There are always, in a person’s life, some meals consumed that will remain in their memory for years at least, if not for life. These will commonly include such rare culinary delights as an engagement dinner, or the last meal a beloved family member prepared before their death, or perhaps one that facilitated some unforgettable conversation, the recollection of which cannot detached from the food. Pathetically, my first mighty bucket from KFC was one such ineffable experience.
I sat alone on a small table during some lunch break or other when I first tasted the eleven herbs and spices which came to dominate my diet for years (this is no exaggeration: on my regular visits to the restaurant the staff, recognising my face, would start bagging up a large popcorn chicken meal and a Pepsi with no ice before I had even drawn the breath to request it). It was on this same table that I first tasted these same spices without an animal having died to grant me the privilege, and the only thing dulling my excitement was the memory of the last time I was there, knowing that I should have known better.
On the 2nd January, 2020, KFC rolled out its new vegan chicken burger as a permanent fixture of the menu across its nearly nine hundred branches in the UK, amongst a wave of similar moves from all manner of food outlets, marking the power of voting with our wallets for a cruelty-free future of the food industry. The launch was an imperfect one; a few vegans have been accidentally served bona fide flesh despite ordering a plant-based burger, and amongst the mocking comments underneath reports of such stories on social media, one thematic question was constantly lurking: what the hell is a vegan doing at KFC, anyway?
Less antagonistically, and when genuinely asked rather than propped up as though it were an argument, this question is being sincerely considered by a number of those who have taken the step to eliminate animals from their diet, many of whom are made to feel queasy at the thought of visiting an outlet that generally relies on their exploitation and slaughter to retain its profit margins. Does it make sense for a person who is ethically convinced that funding animal cruelty is inexcusable to hand money to companies which are so tied up in it that they have become its metonyms?
The Nature of Boycotting
Veganism is a form of boycott. As with all boycotts, it is a refusal to partake in an immorality, for purposes of achieving economically demand-driven change. Unlike with other boycotts, however, we do not refuse to purchase products of the food, clothing, and cosmetic industries to force them to change some unrelated policy or behaviour, but because the products are themselves in ethical need of change. Refusing to buy a product from a company because it pays its workers a low wage is one thing; refusing to buy a product because the product itself is immoral is another.
To consider why this is the case, the question should be reformulated in this manner: is veganism a boycott of animal products, or a boycott of companies and institutions which supply them? Reflecting on the implications of both should lead us hold the former to be the case.
The most immediate problem with attempting the latter is something all too obvious and familiar to vegans: animal products are everywhere. Not just in almost every food outlet, but everywhere. Refusing to fund any institution which benefits from them is not practically feasible.
From where should we purchase books? Myself, I generally opt either for Blackwell’s of Oxford, or the local Waterstones, both of which have cafés, both of which serve a variety of meat, dairy, and egg dishes and drinks. If my boycott is of the type that refuses to buy products due to a company’s immorality rather than a product’s immorality, I am committed to refusing to shop at either retailer, until their cafés become entirely plant based. This would not be an impossible mission, yet I would have some nerve to claim that this is required of anybody wishing to call themselves a vegan.
And what of less straightforward monetary decisions? I am a university student, and last year my college opened a brand new £13.5m library, furnished with designer ‘Bodleian Readers’ Chairs’, which retail for £1,824.00 each. This excruciating sum will get you a single seat made from ‘light oak and Muirhead leather’, meaning I will be studying for my finals sitting on a dead animal’s skin. The library was in development whilst I was deciding where to study; should I have chosen a different university, or refused to go at all, to avoid my tuition fees being used to fund, in part, such furnishing? This must be the reductio ad absurdum of this kind of boycott.
Perhaps, were I feeling particularly radical, a better approach would be to study in my own room instead, sat on the more (physically and ethically) comfortable fabric desk chair whose production involved cruelty to no animal. Yet this would not be enough, were I attempting to boycott any institution that funds animal exploitation, since I would still be paying my fees, which would still in turn be used for replacing broken leather furniture, subsidising meaty meals, providing academic grants to be spent by other students on leather-bound books, and a myriad of other forms of indirect immoralities that I could not hope to comprehensively list even if I had the time and will to. I would have to simply pack my bags and go home, making sure not to do so in a taxi with leather seats.
