.
Were there people who actually shared all the abolitionists’ ideas, but didn’t campaign for them for pragmatic reasons?
Many Quakers agreed with the abolitionists in principle, but refused to participate in the abolitionists’ activities, which they regarded as disruptive and unruly. Their stance was known as “Quietism”. There were also many people who were disturbed by some fringe views on government and organized religion that some very prominent members of the AASS held. William Lloyd Garrison and his supporters, known as Garrisonians who openly advocated for something approaching anarchism, had a particularly polarizing influence on the broader anti-slavery movement.
Some animal rights advocates, notably Gary Francione, who shaped the so-called “abolitionist approach”, and his followers, like to compare the fight for animal liberation to the fight of the slavery abolitionists, seeing themselves in a similar position. What is it that they find especially inspiring?
I believe the modern day animal rights abolitionists, in the sense of Gary Francione and others, like the uncompromising and unequivocal stance of the slavery abolitionists. They seem also to be very fond of two tactics that they closely associate with the Garrisonians and other 19th-century immediatists: abstention and moral suasion. Here, as an example, is a representative quote from Gary Francione:
Garrison was clear: If you oppose slavery, you stop participating in the institution. Period. You emancipate your slaves. You reject slavery and you aren’t ashamed of your opposition. You don’t try to hide it. You openly and sincerely, but nonviolently, express your “persistent, uncompromising moral opposition” to slavery, which is “a system of boundless immorality.” Similarly, if you believe that animal exploitation is wrong, the solution is not to support “happy” exploitation. The solution is to go vegan, be clear about veganism as an unequivocal moral baseline, and to engage in creative, nonviolent vegan education to convince others not to participate in a system of “boundless immorality.”(2)
I strongly believe, however, that the parallels the animal rights abolitionists draw between their position and the position of 19th century slavery abolitionists are false, and are based on a very superficial understanding of the original abolitionist movement and the social and political reality in which it emerged.
Let’s look at this “moral suasion” first. How important was this tactic to slavery abolitionists?
Moral suasion was a tactic the American Anti-Slavery Society employed in the 1830s to end slavery by appealing to the Christian conscience of slave-owners and convincing them that slaveholding was a great sin, and should be immediately abandoned. It was a religious tactic employed by what, in essence, was a religious movement.
The AASS came into existence on the wave of the so-called Second Great Awakening – a Protestant religious revival that swept the US during the first half of the 19th century. People associated with the Great Awakening emphasized the power of an individual to renounce sin and encouraged their fellow Christians to strive for personal holiness.
Almost all early abolitionists came from this milieu. In fact, the AASS itself can be seen as a secular coalition of Quakers, Baptists, and Congregational revivalists, who wanted to inspire the slaveholders to renounce the sin of slavery and voluntarily free their slaves.
What shape did this moral suasion take, in practice?
The tactic was translated into a massive propaganda campaign. For almost two years, the AASS printed from twenty to fifty thousand anti-slavery pamphlets per week. They mailed these to slaveholders, state and federal government officials, politicians, newspaper editors, ministers, and preachers all over the country, but especially in the South. By the 1836, the abolitionists flooded the US with anti-slavery propaganda, sending more than one million pamphlets, posters, songbooks, and even readers for small children.
The abolitionists also sent their most engaging public speakers on lecture tours all around the North, held regular public meetings in major northern cities, and organized fairs, bazaars, and picnics, as well as vigils and prayer groups.
How successful were these efforts?
All this required huge resources and thousands of activists, but the results were quite discouraging. While some slave owners did free their slaves, the vast majority of the Southerners reacted to the abolitionists’ propaganda with extreme hostility, including mobs burning abolitionist mailings in post offices and violence against abolitionists that resulted in the death of several of them. In the end, the campaign proved to be counterproductive. It actually hardened the slave owners’ commitment to slavery.
After the Revolutionary War, many Southerners did believe that slavery was evil, though a necessary evil. By the early 1840, this changed, and to many Southerners slavery had become – to quote a speech by senator Albert Gallatin Brown from Mississippi – “a great moral, social, and political blessing—a blessing to the slave, and a blessing to the master”(3). When in an infamous speech, John C. Calhoun insisted that “slavery was a positive good”(4), this was a direct result of the abolitionists’ “postal campaign”.
Did the abolitionists realize that what they did wasn’t working?
