Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Thug Kitchen Cookbook: Whole Foods Go "Ghetto"

The Animal Liberationists of Color group shared a disturbing commercial today for the Thug Kitchen Cookbook.  This project seeks to make vegan eating more accessible with basic ingredients and a "colorful" use of language.  Pun intended.  The book and blog are rather similar to the Vegan Black Metal Chef in trying to make vegan cooking fun and edgy.  One major difference, however, is that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is primarily white, so, drawing on the white culture of heavy metal is not nearly as problematic as middle class white people pulling on African American culture.1

The Root refers to Thug Kitchen as "a recipe in blackface." Belittling and commoditizing "ghetto" symbols and imagery for white gain is a form of racism and appropriation.  It draws on a long history of white persons feeling entitled to control over non-white spaces.  Whites draw on their immense social power to pick and choose from vulnerable communities from the safety and comfort of their spaces of privilege.  As another example, consider the popularity of black jazz music among young whites in the early 19th century, though people of color were living in extreme poverty, segregation, and political disempowerment under white supremacy.  By way of another example, consider the mass extermination of Native Americans, centuries of white supremacist legislation that maintains poverty and poor health in Native communities, and the subsequent swarms of contemporary whites of European ancestry who idealistically lay claim to Cherokee blood, proudly display tattoos of sacred indigenous symbols, and think the "Redskins" logo honors native peoples.

Trayvon Martin
"Thug" language is also problematic because it is an extremely politicized word.  It may be cheeky and "all in good fun" for the whites reproducing and consuming "thug" culture, but for those who actually live under those labels, it is a matter of life and death.  Being labeled "thug" in white America generally means being targeted for racial profiling, police harassment, public distrust, job and housing discrimination, and murder or incarceration at the hands of whites.  "Thug" politics influence many white Americans who find the murder of young teen Trayvon Martin acceptable. Indeed, I have had white-identified students in my class take great offense because, during lecture, I used an image of Martin in clothes that the average American teenage boy might wear, instead of his "thug" hoodie that marked him as deserving of Zimmerman's assault.

It has been noted that "thug" has become the new n-word.  It is the new, more acceptable way to speak to blackness as a public threat.2  That football player deserved to be reprimanded, he was a thug.  That man deserves to be in prison, he is a thug.  That boy deserved to be shot, he was a thug. We intuitively know that "thug" suggests that the person of mention is probably of color. "Thug" acts as a racial identifier.  But once labeled "thug," you become suspect.  You also become innately deserving of whatever institutionalized violence is enacted upon you.  There is no race-neutrality about thug rhetoric.  It works to maintain a system of violence against people of color.

Nor can thug symbolism be disassociated from a long and ongoing history of white supremacy.  Think about why the commercial for the Thug Cookbook is supposed to be funny: because it showcases white people "acting black."  What this means is, being non-white is funny because non-white culture is supposedly coarse and ignorant.  Cultures of color are drawn on for white amusement, with complete disregard to the reality of the white supremacy we still live within.  It's not okay for white boys and girls to wear headdresses to festivals.  It's not okay for white boys and girls to dress up in a poncho and a sombrero as a Halloween "costume."  It's not okay for white people to wear blackface.  And it's not okay for white people to play "thug" to sell books.  This is especially so when whites in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement frame tactics and theory in ways that reflect the white experience and ignore the experiences of other communities.  Just as one example, the cookbook prioritizes recipes that are prepared with fresh vegetables, but 23.5 million Americans currently live in a food desert where fresh vegetables (and sometimes fresh water) are not accessible.  Fresh vegetables might be seen as more practical, basic, and inclusive than many vegan ingredients, but only if you are a person lucky enough to have access to these commodities.  Many people do not:  especially if they are poor, Appalachian, or persons of color.  The intended audience of Thug Kitchen could not be made any clearer.  And the use of "thug" rhetoric to sell this cookbook could not be made any more problematic.

