Follow:
Veganism

My take on the parent company debate (& ethical consumption) in veganism

One of the stalwart and rumbling debates of the vegan world is that of parent companies; specifically, the ethical dilemma presented when we buy products that are ‘strictly’ vegan (i.e. do not use or contain any animal products) from companies that otherwise do use animal products or test on animals.

Hopefully this post will provide sufficient food for thought so that you feel able to make up your own mind about whether or not to support vegan products that are the children of problematic parent companies. There are links to other resources throughout, and a round-up of relevant links and sources at the end.

(Need the TL;DR version? Conclusion: it’s complicated, the world makes it complicated, so be informed but do what feels right within your social/financial means.)

Cosmetics vs. Food

This debate rages most commonly where cosmetics, toiletries or other ‘beauty’ products are concerned, and less so in the world of food. Although some do compare the two in an effort to untangle their own approach to cruelty-free ‘best practice’, the two industries are rather different, and this may not be the most helpful route to take. If we accept that food (in whatever form) is a consumption necessity while cosmetics/toiletries are more of a choice (notwithstanding huge societal pressures on all of us to look/smell ‘good’, or toothpaste/soap/sanitary products) then we may see a fundamental difference between the two. How this impacts our own practices, though, is more of a personal decision.

Terminology

Terminology of food categories is generally clearer and more helpful for vegan consumers; we know that food which doesn’t contain (or hasn’t been processed using) animal products is suitable for a vegan/plant-based diet. We know that food labelled as vegetarian doesn’t include animal flesh, but may well include other animal products. We also know that the overwhelming majority of food manufacturers and vendors also use meat, dairy, eggs, etc., and so avoiding buying from them is therefore borderline impossible. Grey areas tend to be confined to products like palm oil, which doesn’t contain any animal product, but demand for and production of which is known to be very damaging to biodiversity and animal habitats. 1 2

‘Cruelty Free’ Beauty

Terminology that relates to cosmetics/toiletries is much trickier to decipher, and any/all of the following might play a part:

“Cruelty-free” products aren’t necessarily vegan; indeed, very often they aren’t. As mentioned in my veganism master post, Logical Harmony (along with others) has already produced a comprehensive guide to cruelty-free vs. vegan, so I won’t repeat that here.

Corporations, Capitalism, and Consumers

Any debate that concerns our consumption practices must take account of the context in which we consume. I write this in 2017, in ‘The West’3, where capitalism reigns.

When I was 16, back in 1997, I bought my first Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. Along with all the other requisite (and joyful) stationery items a new school year demands, I took it along to my first A-Level Sociology classes. Marx, Durkheim and Weber were prominent figures in our early introduction to sociological thinkers, and our teacher encouraged us to go straight to the source and read The Communist Manifesto. Unlike many other primary source texts, it was a fairly straightforward read; sure, it was written in 1848, but it was also intended as a powerful and pithy statement of political intent, to be accessible to the working classes. It defined “modern capitalists” as the “owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour4 and a modern dictionary definition doesn’t stray too far from that:

“Capitalist: A person who uses their wealth to invest in trade and industry for profit in accordance with the principles of capitalism.”

Although a lot has changed since 1848, Marx & Engels did future-proof their ideas somewhat, telling us that fundamental changes in any society will simply result in “new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones5. In other words, there will always be those whose driving force is profit, and there will always be those who suffer under them and struggle against them.

But how does this relate to ethical consumerism and cruelty-free cosmetics?

We need to link back to the context in which we are making consumption choices. Can we have any effect on the ethics and policies of massive corporations? (Or even smaller ones?) Where do we draw the line? We tell ourselves that we have purchasing power. We can vote with our dollar. We can mobilise against unethical profiteering. But is that really true?

It’s hard to believe that the industrial revolution was wrapping up by the time Marx & Engels were trying to persuade workers to smash the factory machinery that had replaced their labour. The momentum of technological progress since the 1700s has been staggering, and the technology that enables mass production (of all sorts of stuff) is a defining feature of society today . (Side note: for an interesting discussion of how mass production affected art, Walter Benjamin‘s the chap for you.)

We know that animals have suffered uniquely and terribly in this new landscape of mass production, particularly where food is concerned, and this is known as the animal industrial complex:

“…a partially opaque network of relations between governments, public and private science, and the corporate agricultural sector. Within the three nodes of the complex are multiple intersecting levels and it is sustained by an ideology that naturalizes the human as a consumer of other animals.” 6

In other words, there is a complex system at work in our society today. It’s rooted in government, and in science and the corporate sector. It’s so deeply embedded that it’s part of how we all live: we think that it’s normal to consume animal products at the rate we do, and so we continue to demand them. This means that animals must be in adequate supply, and so they are frequently farmed and processed on a massive scale7 by corporations driven by profit.

