I remember, more than fifteen years ago, asking vegetarians and vegans what they would do if ever McDonald’s came up with a vegan burger. Imagine furthermore, I said, that they are testing it somewhere and that the success of the test will determine if they will roll it out everywhere.
Sometimes, thought-experiments (I’ve always loved them) become real. This week, McDonald introduced a vegan burger in Tampere, Finland. The success it will have until November may influence what will happen in thousands of other McDonald’s around the globe.
Vegans, as often, are a bit divided in their reactions. Many applaud this initiative, while many others state that they will never ever eat anything at McDonald’s, because one vegan burger cannot erase the many problematic aspects of the company.
I’m seeing a lot of gut-level, unexamined opinions on this topic. So, allow me to present you with some of my thoughts on this issue.
What’s wrong with McDonald’s?
McDonald’s has been and in many aspects remains a problematic company. Actually, in many people’s eyes (at least activists and people on the left in general), McDonald’s is more or less the prototype of a Bad Company. When I type “what’s wrong with” in Google, the first autocomplete suggestion I see is… McDonald’s. The 1986 pamphlet What’s Wrong With McDonald’s – and the “McLibel” lawsuit by the corporation against Helen Steel and Dave Morris – probably has something to do with this. The pamphlet spoke about animal welfare, workers’ rights, deforestation, luring children with toys, etc. And for many people, even if all of these problems were solved, McDonald’s would still simply be too big, too capitalist, too uniform and too many other things to support.
I don’t have the time to do a thorough check of how McDonald’s is doing today in terms of all these different social dimensions, but let’s just very briefly look at one aspect: is McDonald’s any worse in the animal welfare department than similar companies? According to Paul Shapiro, Vice President of policy engagement at the Humane Society of the US, the company’s 2012 announcement that the US branch would require its suppliers to phase out gestation crates and its 2015 similar announcement on battery cages both led to a cascade of other major retailers doing the same or better. In a real way, Shapiro says, the company’s announcements helped put the writing on the wall that these cage confinement practices will have no place in the future. Sure, all these are “mere” welfare reforms, but they are a start, and they mean tangible differences for literally billions of animals.
I think a lot of the hate McDonald’s gets is not always entirely rational, and is in part due to the fact that McD has come to symbolize all that is bad about modern day capitalism. But let’s, for argument’s sake, just accept that the fast food giant is still a very bad company – it definitely buys, cooks and serves a humongous number of animals. What does this mean in terms of vegans and the vegan movement’s relationship to the vegan burger?
I found many people claiming on social media that they will never support McDonald’s. They refuse to spend money on such a company and, thus, (in their view), contribute to all the evil it is doing. An often heard response to this kind of argument is that these very same people probably spend quite some money in other businesses (e.g.) supermarkets, which also sell animal parts and may also cause other kinds of damage. Again, singling out McDonald’s (and other big fast food chains) seems to me not a rational attitude, but may have a lot to do with the symbolic function that McDonald’s has.
Sometimes, it seems to me that it is part of human nature to want or need enemies: many of us just love to hate some people and companies. For this reason, some of us may not like it when the enemy improves. People don’t want to lose their enemy and seem to require an outlet for a certain amount of hate and anger. An indication of this is that there is hardly anything this enemy can do in order to get the support of the naysayers (people may, for instance, not even support McDonald’s if it’s 100% vegan and green and… ). Some of the McVegan’s opponents have been asking whether the mustard, the sauce, the buns are vegan and whether the patty will be fried on the same grill as the beef patties are fried on – seemingly looking for any excuse not to support it. Others say it’s just junk.
Every positive action that is undertaken will be considered insignificant, or greenwashing, or empty, or whatever. The idea that the company is evil to its core becomes sort of non-falsifiable.
Some people in the no camp consider the enthusiasm of the yes camp as some sort of “veganism über alles” attitude. They see the McVegan’s proponents as applauding anything that advances the vegan or animal cause, even if it is at the cost of anything else. Certainly, there are vegans who are very narrowly focused on animals alone and don’t care for intersecting social justice issues. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case for everyone saying yes to the McVegan. These people may just be willing to encourage every significant step, realizing that not everything will be done at once. If McDonald’s takes significant measures in other areas, these could also be applauded, even though the company is still responsible for a lot of animal suffering.
The case for a McVegan
I have written before on the power that big companies have to do good things (see Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy? and Why vegans shouldn’t boycot Daiya cheese). It’s easy to see some of the advantages of having a vegan burger at McD’s. Such an offer would help tremendously in normalizing and mainstreaming vegan food and would lower the threshold for a lot of people to actually try it out (the burger has to be tasty, of course – but according to what I read, it is). Companies who have a stake in selling plant-based foods also will start to become less antagonistic to the growth of the vegan phenomenon.