I was sad to see many of the comments on the book's website are from white people who seem truly excited to indulge their inner blackness (or perhaps I should say, "honoring" blackness).  More accurately, it seems white folks are just excited to engage in cultural appropriation and neo-colonialism.  We should be concerned.  The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is painfully white, painfully middle-class, and painfully discriminatory.  This is ironic, because we bill ourselves as an anti-oppression movement.   This is sad, because it aggravates the toxic social system we live in.  Any way you cut it, it is a political problem.  Until we as a movement begin to acknowledge that the oppression of humans is as important as the oppression of other animals, we will never build alliances, we will never grow as a movement, and we will never create the vegan world we aspire for.


1.  Though the problems are not as glaringly obvious as those associated with Thug Kitchen, heavy metal music actually appropriates African, Asian, and Middle Eastern music to some extent, and has historical ties to racist ideology.
2.  Though I often reference the African American community, other communities of color are also impacted by thug politics.

Followup Commentary

Several UK readers have pointed out that "thug" is race neutral in their neck of the woods.  Technically, it is used for people of all races in the US as well, but in the past couple of decades, it has also been used as code for a. people of color that white people distrust; b. people of color who deserve punishment & discrimination; and c. people of color who need to stop being like people of color and be more like white people.   If UK people can't interpret this, that really isn't my concern, because this is an American book geared at American audiences who know exactly what "thug" means.

Regardless, I find the entire commercial for the Thug Cookbook to be racist because it mocks stereotypes and appropriates African American culture for white entertainment and white financial gain.   There is a very clear racial script.  If there wasn't, they wouldn't have intentionally used all white people in these roles.  Beyond "thug," other words are used that are clearly not race-neutral, like the sexist/fat-phobic argument they make that eating vegan will make your body "fly."  One woman says, "I don't play that shit anymore," which is a clear reference to "homie don't play that shit," a very overplayed trope relating to African American culture.  The use of the words "fly" and "don't play that shit" clearly indicates their racialized intentions.  This is unfortunate.  If they want to have a "cut the bullshit," edgy book, they can cuss all they want without having to label "low class" "deviant" behavior as "thug" (implying these same characteristics derive from people of color).

Even if they were to change the name, a cookbook that engages misogyny by regularly using the word "bitch" and implying that eating vegan will help women achieve an oppressive body ideal is not something I would support in any case.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Donations, Organizations, and "Noisy" Abolitionist Veganism

A colleague shared a very interesting essay with me that was recently published by the new International Vegan Association (formally the local abolitionist group, Boston Vegan Association).  The essay is titled, "Why Does the IVA Discourage Donations? (And Why Does it Exist At All?)."  I suggest readers pay attention to IVA developments because IVA stands as a very interesting and unique example of a radical abolitionist group that has gone non-profit and is in the infancy of professionalization. The essay itself is rather confusing (donations are bad, unless you donate to IVA; organizations are bad, except for IVA, etc.), but it offers some important evidence to the inner-workings of factionalism and the contention over movement boundaries and claimsmaking.

The primary reason I draw attention to this piece is because the IVA represents an interesting bridge between grassroots coalition and professionalization.  Despite its concerns with professionalization, the IVA does accept donations and has become a non-profit. Strangely, in doing so, they have turned right around and declared that any other organization that has taken the same path must be disingenuous or incompetent in some way.  They also claim to exist outside of the non-profit industrial complex because they accept donations only from "private donors," who, presumably, do not attempt to sway the organization's interests by controlling the purse strings.

One of the major problems with relying on fundraising is that needing money means needing moderation (I have explored this theme with The Vegan Society,  Vegan OutreachAnimal Charity Evaluators, Mercy for Animals, and others).  Groups that advocate for radical structural change will be, as a general rule, denied grant money right and left. This is because foundations are almost always set up by wealthy elites who became rich from systems of exploitation, and seek to protect those systems by only funding conservative reforms or diversionary social services.  Likewise, having to rely on public donations also means moderating the message.  It is easier to attract a larger pool of donors with a weakened position. Everyone loves animals, for instance, but a lot of people will be turned off by veganism (especially when mainstream media is elite-controlled and radical positions are routinely derided). Therefore, most groups will focus on "ending cruelty" and avoid vegan rhetoric.  It seems IVA avoids this problem by relying on "private donors."  I can't be sure, of course, but I suspect that the same person(s) writing the books they are promulgating control the purse strings.  Financial control, incidentally, is not the only way in which a social movement organization is manipulated.  Professionalized groups also recognize that they must maintain a certain degree of social capital in order to survive and flourish.  For large groups, this may mean advocating a moderate position that makes policy makers and industry leaders happy.  For smaller organizations like IVA, it may mean strict adherence to a certain gatekeeper's work lest the group be ousted from the important abolitionist networks that sustain it.

