Vegan Consumerism Within Ethical Capitalism
Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, explores whether there is such a thing as ethical capitalism, and whether it can be achieved within the vegan paradigm.
I must be honest. Christmas is not my favourite time of the year.
There are many reasons for that — which I may not be bothering you with — and rampant, uncontrolled consumerism is one of them. I know how much waste there is in the commercial sector, about all the unnecessary packaging, about the CO2 that gifts emit travelling to their destinations, about all those animals that suffer to satisfy self-blinded customers, and all those unwanted items people feel compelled to buy. This habitual wasteful consumer extravagance is multiplied by a thousand or more during the winter holidays.
Most years I try to go to a quiet place to remove myself from that madness, but, more often than not, I fail. Even when many years ago I spent the 25th of December in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, my plan to cheat Christmas fever crumbled when I saw someone sweating in a Father Christmas costume waving at me a few hundred metres ahead. There is no escape, I thought.
With age, I have learnt to take an equanimous attitude to fir trees in living rooms and sparkling balls in shops’ windows. Like it or not, I live in a capitalist country that had collectively decided a long time ago that, regardless of religion or background, we all need to celebrate jointly the natural austerity of the winter solstice by spending up, showing off, and socialising more than usual. In a way, it is the time we ritually synchronise our civilised status by saying the same things, wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, singing the same songs, and watching the same programmes —all at the same time. It’s all part of living in a western capitalist country.
I tolerate it all now. I know everything is transient, and Christmas will eventually pass.
However, my grinchy attitude is caused by something more transcendent than just glitter and bells. My current Instagram account profile says the following: “Vegan, atheist, animal rights advocate, environmentalist, rational, and author of the book Ethical Vegan. Any views are my own.”. At the request of my publisher, I changed it to add my book to it. But there was not enough room, so I had to take out some of the adjectives that I had initially written to define my identity. One of those I removed was “lefty”. Not that I have switched political sides, but I thought that, these days, saying you are leftwing is not sufficient. You need to be more specific, and I had not enough room for that.
To get rid of capitalism we may need to get rid of carnism first. We may need to weaken the grip of carnist indoctrination enough before we ever attempt to change the political and economic system towards one based on sharing stuff instead of acquiring stuff.
I am still a lefty, and as such, I am all for a progressive, tolerant, inclusive, and democratic society that embraces diversity and looks after the needy. But that’s only the social side of it. The Economic side is something else. Leaning towards the better distribution of wealth and against unscrupulous selfish market-driven capitalism. A few years ago, I may just have written about being anti-capitalist, but to be honest, if I write it now, my behaviour could be seen as contradictory to such a statement. Because I think there may be such a thing as ethical capitalism, and I hope this is what I support when I buy products and services today.
The Capitalist Ship
I have property. I buy stuff and look around for the best deal. I purchase more things than I need because I am the victim of seductive powerful marketing wizards. I save for a rainy day when I can, and I reject jobs I feel are insufficiently renumerated. If I feel cheated, I ask for my money back. If I see a homeless person, I spare some of my change, but that is it. I follow market trends like everyone else. I pay rent, I have a bank account, I have a credit card, and I pay taxes. I may not be a capitalist, but I am a creature of capitalism, doing capitalist things in a capitalist system. And I do it even when trying to buy fair-trade-eco-sustainable-low-carbon-veganic products. In the end, I am a consumer who buys products, and that’s that.
The vegan company Veganaise ended up being owned by Danone. So did the plant-based milk producers Alpro, Provamel, Soya Soleil, and Silk. Apparently, the vegan cheesemaker Violife is now owned by the plant-based company Upfield, which in turn is owned by KKR (which has invested in pharmaceutical companies which test on animals). In 2018, the Vegetarian Butcher was acquired by Unilever. Let’s face it. At the rate that it is happening now, at one point all the major surviving vegan brands will be either owned by a non-vegan parent company or will move away from the concept of veganism and sit comfortably in the more flexible and forgiving plant-based paradigm. In capitalism, the big entities grow by cannibalising the smallest ones, and as most young vegans seem keener in getting all the products they wish rather than fighting for the integrity of an old philosophy, in the end, the vegan community may stop complaining and carry on building a vegan world from accumulating vegan stuff.
To get rid of capitalism we may need to get rid of carnism first. We may need to weaken the grip of carnist indoctrination enough before we ever attempt to change the political and economic system towards one based on sharing stuff instead of acquiring stuff. One truly egalitarian, fair, and fulfilling system for all, in which avoiding harming anybody or anything that can be harmed is the norm. Not a traditional anarchist, communist or socialist system, really. Something better. An ahimsa political system based on not harming any sentient being or the environment, which would be universally applied in the vegan world of the future.
But we can’t just behave as if we already live in that world. We don’t. We live in a capitalist world, and we may have to use everything it offers to us to travel to the world we want. This is the price we may need to pay, reluctantly, if we want to get there. I would have preferred that the vegan trending revolution we experience today would have been moral rather than commercial, but that’s the way it is.
