Today I expanded on the book review that I wrote on The Reducetarian Solution, a series of essays on eating less animal products edited by Brian Kateman. It’s not an entirely vegan book, which may bother some people, but I think people interested in animal advocacy should know what it says to know whether to promote, support or recommend it.
I just wanted to quickly share something that blew me away today.
I was at the LA Book Festival, a large part of which is a massive series of panels discussing anything from politics to activism and fiction books. I was at a panel on activism when one of the speakers, Cleve Jones (a well known LGBTQ activist), said this.
“When I see a bus full of young tech workers on a Google bus going to Silicon Valley, my first instinct is to pitch a brick in the window. It would be unfortunate though if I hit the driver.”
This was met with resounding applause and cheering from the audience. I couldn’t believe it, and to be honest I felt a little afraid. He believes that the gentrification of San Francisco due to the tech industry is displacing families, and that the workers don’t realise they are being exploitative. As far as I can tell, there was little relevant context beyond talking about exploitation rather generally.
I’m 90% confident I haven’t misrepresented his views here. The quote might be slightly paraphrased because I have a poor memory, but I’m confident it’s accurate enough.
I just read a great article by Dillon Bowen titled ‘The crucible of the application process’. Bowen discussed some of his frustrations about being a young academic applying for jobs and scholarships. In particular, his motivations for wanting to do good were often questioned. I’ve highlighted some key quotes, because I can’t beat Bowen’s words here.
“…the first question they would ask, almost unanimously, was but why do you care about extreme poverty?
Well, because there’s no single problem on earth responsible for more suffering or needless waste of human life, I would respond.
Yes, but why do you care about extreme poverty?
What on earth did they mean? A number of them followed up by asking if I had witnessed anyone living in extreme poverty. No, I hadn’t. Had I or anyone I know ever contracted malaria or a neglected tropical disease? No. Did I feel I had a responsibility to the developing world as a beneficiary of colonialism? Not particularly. How did my privilege and my identity as a White Westerner contribute to my decision to focus on extreme poverty? It didn’t.”
“But the thing I don’t understand is why do you care? This was the final question of my Rhodes nomination interview. I can’t properly express the frustration I feel whenever this question is put to me. Every time I try to explain the importance of extreme poverty, and every time my answer isn’t good enough.
It was all I could do at that moment to keep my composure. What do you want me to say? I felt like asking. There are 900 million people living on less than $2 a day. That’s why I care. That’s the reason. There is nothing else. It doesn’t matter that I’m White, it doesn’t matter who my ancestors were, it doesn’t matter what country I’m from. All that matters is that people are suffering and I can help them. What more reason do I need?“
This really resonated with me. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this phenomenon is restricted to academia, as Bowen hopes. I had a similar experience when I was going for a job in the energy industry 3 years ago and made it to the final round interviews (2 available jobs out of 6 remaining candidates).
To that point, I had been asked a range of technical and aptitude questions, but also questions about my motivation. This was before I discovered anything like effective altruism, but I was already broadly aligned with the views that you highlight here.
The answers I gave were pretty similar to Bowen’s. My motivation to combat poverty and climate change came not from a personal connection to the issues, but of believing they were the most pressing issues, and the best opportunities for me to do good.
In the final interview, they asked me a question that stumped me. “What makes you wake up and want to be a geologist each day?” I was confused, because I thought I had answered that. I told them again about my reason for choosing the oil and gas industry. I believed the industry had a big role to play in both poverty and climate change, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to change the industry from the inside to become even better.
They weren’t satisfied. I paraphrase the second question, but it was something to the effect of “But what specifically motivates you?”
Was it so incomprehensible that I would want to do a job because of extrinsic reasons? I told them I woke up every morning and watched the news to remind myself of the horrors in the real world, to motivate myself to work harder and try to stop them.
Finally, I told them that my father was in the oil and gas industry too, and from a young age my family and I had gone camping and collected fossils and rocks and developed a fascination. They seemed happier with that. I didn’t get the job.