Does the IVA do good work?  Absolutely. I have always loved their booklet, and I think their message is clear and needed.  Ironically, though, going the non-profit route may be leading IVA to fall for the same pitfalls as other professionalized organizations.  As IVA points out in its own essay, going non-profit means going into competition.  The social change space is crowded with many other organizations that are desperately attempting to stand out so that their approach is deemed the most appropriate and their organization will get the needed resources for survival and continued growth.  This competition can create a lot of "noise," as IVA explains.  Non-profitization creates competition, and competition means a divided movement.  This is precisely why the state loves to hand out non-profit status--it disempowers and fragments a potentially dangerous social movement. On the other hand, some degree of conflict is necessary to stimulate movements towards improving their approach and developing new ideas and tactics.   Factionalism can be healthy.

Nonetheless, IVA has declared itself to be the only organization qualified to advocate on behalf of other animals.  In doing so, it also declares that PETA, Vegan Outreach, and other multi-million dollar grant-based organizations have lost their way, so to speak, in pursuit of self-interest over anti-speciesism.  Again, I don't disagree here, but I was shocked to see that a very small fledgling group, The Abolitionist Vegan Society (TAVS), is included in IVA's list of "noisy" major players.  I was shocked because this small grassroots group basically operates in exactly the same way as IVA.  The only "difference" is that IVA currently enjoys the favor of abolitionist spokesperson Gary Francione, whereas TAVS does no longer (due to personal differences, not tactical or theoretical ones).  To describe TAVS as "noise" is to describe IVA as "noise," because they sound exactly the same.  The inclusion of TAVS on IVA's list despite the identical nature of the two groups demonstrates that competition really is the name of the game for a group that goes non-profit.  There is simply no room for cooperation.  Sadly, this seems to hold true even within the very small and very marginalized abolitionist faction, a faction that is grounded in the principles of community and grassroots advocacy.  Otherwise, why spend so much effort undermining the credibility of fellow organizations like TAVS?

"Noisy" TAVS Activism
Not any one organization, and certainly not any one person, has all of the answers. This type of approach is appropriate for religious endeavors, but it does not work with social movements.  Thousands of researchers and seasoned activists have been studying the science of collective behavior and social movement success for decades, and two things are crystal clear:  1.  Social change work is extremely complex; and, 2.  There is no one correct answer.  Despite IVA aspirations, it is not likely that their one small organization that adheres to beliefs of just one person can enter the field and single-handedly change the game. Alienating potential allies in the abolitionist faction will, in likelihood, hurt rather than help them.  A group that declares itself self-evidently superior and entitled to leadership is a group that abides by patriarchal norms of hierarchy and control.  The competitive nature of social movement activism is in itself reflective of patriarchal co-optation in the social movement space, but when a group declares itself the only one with the answers and the only one worth listening to (based on "because we said so" logic), this group is shoring up male dominance.  Readers should be wary of taking the claims of any group of privilege as self-evident.  Readers should also be cautious when these patriarchal claims are used against anti-oppression groups like TAVS (especially in the case of TAVS, as it is run by a woman of color).

The notion that a social movement can be 100% coherent, 100% in agreement, and 100% unified is mere fantasy. The notion that one small organization and its one leader can rule the entire movement is male fantasy.  This is not how social movements work, and if it was how they worked, it would be an extremely unhealthy misfortune.  Social movements rely on diversity to breathe and grow.  Not too long ago, Kim Stallwood (former employee of PETA and seasoned advocate) was pushing for an international Nonhuman Animal rights coalition to combine our disjointed efforts into one unifying force, something similar to feminism's NOW or the civil rights movement's NAACP.  There are benefits to this cooperation of course, but there will also be a sharp increase in moderation and a sharp increase in opportunity costs for radical voices.  Abolitionists will find even fewer resources available as the big players monopolize.  In reality, this would only be a goal achievable by the powerful reform-focused groups like PETA, Farm Sanctuary, and others.  Radical abolitionists could never expect to hold sway over these major players.  Even if it were possible, I would hesitate to recommend this strategy, as it becomes a major impediment to movement diversity and growth.