They did. By the 1840’s, most of them had decided to abandon moral suasion as an outreach method. Two major tactics emerged at that time within the abolitionist movement. Some of the abolitionists started to focus on political campaigning, others on what modern scholars call “revolutionary abolitionism” – providing help to runaway slaves, disrupting the effectiveness of the Fugitive Slave Act, preparing for slave insurrection, etc.
The politically inclined abolitionists founded the Liberty Party, with the sole aim of making slavery illegal. The LP was not successful. Its best electoral outcome amounted to less than then 3% of the popular vote. But the abolitionist party later merged with the Free Soil Party, which quickly became a major political force in the North, and can be seen as a forerunner of Lincoln’s Republican Party.
Were all abolitionists on board with political campaigning?
No. The Garrisonians especially were hostile towards any form of government and found political engagement both useless and immoral. Instead, they advocated disunion, i.e., the secession of the northern free states from the US.
The masthead of The Liberator, which was the major press organ of the Garrisonians, contained the famous slogan “No Union with the Slaveholders”. This was obviously an extremely controversial position which could not attract major support.
But the Garrisonians were also involved in more pragmatic efforts – they helped to establish unsegregated schools, churches, libraries, etc., and successfully campaigned against segregation in carriages, trains, and steamboats.
What about abstention from slavery products? Did the 19th century abolitionists regard this as an unequivocal moral baseline and a true test of one’s commitment to the cause, as Gary Francione seems to imply?
The constitution of the AASS encouraged its members to give preference to products of free labor, but this doesn’t mean that the abolitionists saw abstention as a moral imperative.
Abstention was first used as a tactic by British abolitionists at the end of the 18th century. They used a minimalist “key-hole approach” to boycott, by focusing their efforts on a few carefully selected products. By boycotting slave-produced sugar and rum from the West Indies (the Caribbean islands), they wanted to put economic pressure on slave-dependent industries, and ultimately make slavery unprofitable. The economic goal was not achieved, but the boycott was instrumental in founding a mass movement of dedicated abolitionists who eventually brought slavery in Britain to an end.
While being inspired by the British example, the American abolitionists chose a more radical path. Starting in the 1830s, they set up dozens of organizations promoting abstention from all slave products. They also opened over 50 “free produce shops”, which sold products free of slave labor exclusively. Many of them were rather short lived, though.
How much traction did this abstention gain among the broader public in the US?
It never attracted a mass following, even among those with anti-slavery convictions. Complete avoidance of slave labor products was much more challenging than just boycotting sugar or rum (what the British did). The supply of free produce was not sufficient to satisfy even the smallest demand, and free-produce shops regularly had to cope with inventory shortages. And, quality of the products was usually low, while prices were too high for most whites and almost all free blacks.
In the end, the exclusive reliance on free produce required so much dedication to the cause that only the most committed abolitionists could maintain it, often to the detriment of focusing on other anti-slavery activities.(5)
It sounds like, much like in the vegan movement today, the impact and efficiency of personal purity was under discussion.
Exactly. The parallel goes even deeper. Abstention actually became a major issue of contention within the abolitionist movement. The Garrisonians, who had initially supported the free produce cause, later started to criticize it. They realized that, in practice, abstention diverted energy from the anti-slavery struggle by shifting the focus from activism to personal morality.
Analyzing the papers and newsletters produced by the advocates of abstention reveals the abstentionists’ growing focus on personal purity and on a “consciousness of sincerity and consistency, of possessing ‘clean hands,’ of having ‘no fellowship with the workers of iniquity’ ”.(6)
This obsession with “clean hands”, by the way, proved to be a major problem to the owners of the free-produce shops, who constantly had to reassure their clients that the products they were selling were free of slave labor.
That all sounds quite familiar…
It does, doesn’t it. Eventually, the self-righteousness of the “abstentionists” became unbearable even to deeply religious abolitionists, who like Garrison, were striving for holiness in their own private lives. By the late 1840s, virtually all major figures within the anti-slavery movement had come to oppose “abstention”, as a major tactics to create change. As a result, abstentionism in the 1850s came to be associated almost exclusively with a very small faction of Quakers.
So, contrary to what some modern day animal rights abolitionists seem to be implying, the abstention movement was very small, insignificant, and at odds with the broader anti-slavery movement.
Even at the anti-slavery fairs, not all of the products that were sold were free produce. The abolitionists justified their acts of buying and selling the products of slave labor with their commitment to the slaves’ cause. As William Lloyd Garrison explained during one debate with abstentionists, “who but the abolitionist is so well entitled to use the products of slave’s toil in whose behalf he is laboring?”(7)
So, if one were to interpret Garrison’s comments in the context of modern debates over veganism, his approach to abstention would be much closer to a position known as “moral offsetting” than to Francione’s “veganism as a moral imperative.”