A 17 year old surfer in Western Australia has been killed by a shark. This is, of course, a tragedy, and my thoughts are with the girls friends and family for the loss. However, in response the Australian Federal Government has said that they are open to a shark cull to ‘protect people’, which would be equally tragic, if not much greater. Let’s look at some numbers.
First, I need to acknowledge that I think this is bad because I intrinsically value animal suffering, and feel like this might impact animal suffering in a negative way. But even if we just look at humans (and not only that, specifically humans in Australia!), this idea would be an incredibly inefficient way of reducing suffering and/or death.
Here I’m going to make some simplified assumptions to make the case for culling seem more attractive than it is, then show that it still doesn’t make sense. From 1958 to 2014, 72 people died to shark attacks in Australia (536 attacks total). Let us suppose that for a one-time investment (unrealistic) of $10 million (unrealistically low) we can prevent all shark attacks in Australian waters for the next 56 years (unrealistic). If we suppose 72 more people would have died in this time frame, this would be an estimated cost of $138,888 per life saved*.
Even with these extremely optimistic assumptions, that is an exceedingly poor return on investment. The Against Malaria Foundation can save a human life for approximately $6,000 AUD by preventing cases of malaria. But even if we care much more about people in our own country than in Africa (which, to be fair, governments have to), there are still more effective ways of reducing death.
For example, the median cost per quality adjusted life year (QALY) gained for Australians by interventions for specific diseases such as diabetes is $3,700 AUD.
Do we care about all suffering, or just suffering specifically experienced by humans and caused by sharks? That would be silly, but then, government policy doesn’t always seem to make much sense. The steelman of this might be that they are trying to win publicity points (and aren’t ignorant of cost-benefit analyses). Sharks are a topical issue today, and the government wants people to like them. But let’s not pretend the policy would make any rational sense to someone interested in improving the world, even if you only care about animals of your own species that happen to within an arbitrarily defined political boundary.
I urge the Australian Federal Government to please reconsider any thoughts of a shark cull, and to focus on helping sentient beings in a significantly more efficient manner.
* One might even be able to make an argument that a shark cull would increase human deaths. I have no numbers for this argument and therefore place low confidence on it, but if a shark cull is incomplete (i.e. doesn’t kill all sharks), yet more people end up swimming because they think it’s safer, more people might die.
I’ve seen a lot of misinformation about clean meat (also known as cellular agriculture or ‘lab meat’) and want to try and clear some of this up. I first just want to highlight this podcast interview of Our Hen House with Christie Lagally, scientist at the Good Food Institute, which covers much of the basic science and implications of clean meat. In particular, it covers many common misconceptions, and I’ll refer back to it.
First, a definition – According to New Harvest, cellular agriculture is “the production of agricultural products from cell cultures“. It is currently produced primarily by using fetal bovine serum (from my understanding, purchased from farmers when a pregnant female cow has been slaughtered), but can in theory be produced entirely from plants, without any animal intervention whatsoever. As Christie Lagally says in the Our Hen House podcast, if clean meat is ever to replace a large percentage of traditional agriculture (animal farming), this has to be the case. It is simply not feasible to mass produce clean meat using fetal bovine serum.
Yes, it is not ideal that we are currently using fetal bovine serum, and this is the crux of why many animal advocates oppose clean meat. But I would argue they are missing the bigger picture. For arguably a very small involvement in animal agriculture, we have the opportunity to reduce a vast amount of animal suffering. If clean meat replaces even just 1% of meat demand globally, it will have been worth it.
It is intriguing that most vegans are (admittedly sometimes without realising) ok with some participation in animal exploitation if it leads to better outcomes. For example, most car tyres are not vegan. Yet I still utilise vehicular transport. I, and many others, argue that the small amount of animal products used in this way is outweighed by the good that we do elsewhere because we are able to get around easily. You probably wouldn’t be a very good animal advocate if you had to walk everywhere. I would argue that clean meat is just another form of this argument, except with near limitless upside (it could revolutionise the food system), and it’s temporary. It’s because of this upside that I donated $60,000 AUD to the Good Food Institute last year (So perhaps you could say I’m biased? I would argue the opposite, I thought carefully about the arguments for and against and decided to donate as a result.).