IVA's justification for denouncing all other groups is that any organizational structure at all will necessarily detract from advocacy (except for IVA, which is deemed impervious).  True, when a group reaches a certain point on the path to professionalization, priorities change and the constituency suffers.  But this is not to say that some form of organization is unnecessary.  Especially for a faction that is so marginalized in both society and the larger movement, some form of community and cooperation is really necessary to motivate participation and to sustain it.  Social movement participation is costly and risky.  We like to think we become activists solely out of moral obligation, but the truth is that there must be some balance to the negative aspects of participation in order to keep people going.  Community is one such balance. A sense that there is an us, the comfort of mutual support, and an activist identity keep people going.  Grassroots groups like TAVS, Vegan Information Project, and, yes, even IVA create this important motivator.  Social change work is hard, and most people don't want to get involved.  Organizing helps to counter that reality.

"Noisy" Vegan Information Project activism
For those interested in reading more about social movement theory in relation to the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I invite you to read my work available on my Academia.edu page. In particular, my 2012 publication, "Applying Social Movement Theory to Nonhuman Rights Mobilization and the Importance of Faction Hierarchies," may be of interest.  IVA makes it very clear that activists should read and become knowledgeable before trying to teach others. I would suggest  that IVA also heed that advice. There is a wealth of social movement research that could inform IVA opinion pieces that some readers may currently mistake for evidence-based, factual literature.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Un-naming the Enslaved: Names, Identity, & Speciesism

In a Huffington Post piece published today, Dr. Tukufu Zuberi (professor of Sociology and host of one of my favorite shows, History Detectives) pointed to a notebook dating to the 1700's as an excellent example of the deindividualization of enslaved persons.  The book documented its owner's business dealings and daily activities, including the trading of slaves.  Persons listed in the ledger were simply referred as "Negro male" or "Negro female."  In fact, a variety of objectifying identifiers were used during this period of history.  I have seen other ledgers where women and men are listed as "wenches" or "bucks."

Dr. Zuberi explains that, while many enslaved persons were given a first name by their owners, they were largely erased from history after death, with pitiful few records remaining (this problem turns up on History Detectives quite often when investigations into the genealogy of African American guests invariably reach a dead end).

Being nameless has important social implications. It means that a person has no identity--they are objects and resources.  They are expendable. Their lives are seen as so unimportant, that identification and record aren't worth the effort (we see a similar trend continue with women today who are encouraged to drop their "maiden" name and have their identity be subsumed under the name of her "husband").

Animal advocates see these same processes occurring with nonhuman persons as well.  Many animals kept as pets are generally given only a simple first name as a matter of easy identification, which is promptly forgotten to history after their passing.  Free-living animals remain largely anonymous, primarily conceptualized as a species, rarely individualized and even more rarely named. Cows, pigs, and other large "livestock" are identified by numbers, if identified at all.   Families raising other animals for labor or food often discourage children from naming enslaved animals for fear of anthropomorphizing them, which would disrupt their object-status.

When naming happens, there is a direct challenge to the object-status.  Names create an identity and encourage empathy.  Simpsons fans may remember the episode where Mr. Burns intended to make a fur coat out of Santa's Little Helper's puppies.  He had bonded with and intended to spare "Little Monty," however, the only puppy to get a name.  It is harder to callously harm another being that has a name, and it's easier to want to help them.  Creating personality profiles for dogs and cats increases adoptions, for instance, and naming farm animal rescues increases donations.  Free-living animals that are identified with names are often specially protected from "hunters" or other human harms.

While it is not likely that we will ever grant full, proper names to other animals (though some animal genealogy is occasionally recorded), I think that the use of pet names for other animals continues to reflect our relationship of dominance.  Enslaved humans were sometimes named by owners, but only with first names.  Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, most freed persons simply adopted the surname of their previous owners.  Having a full and proper name meant a more serious level of individualization and a higher social status.  This is something that other animals will likely never achieve.  We will probably continue to name them "Skippy" or "Snowball" in the service of anthroparchy.