What do you mean by “moral offsetting”?
It’s an idea popularized within the Effective Altruism community by Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex fame. The gist of it is that you can offset some of your “shortcomings” by doing an appropriate good deed. Let’s say, for example, that you feel a moral obligation to be a vegan, but for some reason you cannot fully commit to veganism. So, you offset your “milk chocolate addiction” with a donation to an animal rights organization, which then uses it to fund campaigns aimed at ending factory farming of dairy cows.
Note, I’m not saying that “moral offsetting” is a proper approach; it’s just that it is closer to what Garrison was advocating with regard to abstention, than a “moral baseline”.
As a vegan yourself, after having looked at the anti-slavery movement, in sum, what do you think are the major takeaways?
I’d say, first of all, make sure to really study the movements you claim to share affinity with and you think you’re taking advice from. The American abolitionist movement was not a monolith. It consisted of lot of different factions, which clashed almost constantly on both fundamental and minor issues pertaining to slavery and emancipation. There was no single one abolitionist tactic. The Garrisonians used one, the abstentionists another, and the political or constitutional abolitionists yet another. Sometimes, the factions did cooperate – for example on a petitioning campaign which however was quickly stifled by adoption of a gag rule by the US Congress – but it is inappropriate to talk about the abolitionist strategy or tactic.
Second, realize that the fact that a tactic worked at some point doesn’t imply universal applicability. The American abolitionists followed very closely in the footsteps of the British anti-slavery movement, and even though they tried similar approaches, they were not able to replicate British success, for a very obvious reason. The US was much more dependent on slavery than Britain, which meant that the American abolitionists operated in a different and much more challenging environment than the British ones.
Also, we should not become overly attached to one tactic, and be prepared to update our methods. The US anti-slavery movement was initially very attached to moral suasion, but then abandoned it and moved to institutional change. A similar thing happened with regard to the abstention. When the abolitionist realized that the meager results of the boycott were barely worth the effort, the vast majority of them switched to different tactics.
Last but not least, we should acknowledge the limits of inspirational stories and personalities. I deeply admire the American abolitionists. It’s hard not to be inspired by their incredible courage, life-long commitment to the slaves’ cause, and pure guts necessary to challenge an institution so deeply engraved into social, economic, and political system of their country. But, our heroes were not infallible (for example, the US abolitionists were an extremely quarrelsome bunch, and many of them were involved in bitter and prolonged personal feuds) and should not be expected to provide us with a blueprint to change the world, especially one which is so different from their own.
O.L. Jackson, The Colonel’s Diary, Ohio 1922, p. 34.
G.L. Francione, The Abolitionist-Regulationist Debate From Another Era: Sound Familiar?, https://www.abolitionistapproach.com/the-abolitionist-regulationist-debate-from-another-era-sound-familiar/
Quoted in J.M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. The American Civil War, New York 1990, p. 56
Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions, February, 1837, in J.C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun. Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the present time, New York 1843, p. 225
See R.K. Nuermberger, The Free Produce Movement: A Quaker Protest Against Slavery, Durham 1942.
E. Heyrick, Immediate, not Gradual Abolition: or, An Inquiry Into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery, 2nd ed., Boston 1838, p. 35.
R.K. Nuermberger, op. cit., p. 102.
M. Sinha, The Slave’s Cause. A History of Abolition, Yale University Press 2016.
J.B. Stewart, Abolitionist Politics and the Coming of the Civil War, The University of Massachusetts Press 2008.
A.S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolitionism. Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850, Pantheon Books 1967.
R.K. Nuermberger, The Free Produce Movement: A Quaker Protest Against Slavery, Duke University Press 1942.
L.B. Glickman, Buy for the Sake of the Slave: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism, “American Quarterly”, Volume 56, Number 4, December 2004, pp. 889-912.
H. Mayer, All on Fire. William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery, W.W. Norton & Company 1998.
J.R. Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism. Ordinary Women in the Anti-Slavery Movement, The University of North Carolina Press 1998.
L. Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought, Cornell University Press, 1973.
For a critical overview of the modern animal rights abolitionism see L.E. Chiesa, Animal Rights Unraveled: Why Abolitionism Collapses into Welfarism and What It Means for Animal Ethics, “Georgetown Environmental Law Review”, Vol 28, 2016, pp. 557-587, available online at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2905054
Make sure to read Henry Mayer’s “All on Fire. William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery”. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, and I read intellectual biographies for a living.