This isn’t to say that I don’t think there are some potential downsides to clean meat. I do wonder if the looming possibility of commercially available clean meat might cause some near-veg*ns to not make the transition, because they figure they can hold out for clean meat. I’ve never seen an analysis of this, but it certainly seems plausible.
This brings me to an engagement I had via email with Trisha Roberts, host of the Vegan Trove podcast. In an online discussion about the pros and cons of clean meat, someone directed me to her podcast on the topic. If you don’t want to be biased by my summary, I suggest you listen first.
In short, I was pretty blown away. Not only was much of the material misleading, some of it was just blatantly incorrect. I sent Trisha an email addressing my concerns, so I’ll just copy that below.
I just heard your two part podcast from 2016 titled ‘Clean meat’: http://www.vegantrove.com/2016/07/05/vegan-trove-0035pt1/
I thought it raised some good points, but I’d just like to point out some misleading comments.
You spoke about how GFI is a business which is publicly listed and can be bought and controlled by the likes of Monsanto. I’m unsure where you got this impression from, as GFI is a non-profit and can’t be bought.
You also made it sound like the way clean meat is produced today is the way it always will be produced. This is likely misleading, because clean meat companies recognise that the only way to get scale with this is to be able to develop the culture entirely from plants, with no animal involvement whatsoever. This is not only theoretically possible, but similar work has already been achieved.
You criticise Bruce Freidrich et al for putting money into clean meat instead of vegan advocacy, but I think this misses the point. Bruce did that because he thinks it’s a more effective way of reducing suffering than vegan advocacy. E.g. there are many people in the world who wouldn’t be convinced by veganism, but many of them might switch to clean meat. I think this issue comes down to a difference in ethical framework rather than any factual disagreement. I understand that you approach animal ethics from a deontologist/abolitionist perspective, while Freidrich and many others approach it from a consequentialist perspective. If you hold different ethical views, you will of course come up with different answers for what we ought to do.
I hope this shed some light on the material you discussed in the podcast. I also hope you will consider issuing a correction. The comments that GFI is a business are particularly damaging, and entirely false.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to discuss this at all.
I was particularly distressed by how she claimed GFI was a business, and went on about this at length. I have no idea where she could possibly have gotten this idea from. She also spoke at length about a possible future world where we all had a local chicken or pig or cow that we could harvest cells from and grow them in a culture whenever we wanted food. As I said above, this is unrealistic and not feasible. If people think this world really is the future of clean meat, I can see why people would reject it.
Trisha responded with a rather detailed email of her own. I’ve asked her for permission to share part or all of it here, as I think it highlights her views succinctly, but she declined, so I will briefly cover them here.
First, she didn’t address my concern about her claims that GFI is a business that could be bought out by Monsanto and used for evil. That point was either missed or ignored.
She raises a good point that even clean meat would likely be unhealthy, so why should we promote something unhealthy? This is a fair point, but human health seems to be a distraction here. By sheer scale, the primary issue at hand is the 70 odd billion land animals (plus many more marine animals) farmed for food each year. Further, why should this be any different from promoting vegan junk food to help get people across the line?
She goes on to reiterate many of her points, but does manage to find the time to criticise the work that Santos does, an energy company in Australia that is involved in hydraulic fracturing. I used to work for Santos. At first I was confused because I never mentioned Santos or fracking. I’m guessing she looked me up, saw that I used to work for Santos, and used the opportunity to criticise me for that. This is somewhat of a distraction, but I do find it amusing that she first said she had little time to respond, but had time to look me up and use my previous line of work as a talking point.
I think a very large part of the debate here is not about scientific facts, but about disagreement on the correct moral framework. It seems the case that those who reject clean meat do so because it involves animal exploitation, however small an amount, in the short term, and no amount of potential impact in the future could justify that. As a utilitarian, I think this is a fairly poor way to make ethical choices in this world, but that’s a discussion for another time.
