Disclaimer: This issue is a very polarizing topic in the vegan community. I’m going to talk about my feelings and experiences here, but keep in mind that other vegans may feel very differently.
Free-range & organic: the rise of “happywashing”
Have you heard about ‘greenwashing’? It’s an unfortunate phenomenon that has arisen as a result of consumers trying to make more eco-friendly choices.
In a nutshell: as people become more concerned about reducing their negative impact on the environment, many companies have responded by introducing products or policies that are marketed as being more eco-friendly. Well-meaning consumers who are trying to make responsible choices support these eco options, and the companies profit. While this seems like a good way for everyday consumers to bring about positive change, there’s a big hiccup: in many cases, the marketing of a business’s eco-friendliness is misleading or grossly overstated, and the company is simply manipulating our good intentions to make more money — ‘greenwashing’ their products or services. It’s frustrating when a company leverages someone’s heartfelt concern in order to get more money from them, but it’s extremely frustrating when that company isn’t even helping in the way that it claimed to be. It sucks to be manipulated, but it really sucks to be manipulated in a way that undermines the values you’re trying to live by.
Likewise, now that people are becoming more concerned about the welfare of farmed animals, companies are marketing animal products that are supposedly more humane — a phenomenon that I refer to as “happywashing.”
Before I stopped buying animal products, I was a poster child for the effectiveness of happywashing. I would painstakingly research the source of my eggs and yogurt. Did you know that most AOC-certified French cheeses have strict rules about the goats being allowed to roam free, and how much sunlight they should get? I still remember the text on the tub of one particular yogurt I would buy, which described how the farmers at this small Massachusetts dairy farm would often give their cows a good scratch behind the ears. Awwww! The thought of that made me feel so warm and fuzzy, and I enthusiastically purchased only this ‘happy’ yogurt instead of that other ‘sad’ mass-produced yogurt. If it didn’t say “free-range” and “organic” on the label, I wouldn’t touch it.
How many times have we heard that “happy cows come from California,” or seen joyous, laughing cows on the products we buy? There’s a reason companies do this. They know that we don’t want animals to suffer, and they want to reassure us that we aren’t contributing to suffering. I gladly played along with this for a long time, because the last thing I wanted to think was that I had been hurting animals.
Deep down somewhere, I had an inkling that things didn’t add up. If these cows and chickens were so happy, then why did some people morally oppose dairy and eggs? After desperately trying to squash down these concerns for a long time, I finally bit the bullet and decided to look into it. I was devastated to learn that by buying eggs and dairy all these years (even ‘happy’ ones), I had been directly contributing to practices that I opposed. Damn it. I had been hoodwinked and happywashed.
No way! The stuff I buy is happiness-certified.
Happywashing depends on us believing the following: “Sure, the animal product from that other source is horrible and inhumane. But this one that I’ve chosen to buy is suffering-free — it says so right here on the packaging!”
If there weren’t a ‘happy’ or ‘humane’ alternative, people might seriously rethink using animal products altogether. After all, we’ve learned how terrible things are at huge cattle feedlots, and in those big chicken houses where daylight is never let in. If that were our only option, it would be a lot harder to continue supporting this treatment of other beings. But now that companies are offering us ‘humane’ options, we don’t have to rethink using animal products — we can just use these happy animal products, right?
Well, clearly the companies that make animal products would be very glad for you to come to this conclusion, rather than choosing to no longer support their industry. There is a lot of money to be made (or, at least not lost) in convincing people who are concerned about animal welfare that it’s still ‘ok’ to consume animal products.
Many companies and grocery stores now include specific labeling on items to indicate how ‘humane’ the animal product is, such as Whole Foods’ 1-5 rating system. A lot of concerned people rely on these labels to make food choices, because they don’t want the animals behind these products to be treated badly. It’s great that people want to make a better choice, but the sad truth is that these ratings and labels are very misleading. Free-range does not mean what you think it means (more info here, but beware that there are some sad visuals). And no cow could ever be happy about the things that are necessary in order to produce cheese, even if that cow is grass-fed and organic.
I’ve seen the reality behind the advertising firsthand. Near me is a big chicken “processing” plant, where truckloads of chickens are delivered every day to be slaughtered. If you go on the company’s website, what do you see? Cute pictures of chickens frolicking in green grass. But if you head down to the processing plant, what do you see?