Vegan products are quickly gaining in popularity. The biggest driver of this growth comes not from the vegans, but from people who like to buy and taste plant-based products now and then, for whatever reason (health, animals, environment, variety… or just because they’re there and they taste good). Companies that are producing meat and dairy products and are not offering vegan products can respond to the growth of the vegan market (and possibly the decline of the meat and dairy market) in several ways. Below, I briefly go over these different types of responses, starting with conservative and defensive ones, and moving to more progressive and radical ones.
1. ignore the whole thing
There are still quite a few companies – though less and less of them – that believe the vegan trend is just a hype, which will blow by. Others do realize that the growth of meat and dairy may be permanently stagnating and may decline further in the western world, but hope to profit from growing demand for their products in developing countries. Indeed, as pro capita income in China, India and other countries in Asia as well as Latin America is increasing, demand for animal products, according to the business as usual scenario, is expected to rise dramatically (indeed to double by 2050). Meat and dairy companies hope to cater to this growing international demand. These opportunities for export, however, are not a given. Awareness of the issues is growing in these countries, and new technology like clean meat may throw a wrench in the machine. Also, in the future many of these countries will probably cater more and more to their own needs and acquire the necessary expertise, rather than importing meat and dairy products from the west.
2. try to slow it down or stop it
Some companies are proactively fighting or trying to sabotage the growing interest in plant-based foods or, for that matter, the growing awareness around animal welfare and animal rights issues. One obvious example is how the meat and dairy industry in Europe and the US have been lobbying to ban the use of meat- and dairy-style names (words like “hamburger” or “cheese”) for plant based products. In Europe, this lobbying has actually been successful and led tot he fact that soymilk or oatmilk can no longer be called “milk” but should carry other names (like “drink”). In France the same already goes for meat products, so a vegetarian or vegan hamburger can no longer be called that. In the US, similar initiatives have so far been unsuccessful, but on the other hand we have seen so called “ag-gag” laws (agriculture gagging) in many states. These laws prohibit things like taking pictures of factory farms, in an attempt to limit animal activists from making undercover footage. Similar repressive measures have been taken in particular in Austria.
3. “traditional innovation”
To keep selling enough products, many companies need to constantly innovate. “Traditional innovation” – the term is sort of an intentional oxymoron – is what I mean with meat and dairy companies creating innovative products that still involve animal products. An example of this is lactose free milk – a dairy product which the dairy sector wants to sell to those who are lactose intolerant – or milk with certain flavors.
Much more innovative – I’m still placing it here but it could also be under the next point – are hybrid products (see my interview with Jos Hugense of Meatless). These products are made up of both animal and plant products. Imagine “milk” that is partly cow’s milk and partly oat milk, or a sausage that is 70 percent meat and 30 percent wheat – both product categories that actually exist.
4. developping alternatives for meat and dairy products
More and more companies are taking an even bolder step, and are launching animal free alternatives of the animal products that they are already offering. Both the Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs icecream brands, for instance, have launched vegan flavors. In Germany the long standing meat company Ruggenwalder Muhle has launched many vegetarian or vegan products.
5. venture investments in plant-based companies
Some companies are hedging against or preparing for the decline of demand for animal products by investing in other companies that produce alternatives. Tyson Food‘s venture fund has famously bought a stake in the vegan company Beyond Meat and has also invested in startups trying to bring clean meat to market. General Mills has invested in Kite Hill (which offers plant based cheeses), as well as in Beyond Meat. And both Cargill and Tysyon foods have invested in Memphis Meat, a Californian start up trying to bring clean meat to market, and having already produced prototypes of clean meatballs and clean duck.
6 . acquiring a plant-based company
Meat and dairy companies also have to option of not just buying a stake in a plant-based company, but completely acquiring it. This can be a good idea when the meat or dairy company doesn’t have the expertise or the ambition to bring their own alternative products to market quickly enough. French dairy giant Danone bought Whitewave foods, which owns brands like Silk, Alpro (a European nondairy company), as well as some organic dairy brands. Danone paid upwards of 11 billion dollars for the acquisition, but it allows the company to make an entrance into the US market – where it was weak – as well as in the plant-based and organic market. There are many other examples of similar acquisitions, like Finish dairy company Valio acquiring Swedish oatmilk company Oddlygood, Canadian Saputo acquiring Morningstar, etc. Famous vegan cheesemaker Daiya was acquired by the Japanese company Otsuka.