With no name or serious identification, individuals come and go and are omitted from our society's history.  Millions of nameless enslaved humans, women, impoverished persons, and other animals played pivotal roles in the progress of society, but without identity, they go without record.  A history that is socially constructed to remember only the achievements and legacy of the privileged, of course, tends to work in the service of naturalizing or normalizing social stratification.  A history without the names of the enslaved preserves inequality and will continue to disempower oppressed groups.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Ka-ching! That's What We Like to Hear": Why the Vegan Society isn't Vegan

Many abolitionists have been very disheartened by the new Vegan Society campaign that replaced 70 years of uncompromised vegan outreach with the rhetoric favored by welfare organizations:  You no longer need to go vegan to help Nonhuman Animals, you only need to "reduce" by changing your consumption patterns in whatever way suits you, "your own way."

No longer is veganism framed as an important political action.  Now it's about consuming:
Already, people have been getting in touch with us to say how much they love to eat vegan food and wear vegan lipstick, and (this is the best bit) how they’ll be thinking more about their shopping choices as a result of this campaign. Ka-ching! That’s what we like to hear.
The Society then asks readers to connect with a wider audience by sharing their branded "You don't have to be vegan" posters on social media sites.  Also, they request readers to donate or to become a member (membership is another form of financial donation).  The vegan labeling scheme, first developed to assist vegans in navigating a speciesist world and to draw attention to the vegan movement, now operates more like a brand intended to increase sales.

This shift is not unlike the paths taken by other non-profits in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement (and organizations from other movements as well).  Organizations are often pressured to enter the non-profit system as a matter of survival.  That is, organizations rely on financial support in order to operate as they grow larger.  This is partly due to societal ideologies where "bigger" is considered "better," and increasing bureaucracy is conflated with increasing effectiveness. The caveat, however, is that the fixation on organizational growth and the dependence on financial support necessitates the degeneration of social change goals.

The non-profit system is relatively new in the history of social movement activism.  A path dependency is created where organizations feel that getting bigger and wealthier is necessary for survival and influence.  Unfortunately, to tap into grant money and to appeal to the largest pool of potential donors, organizations cannot hold on to social change appeals that demand major structural changes.  First, grant monies typically come from foundations set up by wealthy capitalists who got rich off of these same exploitative structural conditions and who seek to maintain this system by carefully selecting who will get their money and what they will do with it.  "Veganism" is a scary word for those who benefit from exploitation.  "You don't have to be vegan" is a lot more palatable.  It doesn't necessitate any serious behavior change, and it keeps the system in tact.  Non-profitization keeps social change under the thumb of the state and elite corporations.  Focusing on consumption keeps the capitalist system satisfied.

Of course, veganism is unique because it is, ultimately, about what we consume--what we eat, what we wear, etc.  However, framing veganism solely about what we buy detracts from the political and social justice foundations to veganism as a social movement.  The Vegan Society was founded by a group of women and men who wanted the world to do right by other animals.  Their goal was not to become peddlers of expensive vegan products. Veganism began as a movement to end speciesism, but it is quickly becoming no more than a marketing label to increase sales.  Within this framework, people don't become vegans or activists, they become consumers.  Appealing to capitalist interests with the goal of deconstructing capitalist exploitation is a problematic tactic.

Monday, September 8, 2014

For the Animals, By the People . . . Not the Man: A Vegan Feminist Critique of Social Movement Hierarchy