It’s not just farmed animals that suffer the effects of mass production; Captain Planet was warning us about the precarious state of the ozone back in 1990. We’ve known for a long time that mass-agriculture and over-use of natural resources is bad news. So how do corporations respond to a rising tide of unrest over ethics amongst consumers? How do corporations respond when consumerist eyes turn to how ‘green’ their practices really are?

Greenwashing

Greenwashing is deceptive by nature.8 It recognises a demand for ‘greener’, fairer, more responsible corporate practices, and it supplies the right sort of message to assuage consumer doubts. What do we mean when we accuse a corporation of greenwashing?

“The charges usually stem from some environmental stance a corporation publicizes without putting its rhetoric into practice; talking the talk without walking the walk. Most corporations do not greenwash their reputations by lying outright. Rather, they bend the truth or misrepresent their ecological stances.” 9

Greenwashing has gained momentum since the 1970s and 80s10. It’s now good for business to appear greener, even if that only means making promises that may or may not be kept (for example, by disingenuously publishing policy statements that are rarely implemented properly11). Industries that rely on fossil fuels provide excellent examples of this, like car manufacturer General Motors:

“GM has a program of planting a tree for each car sold in its Geo division, a practice that sounds extremely eco-friendly. However, to counter the amount of carbon dioxide produced by a single Geo car, GM would have to plant 734 trees over the lifetime of each vehicle…. Against this background, that single tree planted for every Geo sold starts to materialize as a worthless gesture toward environmentalism, and a clear move toward the greenwashing of GM’s reputation.” 12

But here’s the thing: appearing green (talking the talk) is good for business, but being green (walking the walk) costs money. This becomes a delicate balancing act for big corporations who want to find exactly the right combination of looking good (to both consumers and investors) and doing good that will continue to maximise profit.

“….the rationale underpinning the greenwashing movement is the realization that a corporation does not need to actually create social good in order to reap the benefits of a green reputation. If companies’ actions matched up with all of their rhetoric, greenwashing would not be an issue. However, if a company can reap the benefits of a green reputation without actually spending the time or money to substantially change its practices, it reaps all of the benefits without any of the associated costs.” 13

This can become all kinds of meta when ethics become part of the product itself. Check out this video from cultural critic Slavoj Žižek who pulls apart Starbucks’ fair trade/’do good’ campaign rhetoric:

To me, greenwashing becomes troubling when massive corporations with little genuine commitment to ethical practice buy up ‘ethical’ brands (e.g. Unilever’s purchase of Simple skincare) and immediately begin to profit from their greener image. But how do we choose whether to support ‘cruelty-free’ brands regardless of parent companies? Are we ever truly voting with our dollar if we are ‘buying into’ the marketing and commodification of a more ethical product or lifestyle? Be aware that corporations know that consumers will buy what they can afford, and that’s very often not the fault of the consumer….

“Most consumers have little ambivalence about purchasing whatever manufactured goods they can afford, with a small percentage being happier buying what they perceive to be an environmentally superior product—thus producing the opportunity for economic gain from product differentiation within the nonservice industry sectors.” 14

Consumerism: Ethics on a spectrum

In reality, a corporation’s true ethical ‘status’ will always exist on a spectrum. One organisation that seeks to accurately place companies on this spectrum is Ethical Consumer. There are a whole bunch of factors at work when considering the ethics of a corporation, whether they be a bank, a supermarket, a worldwide coffee conglomerate, or an indie make-up manufacturer. These include (but are absolutely not limited to):

  • animal ‘welfare’, inc. farmed animal conditions, animal testing, etc. (for clarity on my own view: humane meat is bullshit)
  • worker conditions and fair wages
  • environmental/sustainability commitment and reporting
  • corporate politics and investment
  • tax payment/evasion

Another organisation that explores the ethics of food products is the Food Empowerment Project. For example, did you know that numerous vegan chocolate products are made using the worst forms of child labour in Western Africa? And do I even need to talk about PeTA….?

It’s my view that this ethical spectrum is what we should be focusing on as vegan consumers. Much like I described in my master post on veganism, to me the lifestyle is about your best effort at upholding the principles at the heart of everything you do. That’s not about cheating. It’s about thinking and making informed choices.