For vegans who dislike that meat companies are getting involved in vegan companies, it’s important to be aware of the fact that through their venture investments or acquisitions, the investing or new parent company can support the further growth of the vegan company. Apart from cash for further product development or advertising budgets, an investing or parent company can also provide their expertise in research and development to make a product better. An Alpro exectutive for instance, talked about how their new parent company Danone’s expertise in fermenting would be very useful to further improve the quality of Alpro’s yoghurts. Other assets that a parent company can provide are all their contracts with supermarket (or maybe even restaurant) chains to help improve the distribution of these products. Also important to note is that very probably, a meat or dairy company will be much less likely to try to sabotage vegan growth (option two above) if they are already profiting from it.
7. completely transforming into a plant-based company
Finally, a meat or dairy company can transition into a vegan company. This is at this point a very rare phenomenon, but it does happen, and one can only hope it will happen more and more. An example is the traditional New York dairy company Elmhurst, which is now a plant-based company. It continues to sell milk, but switched from cows to nuts for their sourcing.
If we want the vegan lifestyle to spread further, it is necessary that traditional companies can jump on board somehow, and that they have a wider variety of options than just go bankrupt or to turn vegan overnight – both of which are very rare occurences.
Do you see any responses that I missed? Let me know.
You may have heard the term “apologist vegan” or “vegan apologist”. Maybe you’ve even been called that. But what is it, exactly?
I googled around a bit in search of descriptions of definitions, and the gist of it seems that a vegan apologist is a vegan who caters too much about how non-vegans feel, and who is able to apologize their non-vegan behavior, by coming up with reasons non-apologist vegans (I’ll call them “hardliners” in this post) do not find convincing. Another telltale sign of being an apologist, apparently, is to apologize for the behavior of some other vegans to meat eaters. For instance, an apologist vegan would explain that some vegans are really too militant or intolerant. This, again, is a no go for hardliners. In the eyes of the hardliners, there is no excuse for animal abuse, no excuse for not going vegan right now, no excuse for any exception. No excuse for excuses. The hardliners believe, I think, that it is only they who unconditionally take the side of the animals, and that apologists tolerate behavior of others that should not be tolerated.
As a vegan, should you always reject and refute the reasons other people give for not being (entirely) vegan? I think not.
I think “making apologies” – the thing so frowned upon by hardliners – is often a good thing. There are two reasons for that, one is about process, one is about content.
The process reason for taking seriously other people’s reasons for not being vegan, understanding them, sometimes accepting them, is that an attitude where you understand where people are coming from and are not demanding something they seem to think is impossible, is much more likely to get them to be open and listen to you. Hardline vegans seem to think that apologist vegans care all too much about not hurting other people’s feelings. I understand that sentiment, and I think that sometimes we go too far in the direction of not trying to offend. But that’s not (only) what this is about. This is also about effectiveness. If you tell a person they have to do something, that there is no excuse for them not to change, that all their reasons are bullshit… well, in many or most cases you’ll just alienate that person.
The content reason for being an apologist vegan, so to speak, is that people may have (at the very least in their own perception) valid reasons not to be vegan (and certainly, not entirely vegan). To understand some of the arguments the “apologist vegans” use to excuse non-vegans, take a look at the bingo meme below. For a selection of these “apologist arguments”, I did the following: between brackets I made the objection a little bit clearer, where necessary (just in case the few words on the card are not clear enough to you). Then I briefly wrote out what I call the “hardline vegan argument” (HVA). This is what I think the maker of the bingo card (obviously a non-apologist) had in mind. Then I’ll spell out what I call the “apologist vegan argument” (AVA), which indeed explains why this particular objection against (fully consistent) veganism may hold some water.
As you will see, the hardline vegan argument usually is very binary and black and white in nature. If something is derived from animals or involves animal use, it is not vegan, period. The apologist vegan argument is more nuanced.
Here we go.
Backyard eggs (“It’s fine if people eat vegan except for eggs from chickens from their own backyard.”) Hardline vegan argument (HVA): eggs are animal products. Vegans don’t eat animal products. No exceptions. Apologist vegan argument (AVA): while there certainly may entail some problems, backyard eggs may be the single least problematic animal product, and conceding that they are often not very problematic at all, may increase the credibility of our position towards non-vegans, as well as making the transition a bit easier for them.
