In a discussion group about animal activism on Facebook, someone recently shared an article titled The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. It’s a really interesting piece about some of the problems with consumer advocacy aimed at encouraging people to buy sweatshop-free products. I highly recommend reading it.
The discussion in the Facebook group was about how this piece might relate to efforts targeting consumers on behalf of animals, but I think the discussion got off on the wrong foot. I’ll try to address that with this essay, which is much longer than is appropriate for a Facebook comment.
First of all, “consumer advocacy” is not a great term to use when discussing contemporary animal advocacy. It’s much too broad. There are a couple different types of animal advocacy that can fall under this heading, and we need to break this down.
But first let’s look at the anti-sweatshop campaigns. We can see that consumers were targeted in two ways. First, they were asked to purchase goods labeled as sweatshop-free. Second, there were also campaigns asking consumers to specifically not purchase goods from companies using sweatshops. This type of consumer boycott campaign was typically done in parallel with asking the companies being boycotted to take some specific action, such as adopting standards for worker treatment that they make suppliers enforce.
The Myth of the Ethical Shopper brings up a number of problems with both of these approaches.
First of all, the supply chains for clothing and other similar goods are quite complex. We have suppliers subcontracting to suppliers who further subcontract who buy thread from one place and cloth from yet another. This situation is constantly changing, and spans many countries and nested levels of subcontracting. It has become effectively impossible for a company like Nike (to pick one) to enforce any sort of labor standards when they don’t even have a direct relationship with much of the supply chain.
Second, there is a strong incentive for suppliers to merely give the appearance of improving standards, rather than improving them.
Third, many people will “choose” to work in a sweatshop even though it’s a terrible place to work, because the alternatives are even worse.
Fourth, a lot of the demand for cheap goods is now coming from developing countries rather than from developed countries, and there are no anti-sweatshop campaigns in these developing countries to target those consumers.
So how closely does this parallel “consumer advocacy” in the animal advocacy movement? Before we answer that, let’s talk about what we mean by “consumer advocacy”.
The campaigns that most closely parallel the anti-sweatshop campaigns are campaigns that target companies selling animal products to enforce standards for their suppliers. Consumers are asked to boycott these companies until the companies make the demanded changes. One notable difference is that there is not usually a corresponding push asking consumers to purchase so-called “humane” products. The vast majority of animal advocacy groups do not promote the consumption of animal products, period, even if they work on incremental campaigns targeting specific abuses.
So how closely do these particular campaigns parallel the anti-sweatshop campaigns? There are definitely some similarities.
There is clearly an incentive for suppliers to give the appearance of improvement while doing as little as possible. We see this with so-called “humane” and “free-range” products already. The improvements that these labels represent to animal well-being are quite minimal, way out of line with the image producers are trying to sell.
Also as with sweatshop goods, there is a rising demand for animal products in developing countries where these sort of consumer campaigns simply do not exist yet.
But there are also differences. First of all, the supply chains for animal products are simpler. The depth of subcontractor relationships that characterize clothing production are not necessary or feasible for animal products. It’s a bit more reasonable to suggest that an inspecting organization could inspect a representative sample of a producer’s animal facilities, though this would take a very large number of inspectors. This will remain true only as long as animals continue to be farmed in the same countries as the campaigns occur in, and it’s possible that these campaigns could primarily serve to push production to countries with worse standards.
Of course, animals definitely do not choose to be used in these ways. In fact, they have no choice at all, from conception to death.
Nonetheless, the parallels that do exist are worth considering, and should prompt deeper questions about the effectiveness of campaigns focused on specific practices, suppliers, or sellers.
But this isn’t the only type of activism that gets lumped under the “consumer advocacy” label in the animal advocacy movement. We also have advocacy that encourages individuals to simply reduce, or ideally eliminate, their consumption of animal products. These campaigns are very different from the campaigns I just discussed.
Reducing demand for animal products will reduce the number of animals being abused by humans. This is basic economics, and the mechanism by which this reduces suffering is infinitely simpler than the one for campaigns targeting specific practices or seller. You don’t need to tell people to boycott a company, nor do you need to talk to animal product sellers or producers at all. There is no need for inspections to ensure compliance either.
It’s worth noting that this sort of advocacy is not a boycott. We are not asking people to change their behavior in order to punish suppliers and force them to change. We’re asking them to change their lifestyle in order to eliminate the animal abusers entirely.
I don’t think The Myth of the Ethical Shopper speaks to advocacy targeted at reducing animal product consumption in any meaningful way.
It’s always worthwhile to look at other social justice movements for parallels, both in cases where those movements have succeeded and in cases where they haven’t succeeded yet, but at the same time we should be careful of finding parallels where none exist.