What is the product you’re looking to buy? Food? A savings account? Shampoo? Mascara? Condoms? A washing machine? A sofa? Drugs? (Legal or otherwise?) There’s a lot to consider, whatever you’re consuming. What will you do with the product? Is it for you? For someone else? Are you using it or promoting it? Are you being paid to promote it? Do you need it or do you want it? How important are your ethical considerations? What do you know about who you’re buying from, and where your money is going?

All of this stuff matters, and is worth thinking about. Try to place your ‘dollar vote’ on a spectrum. Be aware that there are some REALLY bad apples out there: Unilever, Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble. I usually try to avoid these as best I can. There are also some pretty good apples out there, if you can find them. (N.B. I once worked with one of the co-founders of the Fair trade symbol and he was a problematic guy to say the least. I also experienced a fair ol’ bit of gross sexism in the co-op sector, so, remember that spectrum folks…)

Conclusion

Choosing to give money to corporations with a more genuine baseline commitment to ethics is, to me, the best choice we can make within our means. Here are my five recommendations to you:

  1. Be informed.
  2. Think about what you know.
  3. Search your heart/soul.
  4. Do what you can.
  5. Spread compassion in all you do <3

Further reading/resources:

Other views on the parent company debate:



For veganism, dog pictures, and life ramblings, giz a follow…

Woodcut of leaping deer.

YASSS!

Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Bloglovin’

1
  1. Koh, L. P. and Wilcove, D. S. (2008), Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity?. Conservation Letters, 1: 60–64.
  2. Fitzherbert, Struebig, Morel, Danielsen, Brühl, Donald, Phalan. (2008), How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23, 10:538–545.
  3. https://www.bustle.com/articles/137873-6-common-words-phrases-that-have-subtly-problematic-connotations
  4. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf
  5. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf
  6. http://harmonist.us/2011/01/the-animal-industrial-complex/
  7. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Agricultural_production_-_animals
  8. Mahoney, L., Thorne, L., Cecil, L. and LaGore, W. (2013). A research note on standalone corporate social responsibility reports: Signaling or greenwashing?. Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 24(4-5), pp.350-359.
  9. Vos, J. Greenwashing in Corporate America. 23 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 673 2009.
  10. Vos, J.Greenwashing in Corporate America. 23 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 673 2009.
  11. Ramus, C & Montiel, I. When Are Corporate Environmental Policies a Form of Greenwashing? Business & Society, Vol. 44 No. 4, December 2005 377-414
  12. Vos, J.Greenwashing in Corporate America. 23 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 673 2009.
  13. Vos, J.Greenwashing in Corporate America. 23 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 673 2009.
  14. Ramus, C & Montiel, I. When Are Corporate Environmental Policies a Form of Greenwashing? Business & Society, Vol. 44 No. 4, December 2005 377-414
Share on
Previous Post Next Post

7 Comments

  • Reply Jojo

    Yet another awesome post Jenny. I’m totally with you on these issues being on a scale and everyone needing to make their own decisions based upon where they’re comfortable both ethically and financially.

    May 8, 2017 at 02:50
    • Reply Jenny

      Thanks Jojo <3

      May 10, 2017 at 10:36
  • Reply Tara

    This is a great read. I’m newly vegan + currently very conflicted about it all. I decided to stop shopping from brands who are owned by the biggest offenders like Loreal and such. Currently looking into other aspects like green cleaning too, so thank you for this!

    May 10, 2017 at 09:54
    • Reply Jenny

      Thanks Tara! It is a tricky one, a very nuanced issue, and hard to know what to do sometimes. I find that co-op own brand cleaning stuff is a boon, as well as Astonish products. Ethical Superstore is where I buy bulk stuff like fabric conditioner and dishwasher tablets from. I can get 3 month’s supply of both for about £18 total which is totally worth it (I recommend Bio-D products).

      May 10, 2017 at 10:38
  • Reply Steph

    This is really wonderfully written and informative, and I love that you’ve addressed issues here other than ‘does it contain animal products’/’was it tested on animals’. I very much agree with how you describe all of this as existing on an ethical spectrum too. I’m also of the opinion that ultimately we just all have to make informed choices and try our best to lean as far away from the worst offenders on the spectrum as we’re each personally able to. Great post!

    May 27, 2017 at 20:37
    • Reply Jenny

      Thank you Steph!

      May 28, 2017 at 23:10
  • Reply Jenny Marie - The killjoy in the freezer aisle: on Unilever and Ben & Jerry's - Jenny Marie

    […] whose very existence is so frequently a threat to the status quo. As I’ve mused before now, ethical consumption is unavoidably a sliding scale, one that we all navigate with greater or less degrees of both awareness and intent. There are many […]

    September 22, 2017 at 12:56
  • Leave a Reply