Part time vegan (“Part time vegans are taking steps, and are helpful for the animals.”) HVA: there’s no such thing as a part time vegan. You’re vegan or you’re not. When people still eat non-vegan meals, they are still part of the problem and still contributing to animal suffering. AVA: a part time vegan is part of the solution, by having a lower suffering footprint, and by helping to push demand for vegan products, thus helping to make going vegan easier for everyone (due to increased availability). Moreover, part time vegans are much closer to going vegan than omnivores. They should be stimulated and encouraged.
Note that these arguments also work for the “baby steps” objection (which apparently the maker of the bingo card finds so objectionable that they put it in the center)
Service dogs (“Vegans shouldn’t be against stuff like dogs that help the blind.”) HVA: using an animal is not vegan. AVA: these dogs are very helpful for blind people, and it’s certainly not obvious that they are mistreated and/or suffering. This should not be a priority. Speaking out against service dogs may easily come over as very harsh, and does not contribute to a positive image of vegans and veganism.
Oysters are vegan (“Oysters aren’t really animals, we can eat them.”) HVA: oysters are animals. Not vegan. AVA: there seem to be reasonable arguments to claim that oysters are not sentient, and in this sense are more like plants than animals. Conceding this point, or leaving this question open, may help us come across as reasonable, open-minded, non-dogmatic people. If we are reasonable and open-minded, many others will be much more likely to actually have a conversation with us.
Personal choice (“People still have the freedom to eat what they want. We shouldn’t push our beliefs on them.”) HVA: our actions are not a personal choice when other beings are involved and suffer because of your choices. AVA: it’s good to explain that eating animal products or not is definitely not a choice on the level of choosing the color of your wallpaper: shall or shall we not eat animal products, is not the same as shall we paint the living room blue or yellow. However, people are indeed free to eat what they want to eat. I think that by seeing things like this, our communication towards non-vegans may be less pushy, judgmental or restrictive, so that there is more chance they have the mental space to freely consider these serious issues.
Everyone can’t be vegan (“We can’t expect the whole world to go vegan.”) HVA: there is no excuse not to go vegan, everyone can do it. AVA: while many people in the west are in a perfect position to go vegan, it may be good to realize – and to show that we understand – that there are people for whom going vegan is less easy than for others. Some people are way less privileged than others, coping with financial problems, family issues, health issues, allergies, cultural issues, food deserts… While these may not make it strictly impossible to go vegan, they may at least make it (much) more difficult.
Humans are oppressed too (“Animals are not the only issue, let’s not lose sight of other issues.”) OVA: human suffering pales in comparison with what we are doing to animals AVA: the scale at which animals suffer and die at human hands is indeed massive and incredible. But that can never justify that anyone would ignore human suffering, or prioritize animal suffering at the cost of everything else.
Lab created meat is vegan (“Clean meat, created from animal cells, does not entail suffering.”) HVA: it’s not vegan, because it’s an animal product. Not only does the production of clean meat require a biopsy from an animal, it also requires an animal growth medium. Moreover, we don’t need clean meat, as there are so great meat and dairy alternatives these days. AVA: The biopsy is pretty much harmless. Moreover, if in the future we are more accepting of GMO technology in this, we can make eternally self-replicating cells, so that we only need to take the biopsy once. As for the medium, we are developping – and will use in the future – animal free growth mediums. In any case, clean meat has the potential to prevent massive amounts of animal suffering. As for not needing it: if plant based foods are sufficient, then why is not everyone vegan yet? Apparently there are still holes and lacks, and we should try everything to fill these up.
Honey is vegan (“Let’s not mention honey and consider it vegan, rather than talking about details.”) HVA: honey is an animal product and therefore not vegan. AVA: technically honey is not a vegan product, but focusing on this will make veganism seem less credible (it’s such a natural and healthy product in most people’s eyes) and more difficult. It’s good to a least not always volunteer the “honey is not vegan” information.
Don’t say rape when referring to animals (“The word rape in the context of dairy is a turn-off”) HVA: but dairy IS rape. AVA: dairy may indeed be similar to rape in non-trivial ways, but a farmer artificially inseminating a cow has a completely different intention than a rapist. Also, public acceptance of rape and artificial insemination of animals is completely different. Therefore it is not strategic to compare the one with the other. This kind of comparison will often alienate non-vegans. It is, however, useful in many situations to point out to people that cows don’t get pregnant every year without human interference.