At the very least, I would like to encourage people to keep differing ethical frameworks in mind when they discuss this issue. It rarely seems acknowledged, but if someone has a different ethical framework to you, they will almost certainly come up with a different answer to you on what we ought to do.
In keeping with my theme of publishing rejected op-eds and letters to the editor (because why let that writing go to waste) I’m posting here a letter to the editor submission to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 2017.
It’s difficult to say whether the latest heat wave across Australia is the result of climate change, but it does serve as a good reminder for how individuals can make a meaningful difference to the environment. Many concerned citizens have taken steps to make their lives more green by getting solar panels and replacing cars with bikes and buses. However, one of the most effective ways to reduce environmental impact is often overlooked.
A vegan will produce on average 50% less carbon dioxide, use 1/11th the oil, 1/13th the water, and 1/18th the land compared to an omnivore, considering only food related use. Being vegan is easy and is more impactful than getting solar panels, taking less showers, buying locally and riding a bike.
Not to mention it lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many cancers. It’s even much better for the health of the animals. An average vegan will spare thousands of animals over their life from an existence of pain, cruelty and abuse.
If you want to be an effective environmentalist, sure, get solar panels. But make sure you go vegan as well.
I want to share a thought/question I have about applying and understanding utilitarianism. A few days ago, someone posed me this question:
“Utilitarianism judges the ‘goodness’ of an action based on its consequences, right? But imagine two scenarios involving a driver who knowingly drove under the heavy influence of drugs. In one scenario, they got home safely. In another, they hit and killed someone. By utilitarianism, the latter seems to be more bad than the first. But they both made the same choice, one just got lucky. So do we say they made equally bad choices?”
I think the answer should be that the goodness of an act shouldn’t be its actual outcome, but its expected value. In other words, the average outcome. In that sense, both drivers in the above scenarios made equally bad choices.
But what about people who made a bad choice without realising? For example. Paula donates $100 to X charity. She did a bit of research and thinks its a good charity. Unfortunately, it turns out the charity actually made things a lot worse, and so the effect of her donating was bad. Since it was a bad charity before she donated, the real expected value of her action was negative. But Paula didn’t know this – do we say she did something wrong?
I would get around this by proposing that the goodness of an action should be based on what the actor thought the expected value would be. Paula thought that the expected value of donating to that charity was positive. Surely we can’t hold it against her?
This is where I’m up to, but I still have some concerns about this that I’m not sure how to address. What about someone who is either wilfully ignorant, or is otherwise unwilling to do research to find out the effects of their actions. Do we excuse them for their actions?
Take someone who consumes meat but doesn’t know the reality of factory farming. Say someone approaches and tries to inform them, but they don’t want to hear it. They don’t know what the impacts of them eating a steak are, but they aren’t interested in knowing. Are they therefore bad people for eating steak? Or does it not affect how we might see their moral character from a utilitarian framework?
As often happens, I find my philosophical questions have already been answered, sometimes hundreds of years ago. If you know this has been answered, or you have an answer, or you think I’m talking nonsense, let me know by leaving a comment.
Everyone loves animals. How can you not love Fluffy when he is begging for scratches or stealing your snacks? But even hard core animal lovers will sometimes make simple mistakes.
1. Supporting zoos and aquariums
It’s hard to resist going to the zoo to see those cute meerkats, or the aquarium to see those gorgeous penguins, but unfortunately, zoos and aquariums aren’t necessarily good for the animals. Many argue that zoos can act as a safe haven from poaching, and that the animals generally live a better life in the zoo than in the wild. For some specific zoos and sanctuaries, this may be true. But zoos are generally incentivised to keep exotic animals out of their natural habitat, which probably isn’t great for them. Zoos also generally reinforce the use of animals for human enjoyment.
If you want to support a zoo for the educational factor or to help endangered animals, I’d encourage you to look at animal sanctuaries and be careful about where you go.