It’s like being stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean dreaming of firm land. We cannot leave the ship until we find land. We cannot deny the ship’s nature just because we want to be somewhere else. A ship is a human-made object floating on water because of its size and the way it was built. This is its nature, and when we are in it, we cannot deny it. If we do, we will panic when the waves move it, as we won’t understand what is going on. And if the ship is old and rusty, we may sink to the bottom of the ocean if we do not look after it properly. It’s the only thing we have before we find any shore. But when we find it, we can leave the ship behind and look for a better life in the steady lush paradise of terra firma.
How can we then do our least capitalist harm on a capitalist ship? Is being an ethical vegan enough? Is vegan consumerism the way forward for ethical capitalism?
Less is more, they say. I often reply in disagreement “more is more”, but in the case of consumerism, I accept the cliche. Because I believe consuming less is more ethical.
The novel Ishmael from Daniel Quinn has become a cult classic. Through the story of a man being taught by an insightful speaking gorilla, this 1992 philosophical novel looks at the hidden cultural biases driving modern civilization. It did the same for me on human history as the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins did on evolutionary biology. It gave me a different point of view of things I already knew, but through this new perspective, everything made much more sense. In his book, he talks about two kinds of humans that were living at the start of civilization. The “takers” and the “leavers”. The takers are people from cultures based on dominating Nature. They first emerged in an Agricultural Revolution starting 12,000 years ago in the Near East, and now have grown into today’s developed societies. As the name suggests, takers take anything they can, accumulating more wealth and power. On the other side, the leavers are people of previous cultures – or current isolated indigenous communities – who live in harmony with nature, and “leave” most of it in peace. They only take what they need, and leave the rest.
Today’s capitalism (and also communism, by the way) are takers’ political systems. However, we do not see a leaver political system developed at the national or international level yet. That is what I think we need. That is what I think would come from ahimsa politics. That is what I think the vegan world would look like. Through following, manifesting, and applying the philosophy of veganism to the full, the philosophy of doing no harm and avoiding discrimination of any race or species, humanity would return to their leaver nature, and leave their taker attitude behind. It seems over-ambitious but think about it in this way:
from the several million years that there have been human-like creatures on this planet, only most members of one species of them have been takers for a mere 12,000 years or so. If our current physical and cultural infrastructure is taker-compatible, our genetic and psychological makeup is leaver-compatible. If we try it, I think we could become leavers again.
What to do is simple. Control our urges to “take” stuff and cultivate our tendencies to “leave” stuff. Gradually, take less and leave more. In other words, reduce the number of new things we acquire. Becoming reducetarian consumers.
The term reducetarian is used today to describe people who, instead of becoming vegans or vegetarians, just reduce the amount of animal products they consume. For me, that is the wrong type of reducetarian, as it is reactive rather than proactive, and only focus on some animal products. Considering the amount and availability of vegan options these days, and the urgency to solve the big problems of animal suffering, environmental destruction, and climate change, I do not think this type of reducetarian is a valid ethical option anymore. I feel that, in most cases, it comes from a lack of ethical conviction, the unfounded fear of missing something, and a lazy attitude to social and planetary responsibility. As professor Francione says, veganism is the moral baseline, the minimum you can do, and animal products & reducetarians do less than that.
However, my type of reductionism is a proactive move towards returning to our leaver natures. It is not about consuming less than this and replacing it with more of that. It is about consuming less, full stop. In this case, less is more.
So, for me, an ethical vegan in a capitalist world, I want to consistently reduce the number of things I take (buy, possess, receive, borrow, etc.) and the number of things I need (food, space, energy, information). I am far from being significantly advanced on this quest, but every January my New Year resolution now comes from the question “what else in my life can I stop taking from now on?”
This Epicurean attitude is perfectly compatible with both veganism and environmentalism, and I think that if it became mainstream, could be the root of ethical capitalism. A system where the capital and the economy shrink without eliminating private ownership and entrepreneurship. Where the markets capitalise on sharing and recycling, rather than extracting and exploiting. Where the collective economy in a resource-finite planet grows by the reduction of the individuals’ need for products and services.
If by being stuck on the capitalist ship you must consume stuff to survive and feel fulfilled, better to get it from the right sources. It’s preferable to buy it from ethical companies or organisations, especially those where your money will be used for good causes. Things like social justice, the environment, education, support of marginalised communities, and, of course, animals.
Earning from your honest work should be acceptable in an ethical capitalist framework, and it is good if you can help ethical entrepreneurs and businesspeople to live a comfortable life so they can continue to produce better products and services than their unethical counterparts. Especially people who have the right livelihoods.
I like the concept of “right livelihood” the Buddhists use as part of their famous eightfold path. It means not living from activities or professions that harm others. According to this precept, Buddhists should not trade in weapons, living beings, meat, alcoholic drinks, or poison. I like it, and I would of course extend this to any animal exploitation work, slavery, violent jobs, and professions that often damage the environment (oil extraction, logging, coal mining, etc.).