Vegetarian is better than omnivore (“We should applaud people becoming vegetarian.”) HVA: a vegetarian is still part of the problem. There is so much suffering involved in the production and consumption of eggs and dairy. AVA: eggs and dairy certainly are problematic on different fronts, but vegetarians are doing most of the work, having a much lower suffering footprint, and helping to increase demand for and supply of meat alternatives. Besides, they might be well on the way to going vegan.
This is why people hate vegans (“Vegans shouldn’t do this or say this, it makes people dislike us.”) HVA: vegans shouldn’t be critized for the way they communicate or for the methods they use. We’re pointing out very serious stuff. Anything goes, basically. AVA: conceding the point that there certainly are vegans who are communicating in a less than optimal manner, or that there are methods that might be counterproductive, may again lead the non-vegan to take you a bit more seriously and close the gap between us and them. If you just sanction anything vegans do, you may be considered to be “one of those”, and the other party will not be willing to keep the dialogue open.
Only eat animal products from dumpster (“I’m vegan except when I find free animal products in the trash”.) HVA: not vegan. AVA: Freegans are not contributing to demand. They may have their own convictions for being freegan – like not wasting food. They’re a part of the solution, not the problem.
I hope you can see that the apologist vegan arguments do hold water, both in terms of content and in terms of process. Even if “apologist” is used as a term of abuse, I definitely won’t shy away from trying to find truth and valid arguments – wherever I may find them – in non-vegans’ claims. That’s because I want to build rapport with them, in the hope I can somehow help them make better choices. And because, frankly, sometimes they do have a point.
And sure, we should not find excuses for everything, or be too tolerant of wrong things. But we should always take into account where people are coming from, what time they are living in, what the norms of the day are, before we judge and condemn others. If we do that, we will see quite easily why not everyone is doing what we are doing. Yet.
Given that I write and comment about strategies and communication styles within the vegan/animal rights movement, people often ask me about my views on certain tactics and approaches. One of the questions I get most often is what my view is on the “Cube of Truth” street actions by the group Anonymous for the voiceless. In this post I’ll briefly share some some thoughts on this particular form of action.
To help form my opinion, I attended one cube of truth in Berlin, somewhere in Spring of this year (2018). I didn’t actively participate, but was there as an observer. My thoughts and impressions are mainly based on this one instance, and also on my impressions of online videos, and feedback by other vegans. This still gives a very incomplete picture, so I’ll consider my opinion as preliminary. Judging from what I hear, while the structure of the Cube of Truth is always more or less the same, the way passers-by are approached and talked to seems to differ much among cubes or groups.
For those who are not familiar with the concept: a certain number of activists are standing in a busy area. They are arranged in a square, all facing outwards. They hold signs (displaying messages like “truth” or “watch to see why we are here”) and laptops showing graphic images of animal cruelty. They wear Guy Fawkes masks. Passers-by who stop to watch the footage will be addressed by other activists, who are not in the Cube, but who are outreachers. These activists will ask the onlookers what they think of the images, inform them further, and try to get a commitment to change (see below).
This concept has become very popular, and has spread all over the world since its conceptualization in April 2016 by Paul Bashir and Asal Alamdari in Australia. Together with DXE and the Save Movement, the Cube/Anonymous represent today’s most popular street actions. At the moment of writing, there have been 4000 demonstrations in 650 cities worldwide, allegedly convincing 215.000 bystanders to take veganism seriously.
My impressions of the one Cube I attended in Berlin were largely positive. I was rather impressed with how I heard the outreachers talk to the onlookers. Most were not pushy. They were asking questions and listening, rather than just blurting out all the facts and numbers on animal suffering they had. I was told that outreachers only approach people who have been watching for a while, and will not bother with those who just walk by and seem not to be open for any conversation.
Outreachers seem to ask people to go vegan or to try Challenge 22 (a vegan challenge of 22 days). From what I read and hear, there’s no desire to ask for “steps” or reduction, possibly because this is not considered an ethical ask (I’ll get back to this). I did one little test with a couple of onlookers who had been addressed by an outreacher and asked them about their experience of the conversation. They answered that it had been positive. They were not ready to go vegan, but they had definitely received food for thought. I’m not sure whether this couple was checked as a success (“will take veganism seriously”) or not by the outreachers.
It was moving to watch the audience being moved (see if you are moved by that yourself, here)
I can definitely see some very positive aspects to this kind of activism. First of all, it seems to be very successful in attracting new activists. It’s easy to imagine that standing there, trying to reach people, together with other activists, gives one a satisfying feeling – a feeling of actually contributing to the movement and helping animals. No matter how big the actual impact is, this is valuable in itself. The movement needs as many active people as possible (something I consider more important than being “very very vegan”). I can see that many of these people could transition to other kinds of activism (which would be especially important if some day we’d conclude that this form of activism is not sufficiently effective – a conclusion I’m not able to make at this moment).