2. Consuming animal products
You might not like it, but the unfortunate reality is, every time you reach for an animal product in the supermarket, an animal had to suffer for it. Going vegan is a super easy way to reduce the harm you cause animals, and it comes with a suite of side benefits like better health and reduced environmental impact. I wrote a full article on reasons to be vegan here which you should check out, but in short:
Most food animals live in horrendous conditions, with around 99% of meat being produced in factory farms, where animals have very little space to move around. Their deaths are not pain-free despite industry attempts, and other animal products like dairy and eggs are also associated with some awful practices that are standard in the food industry.
If you want tips on how to easily go vegan, I love this video by the Vegan Activist. Plus vegan food is just darn delicious!
3. Not using evidence
Many animal lovers put their wallet where their mouth is and support animal charities, which is great! Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), not all charities as equally as good. Some charities do hundreds or even thousands of times more good than others, and some charities even have a negative impact. Effective altruism is a new movement which seeks to find the most effective causes and charities to support, and the most effective activities to undertake.
Animal suffering can arise due to a lot of reasons, but one seems to dwarf the rest. The below figure from Animal Charity Evaluators shows the number of animals used and killed in different industries. The number of animals used in factory farming far outweighs the number of animals used in labs and clothing (e.g. fur/leather) and who require shelters. Unfortunately, this disparity is not reflected in the amount of money donated to different animal charities, with most going to shelters despite the low number of animals involved, and practically none going to benefitting food animals.
Because of this neglect of food animals, it is reasonable to believe that working to help food animals will be more effective than helping shelter animals, and this is matched by the evidence. While there is still some uncertainty and debate around the figures, Animal Charity Evaluators estimates that The Humane League could “spare 100,000 to 1.7 million animals from a life in industrial agriculture” for $1,000. That kind of impact is hard to get by donating to an animal shelter.
Jacy Reese is one person who has taken the message of effective altruism to heart, and is working as a researcher for Animal Charity Evaluators to compare the effectiveness of different ways of reducing animal suffering.
Matt Wage has taken a high paying job, partly so that he can earn more and donate it to highly effective charities. Counterintuitively, taking a high paying job to donate to top animal charities could have more of a positive impact than doing animal advocacy directly. This has inspired me to take my own pledge to give to effective charities for the rest of my life, and I’d encourage you to do the same.
If this is your first introduction to effective altruism, definitely check out this more detailed one.
4. Getting angry instead of effective
It can be tempting to lash out at someone or use aggressive language when communicating animal rights or veganism. I myself have sometimes found myself casually saying that eating meat is like murder, or comparing factory farming to atrocities involving humans.
Here’s the thing – even if these comparisons are true, they are not likely to create change in the person hearing it. Anecdotally, I have not created any behaviour change by indirectly calling someone a murderer, but I have encouraged people to eat less meat or go vegan by calmly sharing information. It’s difficult, because you may well believe these things, and I am certainly sympathetic to that. But just because something is true doesn’t mean you should say it. The focus should always be on helping animals as effectively as possible. The last thing you want them to do is get defensive and reinforce their own excuses for consuming animal products.
5. Always dismissing the ‘weird’ stuff
The wild is often seen as an idyllic and peaceful place. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many wild animals die young, often painfully, and even those that don’t can live exposed to the elements and suffer injury or disease. Related to this is the idea that insects may be sentient and capable of experiencing pain. If these are true, then there are a lot of wild animals and insects that might be living painful lives.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot we can do about these issues yet (though Brian Tomasik discusses some possibilities here), but if we care about animals and want them to suffer less, we should at least be open to this possibility and think about the implications. Sentience Politics explores this uncertain and difficult topic here, and a more academic review is available here.
I will add the cautionary note that not all ‘weird’ stuff is necessarily right or valid! I just want to stress that you shouldn’t always dismiss something just because you haven’t heard it before.
6. Being close minded and not being humble
We’re human. We make mistakes. That’s fine, as long as we’re willing to admit that. If another animal lover presents you with some information that you disagree with, you should always pause and ask yourself if it’s possible that you yourself are wrong. For example, remember that you used to think there was no good reason to go vegan until you did. If you’re debating with someone who raises a point you hadn’t thought of before, don’t rush to piece something together if you’re not sure. It’s better to say, “I hadn’t thought of that before, I’ll have to look it up.” Or just say that you’re not sure about something. If you get caught lying or being overconfident, your whole argument could lose credibility.