As far as animal exploitation is concerned, ethical vegans like me already do this filtering of providers. Eco-vegans and intersectional vegans like me also try to do it for the environment and marginalised groups, respectively. But, do we really do it? If we buy a vegan product from a non-vegan supermarket, where will our money go? If you order a vegan product that is delivered by a non-vegan courier, where would our shipping cost surcharge go? If we consume a vegan burger in a traditional meat burger chain, where would our values go? Are we supporting enough the independent fully vegan companies and entrepreneurs by giving them our custom instead of wasting it with big non-vegan corporations or opportunistic ethically void plant-based popups?
I hear often the argument of buying plant-based products from a non-vegan business to encourage them to have vegan options (or to keep them if they are just trying them during Veganuary). I don’t find it convincing. I think it’s a lazy argument mostly driven by the selfish attitude of convenience, rather than a sound strategy to reduce demand for animal products. Unless the vegan option replaces a non-vegan one (which is hardly the case; they tend to be added options to get more customers, not to change the habits of their current ones), or the business has decided to move towards 100% plant-based and are just transitioning to it, I think spending money regularly in such establishments (as opposed to trying their products out or buy the occasional treat) only increases animal exploitation. It removes funds from vegan providers and diverts them towards companies that will use them to exploit more animals.
If you think about it, we often have a better option of product supplier or service provider, but by habit or laziness, we stick to the imperfect ones. Or we simply overvalue convenience and undervalue research and responsibility. I think that, before choosing a supplier, we all should do more research. It is worth looking at things like packaging, googling the name of the company to see who owns it, checking labels and ethical scores, and asking trusted people around from different ethical domains. And do it regularly, as sometimes the ethical status of a supplier may change.
Some suppliers you would have considered unethical in the past may have improved attitudes with time — and perhaps campaign pressure. And sometimes changing an attitude is more important than changing behaviour, because the former may eventually lead to a genuine long-lasting wider behavioural improvement, while the latter may only be tokenistic and marketing driven.
The company Unilever springs to mind. I stopped buying Marmite when I found out it was made by this company, which engaged in animal testing. But, apparently, Unilever eventually sold their animal testing laboratories, and its subsidiaries now only test products when required by law in the countries where they sell them. Even more, they seem quite vocal now in promoting non-animal testing. Enough to remove them from the penalty box? The animal rights organisation PETA think so.
However, sometimes it’s not possible to find vegan products from environmentally-friendly-socially- just-fair-trade-ethicalvegan suppliers available to you. Or is highly impractical. Sometimes, the best we can do is to get them from a part-time online flexitarian! But this is when becoming a reducetarian consumer comes into play. The less you consume, the less collateral damage you will be causing when getting the products you need — or think you need— from the wrong people.
To support them, if I can afford it I often order groceries from small vegan shops even if I could get them close by.
It’s good to be kind. Being kind to most sentient beings would come naturally to you If you are an ethical vegan, but you should ensure you are not leaning towards speciesism and only reserve your kindness towards your favourite animals. We, ethical vegans, must be kind to all sentient beings, including humans.
In our capitalist world, some people depend on selling products and services to survive. Some traders work for extra profit, but others do it for survival. We should not forget that. If you want to engage in ethical capitalism, you should consume not only for yourself but to help the sellers who depend on your trade to survive. Prioritising ethical suppliers who need your custom over those who are already doing well and are just trying to grow and expand.
For instance, going to a new vegan restaurant and leaving a good review is a kind thing to do for vegan entrepreneurs — and the veganism cause in general. Especially those that just started in areas where veganism is not that popular yet and may need a push. I try to do that, even if the food they offer is not the kind of food I like.
Also, supporting vegan and environmental products/services supplied by members of struggling marginalised communities is a good move towards ethical capitalism. Since the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in 2020, when I eat out, I make an effort to choose vegan restaurants run by Black people (which is by no means a big effort for me, as Ethiopian food is my favourite, and I have a couple of Ethiopian vegan restaurants close by). And it’s not only about buying, though. Another way to be kind is to be grateful and accept gifts from those well-intentioned friends or family members who made an effort in respecting your values. If by ignorance the gift is not suitable for vegans, I politely try to educate, explaining why I cannot consume it, but I also give a chance to correct the error and replace the gift with one I can enjoy (most genuinely generous people would gladly do so). And if it is something you do not really need, you can accept it anyway and give it forward to someone who does.
I am getting better at all this, but I am not quite there yet. I buy less and less from standard supermarkets or non-vegan businesses, and more from vegan stores, local plant-based shops, vegan fairs and community markets. And since the pandemic has increased the offer of home delivering services, distance from the best shops that need more help is less of a problem now (to support them, if I can afford it I often order groceries from small vegan shops even if I could get them close by).
And this brings me back to Christmas. Despite my uneasiness about it, I must also recognise that for some people, the trade they made during the winter holiday period is crucial for their survival. Perhaps boycotting them may not be the kind thing to do. As long as they are vegan-friendly, and are environmentally and socially sound, perhaps purchasing some ethical Christmas decorations from struggling traders from marginalised communities is what I should do every winter.
Perhaps that would make me a more consistent user of ethical capitalism, and my long sickening journey on the rusty capitalist ship through turbulent waters may become more tolerable to me.
Maybe I will try that.