Clearly, veganism is a different kind of boycott. It does not wish to defund restaurants, farmers, universities, or booksellers, but incentivise them to adapt their behaviours so as to avoid the suffering of animals. It is not only impractical but also ill-advised for vegans to remove their influence from such places.
Yet an argument remains: it may be totally impractical to refuse to study at university, or visit the other institutions I have discussed, but it is certainly possible to avoid certain particular institutions if their transgressions are severe enough. Further, most organisations which partake in the exploitation of animals do not principally rely on it as a business model, with this instead being something of a side effect that can, therefore, be feasibly abolished. Chains like KFC and Burger King, however, are involved in killing animals as a main focus of their brand and product line, and it is this which justifies avoiding their premises, regardless of what we buy there.
An Opportunity For Change
Here we must avoid making the mistake of acting in a manner that will potentially bring about the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. The thrust of the argument above comes from those who suggest that, since we cannot know where our money specifically is going, we should minimise the chances that it might get recirculated into factory farming by boycotting the most obvious offenders in fast food. The logic of this implies that, as a rule, the higher the ratio of animal products to vegan products that an outlet offers, the less likely vegans should be to shop there.
This is a calamitous mistake. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not arguing from a tendency towards any softness or flexitarian tendencies; if there is such thing as an absolutist vegan, I am proud to call myself one (I am absolutely against the torture of the innocent). It is precisely for this reason, in fact, that I encourage vegans to shop at KFC and Burger King. When even the most iconically animal-based outlets begin testing the plant-based waters, the consumer market is presented with an opportunity to incentivise fast food companies to become more sustainable and ethical, increase the visibility of the animal rights movement, and drive the attention and spending of corporations away from a total reliance on cruelty to animals.
Consider the previously established rule of basing our purchase decisions on the ratio of animal to vegan products offered by a restaurant. By following this guidance, we focus our economic energy on those institutions least in need of diversification. We must still, naturally, support vegan establishments to sustain their presence, but a refusal to indicate the existence of a new market to food companies which may reactively modernise their product line is a refusal to vote for change. It is comparable to refusing to vote in a political election as a protest against the electoral system, despite this allowing a malevolent candidate to rise to power.
It is not therefore merely morally permissible to buy plant-based products from companies that otherwise rely on slaughter for profit; it is an imperative. We should be doing everything we can to demonstrate to these outlets that the world is changing, and that we will embrace such moves from them to the extent that they needn’t worry about any financial risk in deciding to dedicate ever larger sections of their menus to ethically permissible food.
What is the alternative? Will we as revolutionary activists allow (cause?) the appearance of such headlines as, ‘KFC reverts to fully animal-based menu’ or ‘See vegans? Nobody agrees with you’? Are we to expect those who never asked for vegan options to become available to be the ones who popularise their consumption? It would be a fatal error to refuse this opportunity to change the face of fast food and make a far more impactful statement than any placard on the streets of London ever could. (Though please, don’t underestimate these, too.)
But not only does our purposive decision to buy a vegan burger cause the executives of Burger King and KFC to begin scratching their heads to create ever more innovative cruelty-free fast food, and not only does it tempt those meat-eaters browsing their menus to see what the fuss is about. By making these choices we also begin to procure the holy grail of all ethical and justice movements: normalisation.
Wherever veganism throws off its ‘fringe’ persona and becomes an omnipresent and viable option for even the most stubborn of taste-driven human beings, it simultaneously becomes impossible to stop. Who, except perhaps that insufferable and self-defeating kind of person who ingeniously posts GIFs of someone eating a steak beneath online animal rights content, could possibly morally embarrass themselves so much as to continue exploiting innocent creatures when, in the world quite possibly separated from us by only a few short decades, all of their favourite outlets offer perfectly serviceable plant-based alternatives? (I was nearly tempted to remark that we shouldn’t worry about such people, since history will forget forget them. It won’t: it will loathe them.)
The first step towards this world begins with our making strategic economic decisions. We should not think of ourselves as congratulating a company or condoning its practices by purchasing one of its products, especially when our reasoning for doing so is precisely to express our dissatisfaction with the rest of the options on offer. Don’t just begrudgingly agree to go with your friends to KFC and eat the minimum required to sustain sociability—go of your own accord, and get yourself a drink, too. Demonstrate to this bastion cruelty that at the earliest available opportunity provided to us we are willing to fully embrace what we have been wanting for so long: change.
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