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If you have done any of these or have any more tips to share, write a comment to let everyone know.
Just a quick update.
Today I donated $60,000 AUD to the Good Food Institute, which works to promote plant based meat alternatives and cellular agriculture to reduce farmed animal suffering. I thought about which charity to donate to clear my donation backlog for a while, but decided to outsource my thinking to someone who was able to spend a lot more time thinking about it than I could (Michael Dickens wrote his 2016 charity analysis here). Dickens’ values seem to be very closely aligned to my own (roughly total utilitarian, valuing all sentience, biological and digital and whatever other form it may take, valuing future wellbeing and suffering about as equally as current lives), and so I was happy to outsource most of my thinking to him.
While this didn’t alter my decision, it was good confirmation to see that Animal Charity Evaluators had also recommended GFI as one of their top charities in the last 24 hours.
I believe that GFI is doing great work and is one of the best options in terms of value for money currently out there for reducing suffering if you value sentient minds based on their level of sentience or equally. I strongly encourage you to read ACE’s and Dickens’ work on them, and consider supporting them. I expect even a tiny donation to save many years of animal suffering.
Edit – To clarify on a few things – this does not necessarily represent the views of any of my employers. Also, to respond to common questions, I was able to save this money to donate because I took a high paying job for 1.5 years with the express purpose in mind of donating most of my income.
A video version of this article is available here, though it is largely out of date.
See also the end of the post for updates from 2020.
Recently I saw a talk by one of the staff at B Corporation Australia. I’d sort of heard of the B Corp certification, and knew a few companies that had achieved it, and was vaguely convinced that it was a good thing (with a small level of skepticism). After seeing the talk, however, I was almost totally convinced that it meant not very much.
If you aren’t already aware, to become a certified B Corp, your company is compared to others in the same industry, and must achieve a certain score across a number of criteria (80 out of 200), including governance, employees, community and the environment. Apparently, despite sounding low, this is actually very hard to achieve.
The benefits of being a certified B Corp are that your brand is seen as being ethical and becomes one that people want to buy, and also people will want to work for you.
My first main point of skepticism was at the end of the talk when I realised the speaker had not mentioned animals as being part of the criteria, both in terms of animal welfare and in terms of environmental impact. My worry was confirmed when she said that neither of these factors were taken into consideration during the evaluation process.
This means that implementing a company cafeteria program that encourages a plant-based diet, which is significantly more environmentally friendly than an omnivorous one, does not get counted. On the other hand, less effective ways of reducing environmental damage, like having solar panels, are rated relatively highly.
Also, it leads us to the obvious conclusion that a company can participate in as much animal cruelty as it likes and still become a certified B Corp, as long as it treats its employees well.
In particular, it’s worth noting that Ben & Jerry’s, a company which produces ice cream primarily from dairy (cow exploitation and cruelty) is a certified B Corp. In my mind, the certification at this point becomes almost meaningless, given the scale of suffering experienced by the cows probably outweighs the happiness of the employees of Ben & Jerry’s.
Does this photo (not shown here due to extreme graphic content) look like the source of milk used by an ethical company? This could very well be from the floor of a factory farm producing dairy cows which B & J’s eventually source their milk from.
To their credit, B & J’s do have a vegan product line slowly being released (not in Australia yet!), but until 100% of their products are vegan, I would argue that they shouldn’t be able to achieve the certification.
I was recommended to contact the B Corporation headquarters and suggest that they add animal related factors as a requirement, however haven’t heard back yet. I hope that they will do so, to make the criteria more meaningful in terms of actually producing positive outcomes for the wellbeing of individuals.
I also have other concerns about the criteria not covering the most important considerations for the wellbeing of employees and stakeholders, though I haven’t done enough research to determine whether this is a problem.