I learned this week that another abolitionist organization has been "thrown under the bus," so to speak, as factionalism within the abolitionist vegan movement continues.  The Abolitionist Vegan Society (TAVS) , formed by Sarah K. Woodcock (an unpaid young woman of color), has been, for lack of a better word, "blacklisted," by prominent abolitionist author Gary Francione.  Without having all of the details, it seems that, based on publicly posted announcements, TAVS suddenly wasn't "abolitionist" enough (code for, there was not enough deference to Francione's theory).  As many of my readers are well aware, this is not unlike the experience of many abolitionist grassroots groups and projects that have come before.  Francione requested that TAVS remove all reference to his name and work, and TAVS subsequently announced that the organization was no longer affiliated with him.  Not long after this one-sided split, Bob Linden of Go Vegan Radio contacted Ms. Woodcock to inform her that she was hereby removed from the speaking lineup at Francione's "World Vegan Summit." I have been in communication with Ms. Woodcock, and present my analysis below with her permission.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the ramifications of patriarchal organizational structures within social justice spaces.  Many people bemoan the "in-fighting" of the movement, and of the abolitionist faction in particular.  I have argued in the past that factionalism is both normal and healthy for social movements, and is something to be expected. "Squabbling" and "divisiveness" happens.  It is essential for tactical development and movement growth. Of course, the stressful and difficult work of "in-fighting" can also detract time and resources from important activism.  It might also be off-putting to those who just don't want to be involved with the turmoil or who have just had enough.  These are challenges that are endemic social change work, and, again, are to be expected.

My concern, however, is with the co-optation of the supposedly-democratic structure of new social movements with patriarchal forms of control.  "New" social movements are defined by their appeals to social justice and their rejection of traditional social structures that are found to be oppressive.  Importantly, they are characteristically democratic in their organizational structure. That is, instead of appealing to the classic patriarchal structure of increasing control and influence (with those at the top typically being highly privileged persons who are supported by a large mass of unrecognized persons of little prestige), everyone gets a say. In "new" social movements, everyone has the potential to participate equally.

The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is comprised primarily of women and young people, two demographics that are vulnerable to exploitation.  Too often, the volunteer work offered by youths, women, persons of color, and others go undervalued or ignored, with prestige and rewards funneling up the organizational ladder to those "in charge."  The persons "in charge," inevitably tend to be wealthy, well-educated white men.  Social justice spaces become yet another place for privilege to be enacted.  The Nonhuman Animal rights movement, in particular, has had many problems with men usurping positions of power.

We should be concerned as a social movement, not so much with the "squabbling," but more so with the exploitative situation that is created when we maintain a patriarchal social structure of command within our organizations.  First, it perpetuates injustice for vulnerable persons who are trampled within the system.  Especially for a movement that seeks to end oppression and the exploitative hierarchies that support it, maintaining such a structure within the social movement space seems especially problematic.  Secondly, it creates a major disincentive for these persons to participate.  Women, for instance, get frustrated with putting in hours of unrecognized organizational work only for top authors and academics to reap the rewards (this pattern happens in all social movements, not just Nonhuman Animal rights).  Social movement research has indicated that having contributions acknowledged is an extremely important indicator of future participation.

Vegan Information Project, Dublin

I was excited to learn that TAVS has been "liberated" from this chain of command.  TAVS and other grassroots abolitionist groups like it that run on the hard work and ideas of volunteers of all backgrounds are essential for movement health. These groups provide crowd-sourced activist resources and invite everyone to participate as equals.  This democratic ethic is foundational to the vegan world we work for.  This organizational structure is welcoming, inclusive, and more likely to attract and retain membership.  We need a movement for the animals by the people . . . not the man.  An intersectional social justice movement should first and foremost be critical of patriarchal rule within its confines.  For that matter, a movement needs to take care of its activists before it can take care of others.  For some time now I have been calling for activists to work towards a community of accountability.  I encourage my readers to prioritize this goal and support fellow activists who have been victimized.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Animal Suffering Motivates Behavior Change

I came across a unique vending machine idea in Istanbul that encourages folks to recycle and to feed and water free-living dogs and cats. People insert recyclables into the vending machine, and it dispenses food (click for more images and a video).  There is also a spout for people walking buy with water bottles to share their leftover water with thirsty nonhumans.   The inventor suggests that the purpose of the project is to instill a feeling of efficacy regarding pro-social behavior, but I see something else at work here.  It seems that these vending machines use images of other animals (both happy and sad pictures are used) in order to create behavior change.  This is promising, because it reaffirms what many of us are already aware of--humans care about other animals, want them to experience pleasure and safety, and want them to avoid suffering.