But most importantly, big companies have the power, the resources, the contacts and the channels to get these products out everywhere. I just came back from the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London, organized by Compassion in World Farming and WWF. During one of the panels, Josh Balk, Vice President for The Humane Society of the United States’ farm animal division, reminded us of the days when soy milk could only be found in an obscure corner of the local health food store. What happened, asked Josh, that pulled plant-based milks out of that corner and put them on the shelves of every major supermarket in the United States? His answer: Dean Foods happened.The largest dairy company in the US saw an opportunity and got into plant-based milks. There might be other explanations for these products’ growing popularity, but Big Dairy definitely played a big part in it.
Dean Foods inspired other companies to do as they did and invest in dairy alternatives. Just so, McDonald’s, if successful, may further inspire other chains (and maybe the fast food giant was inspired to start in Finland because of the successful Hesburger chain, which carries a vegan burger).
Can vegans make a difference?
If we think a vegan burger at McDonald’s is a good idea, we can actively participate by buying or recommending the burger. Or, we can just silently support it and leave it to other people to buy it. But what if the vegan movement (in Finland or internationally) was actually able to help make or break this experiment? The fact that the burger is called McVegan seems to imply that the McDonald’s folks have at least to some degree the vegan target audience in mind.
Suppose that, as the news articles seem to imply, the success the Finish experiment can influence or determine if and to what extent this burger will be rolled out in other countries. Think of the massive number of animals who would be spared a lifetime of suffering. I feel confident in saying that, assuming all this, I would be fine with spending my own money on this and asking others to do the same. Furthermore, if I were director of a Finish organization, I might actually recommend all vegans to go there (though I would take into account the potential backlash of less pragmatic vegans).
It is important to realize that McDonald’s has tried to launch a vegan or vegetarian burger several times in different countries, but nowhere quite succeeded (except in India). Imagine that the McDonald’s US vegan burger launched in California and New York City in 2003 had succeeded, and had been rolled out nationally and internationally, and had inspired other companies… It’s hard to say if the vegan movement could have played a significant role in that, but it is not unthinkable. (Interestingly, the person who oversaw the Southern California rollout of the McVeggie burger, Don Thompson, eventually became McDonald’s CEO, but has since left the company and now is on Beyond Meat’s board of directors.)
Bad intentions are good enough
As is very often – and often rightly – the case, our judgment of an action is partly inspired by how we see the intentions or motivations of the people behind the action. It is entirely safe to assume that the motivation to introduce the McVegan is financial. A lot of Facebook comments are exactly about this: McDonald’s is only in it for the money; they are money grubbing bastards, etc., etc. Wanting to make a profit is, of course, entirely normal for a company. Yet, many of us don’t like that motivation, while we love ethical motivations. Do a little experiment for yourself: imagine the CEO of McDonald’s Finland is a vegan and introduced the burger because she wants to do something good for animals. Chances are you will notice your opinions about the whole thing shift.
The question, though, is how important are these intentions? The animals certainly don’t care. With Saul Alinsky, a social justice activist, I agree that we should allow people to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals:
“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.”
I was CEO of McDonald’s for one day
Maybe twenty years ago, in my very early activism days, I organized a protest at a brand new McDonald’s in our town (Ghent, Belgium). We had a bunch of people there, with the obligatory signs, slogans and pamphlets, and one or two newspapers covered it. About fifteen years later, when I was director of EVA, the organization I had cofounded, I did what was called a “jobswitch” with the CEO of McDonald’s Belgium (this was an initiative of a sustainability organization of which we were both members). While I gave a presentation and got to know some of the people, practises and procedures of the McDonald’s Belgium team, my own team entertained and informed their CEO and presented him with the best meat alternatives available. The day finished with me and the CEO – who hadn’t seen each other all day – doing a closing meeting. Which happened… exactly at the McDonald’s where I had organized the protest many years ago…
The demonstration was an example of confrontation, while the jobswitch day was a form of collaboration, or at least, something that could lead to that. Today, these two forms of taking action are still valid and necessary, but I myself am more of a believer in collaboration than confrontation.
No bust, no revolution, but gradual change
McDonald’s is not going to just disappear. And, it’s not just suddenly going to turn into a vegan company. The only thing that can happen is gradual improvement. I respect vegans who want to have nothing to do with that improvement, and want to stay as far away from some companies as they can (rational arguments are helpful). I’m not saying that boycotts are never useful or successful. And, I can obviously see value in supporting vegan businesses as much as possible. But, I think that this alone won’t cut it, and I believe, for the animals, the support of big companies, well-intentioned or not, is not just a luxury. Like it or not, it is a necessity.
And just in case anyone at McDonald’s is listening: thanks for this try out AND yes, we want you to do more.
May the Force be with the vegan burger.
You can read more about how I think the vegan movement should relate to corporate stuff in my book How to Create a Vegan World.