I’ve added this at the end, as the article was starting to look like an attack on Ben & Jerry’s specifically. I do want to make it clear that I think they are just one example of a company that probably shouldn’t get to call itself ethical.
It irks me that Ben & Jerry’s tweet things like “Black Lives Matter. Choosing to be silent in the face of such injustice is not an option.” without recognising that they are also contributing (in a big way) to another injustice to another species.
Their motto is ‘Peace, Love & Ice Cream’. I’m not sure they know what half of those words mean.
Edit – 04/06/2020
I just wanted to revisit this and give a little update. Ben & Jerry’s now have a delicious vegan ice cream range and that’s great. My impression today is that they’re probably more conscious of animal and environmental than most food companies.
I want them to transition to be fully vegan, but I appreciate that won’t happen until the demand for vegan ice cream increases substantially. They are a corporation and corporations don’t do things without a profit incentive.
I want to reiterate that I singled out B&J here only because it was a useful example of a B Corp I had been thinking about at the time. There are many B Corps (and organisations more generally) that are somewhat reasonable when it comes to the treatment of humans, but atrocious when it comes to the treatment of non-humans. I will always be critical of these, though I will encourage progress in the right direction where I can.
In the same way that I don’t stop shopping at Woolworths just because they don’t only stock vegan products (instead I thank them and ask for more), I’ll do the same for companies like B&J.
I reread this and was surprised to see I had mentioned B&J’s Black Lives Matter tweet. It’s by coincidence that I am revisiting this post now when this issue has resurfaced. I checked B&J’s Twitter account and saw that they have made another BLM tweet in the last week. To my surprise, the response on Twitter was largely positive (anecdotes only from here on!).
I was surprised because I’ve seen people being critical of companies in the last week speaking out in support of the movement. The message can seem hollow and there only to capitalise on the issue and show how great corporate citizens they are. For B&J, people seemed to suggest that they are always speaking in support of social justice issues, and so they feel more inclined to believe the sincerity of B&J’s.
Am I too harsh on B&J’s? Let’s consider this from the perspective of their CEO. They are bound to the board of directors, who are bound to the shareholders, who are bound to their bottom line. Within this frame, what can the CEO do, even if they are the staunchest human/non-human rights advocate in the world? Consistently speaking in support of social justice issues and creating more vegan products might be a good start.
Edit – 05/06/2020
I was looking in to this some more this morning and found this article on B&J from last year.
“Last month, Ben & Jerry’s revealed that it will no longer claim on its product packaging that its ice cream comes from “happy cows.” The company’s statement comes after being sued twice for deceiving consumers about its animal welfare policies.”
“Although companies state in court that consumers are not misled by their advertisements, the reality is that industrial food producers are knowingly exploiting animals and deceiving consumers.” [it’s unclear here whether or not this refers to B&J as several companies are mentioned]
Edit – 10/06/2020
I’ve updated the title from ‘Why do people think Ben & Jerry’s is an ethical company?’ to ‘Is Ben & Jerry’s an ethical company?’ to more accurately represent my current views on the organisation, which is to say, I’m just not really sure.
This edit was prompted by a claim I’ve seen on Facebook that B&J’s hire ex-convicts. “the reason their ice cream is so overpriced is because they hire ex-cons and pay them $16+ which is OVER the minimum wage.” – source of claim.
I checked, and couldn’t find any direct evidence that B&J’s hire ex-convicts. However, I did find that the bakery that makes the brownies that go in their ice cream does hire ex-convicts. From this article:
“Greyston, which is located in Yonkers, New York, has made it their mission to hire ex-convicts, the homeless, recovering addicts, and anyone else with a rough past who has had trouble finding work.“
I couldn’t find anything about them being payed over the minimum wage, but it may well be the case.
The person also claimed that the founders of B&J’s (Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield) were arrested in a protest. This seems to be true (they were apparently arrested in 2016 and 2018 at protests about money in politics and F-35 jets due to noise pollution respectively), however it should be noted that Ben and Jerry do not own B&J’s as of 2000. I’m unsure what involvement they have had with the organisation since then – possibly none.