This project is also interesting because it creates an easy opportunity for passerby to act on their desire to behave pro-socially for other animals in their community in a meaningful and direct way.  One of the major problems with mainstream animal advocacy is that non-profits keep concerned individuals distanced from the social problem, encouraging them to participate only through donations and perhaps petition signing. Large non-profits like Vegan Outreach often turn volunteers away, asking for their money instead. I have argued that this approach is disempowering (meaning only those with financial means can participate, while a large variety of other useful skills and non-monetary contributions are devalued or ignored) and elitist (privileged folks from middle-class backgrounds with expensive college degrees get to make the decision on where the money goes and what solutions are appropriate).

I also think this type of approach widens the human-nonhuman divide by putting animal suffering "out there" "somewhere," hurting "some animals."  Indeed, social psychological research has shown that distance of this kind can impact a person's desire to behave pro-socially (for instance, more Americans donate and donate more to hurricane relief in the United States than they do to provide assistance to those suffering natural disasters in "far off lands" like Asia).  Hands-on social change efforts like vending machines keep people in direct contact with vulnerable persons in their community, instilling empathy, social responsibility, and the desire to act pro-socially.  Research shows that when people feel like they can "do" something and that their "something" will make a difference, they are much more likely to participate and to continue to participate in the future.

On the other hand . . . I'm not too keen on the survival of homeless dogs and cats relying only on the kindness of strangers.  Access to necessities like food and water should be basic rights afforded to urban-dwelling nonhumans.  Likewise, this type of activism represents only a band-aid effort at helping other animals, and does nothing to seriously address structural problems and ideologies of speciesism that create these problems in the first place.  I am also concerned that this form of "easy activism" can aggravate that problem.  True, many people do not engage social movements because of the cost or risk potentially involved, but some types of social problems cannot be solved with a quick fix.  Can we create a vending machine that encourages people to go vegan and to stay vegan?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Fetishization of “Animal-Friendly” Animal Products: The Body Shop Example

In the San Francisco airport earlier this week on return from a conference, I stopped in The Body Shop for the first time in search of a birthday present for a friend. I knew that The Body Shop had a large vegan inventory, but had to ask the sales clerk for certainty as nothing was labeled. While he was searching for a list, he informed me that most of the products were vegan, and those that were not were produced in ways that “doesn’t harm the animals.”  I guess the expected or typical response would be, “Oh, wonderful! My mind is at ease! Let me buy all the things!”  Instead, I was quick to clarify that all exploitation involves harm. 

I told him that the animals used to make the eggs, milk, or whatever else in their products1 have their babies taken away and eventually end up slaughtered.  A little annoyed at his offensive sales pitch, I also said that, “That’s the same thing LUSH says,” though clarifying that The Body Shop was a better alternative because of LUSH’s misogynistic sales tactics.  Hey, that has to count for something, I guess.

Afterwards, I sent a tweet to The Body Shop, expressing my concern that the clerk had so blatantly misinformed me regarding their ingredient sourcing.  Their Twitter account only responded with more nonsense:

@CoreyLeeWrenn Hi Corey, maybe it was a misunderstanding but non [sic] of our products harm the animals

A misunderstanding?  Is there any misunderstanding the violence that happens to the sheep used to produce the lanolin in their products?  Is there any misunderstanding the veal calves languishing in crates and mother cows carted off to slaughterhouses in order to obtain milk derivatives for their products? Is there any misunderstanding the mass killing of bees done to obtain their wax and honey?  Apparently so, as one of my readers reported to me that she was informed by a TBS clerk that their products containing bees’ wax are vegan because “bees aren’t animals.”2 3 I suspect that, like LUSH, TBS also markets cage-free egg-based products or hormone-free/grass-fed/free-range/whatever milk-based products.  Ooh la la . . . exploitation made pretty.  The Body Shop, like LUSH, markets itself as a compassionate company—that simultaneously profits hugely off the institutionalized exploitation and death (yes, death, or rather, murder) of Nonhuman Animals.  Oh, but it is papaya scented!