I’ve seen hundreds (maybe even thousands) of chickens sitting out on the hot asphalt, crammed into big cage crates stacked ten-high, waiting to be loaded into the plant’s loading dock. On one particularly sweltering Tennessee summer day, I saw chickens who had been out on the asphalt for at least an hour. Many were already lying dead in the bottom of their cages, while their remaining flockmates frantically tried to escape. They were bloody, panting, and terrified. It’s life-changing to directly witness mass suffering on this scale, and it took a long time before I could recompose myself enough to drive home. F%#@ you, chicken company with your green grass pictures, for tricking people into supporting this.
We’re right to care, and these companies are wrong for tricking us. They know that we’re worried about the fate of these animals, and they’re using that concern to manipulate us into continuing to give them money. F that.
That’s terrible. But, seriously, the farm I buy from is awesome.
It’s certainly true that some animals are treated better than others, and that some small farms really do go out of their way to be extra respectful of animals’ comfort and well-being.
Maybe you’ve personally visited the farm that you purchase your animal products from, and it’s an idyllic setting where the animals appear to be having a great time. While this is certainly preferable to purchasing animal products that come from places where the animals are wallowing in pain and squalor, there are still inherent elements of the practice of farming animals that should give people who are concerned about animal welfare serious pause.
For instance: really bad things happen to every single momma milk cow, and to every single baby boy born to an egg-laying hen, no matter how beautiful and peaceful the farm appears. (If you’d prefer to hear these concerns straight from the farmer’s mouth, check out the story of why this farmer made the decision to turn her ‘humane’ goat farm into an animal sanctuary and education center.)
And just in general, many people take issue with breeding animals solely for the purpose of killing them at a young age, even if they’re treated really well while they’re alive. Cows raised for beef are typically killed at 1-2 years old, even though at sanctuaries they live to be 20+ years old — which sure makes the moral distinction between killing “baby” cows for veal and killing one-year-old cows for beef seem like splitting hairs.
If a dog breeder told you “Yes, I do slaughter all my puppies at one year old. But they have such a fabulous life up until then! They’re free to play in the yard, and they eat great food. We love our dogs and treat them really well.” … I think most people would have a hard time agreeing with that definition of treating the animals “well,” and wouldn’t want to support this breeder.
So are vegans against humane meat?
A lot of people are understandably upset about the disingenuous and manipulative forces behind the evolution of ‘humane’ animal products as a concept. Many activists also worry that if people think they have a ‘humane’ option, they’ll be lulled into complacency and will be less likely to stop using animal products.
While I understand these concerns, I’m one of those vegans who is sad about the myth of humane meat, but loves humane meat eaters. Here’s why.
The fact that the demand for humane meat is growing is a sign that people care more about the well-being of their fellow creatures. I believe that this is, hands-down, a positive thing that should be celebrated. Period.
You eat less meat!
When folks commit to only eating humane meat, they automatically eat less meat, because humane meat is more expensive and harder to find. I’m an “every-little-bit-er,” in the sense that I believe every bit counts. If people’s overall meat consumption goes down because they’re sticking to ‘humane’ meat, that means fewer animals are being raised for slaughter. That’s good news, not bad news.
It’s a slippery slope!
Typically, people choose to only eat humane meat because they’re concerned about animals’ well-being. They’re also making a choice that means they’ll have to retool some of their eating and cooking habits to accommodate their ethical choice.
I’ve found that this profile — people who are concerned about animal welfare and are making conscious decisions about how to vote with their dollars — means that somebody will be more likely to eat less meat (or even transition to a veg lifestyle) down the road. And that makes sense: they’ve already decided to learn more about the practices behind their food, and they’ve already proven to themselves that they have the power to make better choices.
The majority of vegans I know today followed the path of: eat whatever —> humane meat —> vegetarian —> vegan. Some vegans lash out at people who are eating humane meat and dabbling in making more conscious food decisions. To me that makes zero sense. We should be those people’s cheering squad, not their detractors.
Thank you, humane meat eaters
If you’re one of those folks out there who only eats humane meat: thank you. You’re part of the solution.
But. I hope the concerns that led you to make the change to humane meat will also lead you to investigate whether this will be your stopping point, or if there are further changes that would help your actions better align with your values.