It’s easy to see that this form of joint activism is more attractive to many vegans than just standing in the street (with leaflets or a sign) by oneself, and that doing things in group provides a sense of community and mutual support (after a Cube, activists often get together for a meal or a drink).
Some possible concerns
There are concerns about the masks as well. Some people I talked to seem to find them off putting. I do understand the purpose of using masks in general: they make it clear to people who are walking by from afar that something is going on there, and this could motivate them to come closer and check things out. Of course, if they find the masks scary, or too alternative looking, they might not.
A second purpose of the masks is that a person with a mask looks more like a kind of statue, and that may make it easier for people to come closer and to watch the computer screens for a while. One doesn’t feel one is being watched. Of course, you could ask the question why the laptops aren’t just put on some kind of stand, without any people having to carry them. Presumably that might take away from the visual spectacle.
As to this particular mask: I’m less sure of the choice. I don’t think many people know or care about the symbolism behind it. And if it would be a bit scary to a sufficient percentage of onlookers, it might be interesting to think about other masks.
The day of the demo was bright and sunny, and that meant that it was hard to see the computer screens. To me, that seemed kind of an advantage. Showing graphic images to unsuspicious onlookers is probably the most controversial part of this form of activism. It’s especially concerning when there are children among the audience. Seeing very graphic images may trigger or traumatize some people. Keep in mind that people have not given their consent and have not been warned about what they are going to see. They just approach the screens, not knowing what to expect, and may suddenly find themselves staring – with their small children – at blood and gore.
This is not to say I believe that negative footage should never be shown. But there is a difference between very bloody and gory footage (animals’ throats being cut in slaughterhouses for instance) and other images that may also very well pull heartstrings, but are not as shocking. Apparently images from this latter category are also used – like this video of a mother cow running after her calves that are being taken away… Stuff like this is not traumatizing or gory, but could very well stay on one’s mind for a long time (subtitles could be added to make more clear what is happening).
I wonder to what extent tests and polls are being done in general, and to what extent Anonymous is confident about results and impact. It seems that as a metric they use the number of “conversions”. Outreachers check a conversion when a person verbally commits to one of three things: 1. Going vegan. 2. Doing the vegan22 challenge. 3. Watching one or some of the vegan documentaries with the intention of learning more about veganism. Outreachers are generally asked to be conservative in their decisions as to whether or not to count an interaction as successful.
Obviously the impact has a lot to do with how many people-hours go into to an action like this, versus how many people are actually being reached. If you stand there for three hours and only reach a dozen people, it seems not the best use of one’s time. I don’t have an idea of the average number of people reached though, and I guess one event will inevitably be better and bigger than another.
Conclusion and some suggestions
Like I wrote at the beginning, my impression is based on limited experience and information. But from what I can see, if you want to do one-to-one outreach (rather than more institutional outreach) and if you want to talk about moral arguments (rather than health, or rather than working with food), then Anonymous and their Cube of truth seem to offer an appealing way of doing activism for many vegans.
Based on what I wrote above, here are some suggestions that Anonymous could possibly consider:
Check the efficacy of the masks, and use different ones if these don’t seem to be the best ones. Maybe make the whole thing visually a bit more cheerful and attractive
Consider keeping outright gory images to a minimum and replace them by other coverage that may be more effective and less off-putting
Do more research about impact in general. Maybe use something like “mystery shoppers”: people from the movement who walk in on the outreachers and pretend they are non-vegans, maybe playing devil’s advocate at times. Other activists could have “meta-conversations”: conversations with people who were approached by outreachers
Put sufficient efforts in training people in good communication skills. I’ve learned that Anonymous is launching a global online education initiative called “AV Academy”.
Consider using a wider variety of asks and drop the dogma that we can only ask for veganism/vegan challenges or nothing. Many more people might be open to doing Meatless Monday or seriously reducing their consumption (for some of my criticism of “abolitionism” and the way this term is used, see this piece)
If at all possible, consider using food. I’m a big believer in food outreach. I realize handing out food makes the logistics a lot heavier, but it would contribute to a friendlier image and combine the head and the stomach. Maybe handing out coupons for nearby vegan restaurants could be interesting.
I may update this article in the future when I get new insights or information.