Telling customers that non-vegan products “don’t harm the animals” is false advertising of the worst kind.  Obviously, the sales clerk was just telling me anything I wanted to hear to get a sale.4  I walked in the door stating that I cared about animal justice and that my friend for whom I was purchasing the present for cared about animal justice.  So, animal justice is exactly what he’s going to sell me.  Of course, TBS, like most companies that exist off the backs of the oppressed, bank on customers never questioning or thinking critically about their ethical claimsmaking.5  As long as they make these claims, use these labels, and enjoy uncritical promotion by large non-profits like PETA, who would really think to question their authenticity?  This is especially so because we live in a society convinced by Nonhuman Animal “rights” and “welfare” organizations that it is okay to use other animals as long as we do so “nicely” (of course, what constitutes “nicely” will be left up to the discretion of those who exploit animals).

What is happening here is that The Body Shop, Aveda, LUSH, and other pseudo-vegan “natural” companies that cater to socially & environmentally conscious customers are fetishizing “animal-friendliness” to artificially meet the demand for ethical products.  Continuing to rely on animal products is likely cheaper (or at least easier) in an industry that has a path dependency on non-vegan ingredients and processes.  In this way, The Body Shop, Aveda, and LUSH are not really much different from Tyson, Smithfield, or whoever else PETA and HSUS are awarding lately for their astounding “progress” for Nonhuman Animals.  When I hear TBS tell me that their non-vegan products “don’t hurt the animals,” I am reminded of Tyson commercials with little cartoon chickens bouncing about as the narrator assures us how happy their chickens are on their vegetarian, hormone-free diets. 

If you have a choice, always shop from a 100% vegan company.  And, if it is a vegan company, also make sure (if you can) that they aren’t hurting humans (is it ethically sourced?) or other animals indirectly (Seventh Generation, for instance, is supporting legislation for “environmentally sound” products that will require genocidal levels of suffering and death for Nonhuman Animals used in vivisection). 

It should be clear from the litany of criticisms surrounding the so-called “green economy” that we cannot buy our way to social justice. I have to buy my shampoo somewhere, so I’m going to get what I need as ethically-sourced as I can based on my access, but I’m not fooling myself into thinking that my savvy vegan shopping is going to end oppression. These products are important to help us maintain our vegan lifestyle (if we are lucky enough to enjoy the access to them),6 but it would be a mistake to expect radical revolution within the capitalist system. The capitalist system is designed to feed on exploitation. Capitalism cannot exist without exploitation.  This means that we cannot have truly oppression-free products within capitalism, but also that we cannot change the world unless we change our economic system.  


The Body Shop responds on Facebook, failing to address what happens to the animals and suggesting that veganism is irrelevant to a "humane" lifestyle.  Using animals "humanely" is apparently just as "cruelty-free" as veganism.


1.  To be clear, I am not positive what exact animal ingredients The Body Shop uses, as that would necessitate my going through the entire product line and reading each and every ingredient list. I have seen from internet forums that they use bee products and lanolin.  Based on what I know from other “natural” products, I expect egg and milk-derivatives are also used to some extent.  Please correct me if I am wrong, but 99.99% of “natural” companies do this, and I have no reason to believe TBS is any different if they are not a vegan company.

2.  Marc Bekoff would disagree. He has cited some interesting research in his latest book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation that demonstrates an incredible level of sentience in bees.  Bees have many of the same brain chemicals as us, allowing them to feel pleasure and pain (including emotional pain).

3.  My salesclerk provided me with a printed list of their products that are “free from animal ingredients.”  Does this include bees’ products?

4.  I’ve had this happen before when a man selling bees’ wax based hand cream grabbed my hand as I walked by his booth at a festival and began rubbing it into my skin (borderline sexual harassment).  As I was telling him I was vegan and not interested, he was telling me that the product doesn’t harm animals and that bees don’t count. Then he slapped me with a sticker that read, “I just got a hand job!” (okay, now it is definitely sexual harassment).

4.  The recent Starbucks Coffee campaign that offers “free” college tuition is another good example, as is just about any “fair trade” coffee labeling scheme by Starbucks or any other coffee chain.

5.  Keep in mind that “buying” social justice is a tactic only affordable to a small percentage of privileged individuals, and necessarily excludes the masses…the very masses needed to make large-scale social change.