The importance of consumer advocacy

Since the founding of CAA, we have encouraged consumers to make better dietary choices. I was talking to a sympathizer with our cause, and she asked how consumer education reduces animal suffering and death. I explained that we educate consumers about factory farming and vegetarianism. I told her that if everybody became vegan, there would be no animal agriculture. She told me that would never happen.

I don't concern myself much about whether or not the world will ever become vegan — it's not a question that I think sheds light on how best to advocate for animals today — but was still a bit startled by her question. Looking back on the conversation, I realized I left many gaps in explaining the thinking behind our work and strategy.

There are many ways to create change: we can lobby for better laws for animals at the local state, or national level, we can try to influence the behavior of businesses or corporations, we can conduct social, psychological, political, or philosophical research into the causes and ways to prevent animal cruelty, we can file lawsuits to prevent animal exploitation, we can start animal-friendly businesses, or we can start a pro-animal publication.

All of these methods can be effective, and we work with allies that do a number of these things. I have personally been involved in using many of these methods, and I am likely to use these methods in the future. But here are the primary reasons we have focused on changing consumer behavior:

1. The change we get when we consume fewer animal products, become vegetarian, or become vegan is immediate. Because of the change in our consumption habits, fewer animals are confined in factory farms, and fewer are killed. In my other organizing work outside of animal advocacy, I've worked with activists to pass legislation. Sometimes we were successful in getting the changes we wanted, and sometimes we weren't. When we weren't, the process of advocating for change usually resulted in being better trained, having more resources, and more likely to pass the legislation the next time. But we didn't effect any substantive social change as a direct result of our work — which often consumed hundreds of hours and a lot energy. When we change our eating habits, we are empowered by the immediate impact of our choices.

2. Relatedly, the process of changing our consumption patterns is not about a theoretical vegetarian world, it's about living our values today. We derive a satisfaction that we've become closer to the kind of people we want to be on a day-to-day basis. Our changing eating habits entail changed patterns in grocery shopping, eating at restaurants, and cooking for our families. We change how we celebrate holidays and birthdays, how we mark religious occasions, weddings and funerals. All of these changes emphasize our new values and beliefs today, regardless of any changes that may or may not happen in the future.

3. Changing our consumption habits is accessible. It takes no special knowledge, skills, or resources to change our eating habits. In contrast, making change by influencing a corporation requires understanding how the corporation works and makes decision, who has the power in the corporation to make the changes we want, and an ability to persuade the decision-makers. In contrast, we can simply choose to patronize different restaurants and buy different food at the grocery store to change our eating habits and help animals.

4. Finally, focusing on consumer change empowers us to understand that the world operates as it does — and allows for current cruelties to continue — because we let it. It's not the powerful institutions of agribusiness, corporations, or governments that perpetuate animal cruelty, it's us: we decide, every time we eat, the fate of the animals. It can be overwhelming to realize their fate rests with us, but we must also acknowledge our power.

Focusing our efforts on consumer education is an accessible and effective way to further social change. I've been fortunate to hear numerous stories of people eating fewer animals as a result of our work. Our strategy will help our movement grow and create the success we are looking for.

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