For millennia, we have hunted, harvested, and exploited other animals for human use. Contemporary capitalism has not only continued this tradition, but greatly increased the scale and intensity of suffering for other animals. However, Wayne Pacelle, CEO of The Humane Society, attests that ‘we are in the midst…of an epic political, cultural, and economic realignment in the treatment of animals’.1 SeaWorld has announced an end to its orca breeding programs, giant fast food franchise McDonalds has committed to phase out the use of caged eggs and luxury retailer Giorgio Armani has adopted a fur-free policy. In his new book The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals, Pacelle writes ‘exploiting animals is a practice under siege … and today, there’s a fast growing, often surprising, hugely promising, and largely unstoppable force for animal welfare, and it’s revealing itself in a thousand varying forms. Welcome to the humane economy’.2 In Pacelle’s ‘humane economy’ producers and consumers are shaping the market and accelerating ‘transformational change for animals throughout the global economy’.3 So do animal lovers suddenly have something to be optimistic about?
If firms and consumers are concerned for the welfare of living creatures and possess the power to shape the market, then why are millions of other animals used in agriculture, fashion, entertainment, and experimentation still confined, exploited, and slaughtered in cruel ways? Put simply, it’s because that’s not the way the economy works. Firms are not free to make expensive changes in production and there is always an asymmetry of information between consumers and producers making it easy to mislead ‘ethical consumers’ through false labelling. This market based model for change is just thinly veiled, profit motivated, capitalist propaganda. It conveniently shifts the focus away from legislative intervention and responsibility towards the actions and power of individual consumers to bring about change. This discourse is not concerned with improving lives for other animals; not in the form of welfare conditions, and certainly not in the form of rightfully instating legal status or liberation for our sentient companions. It is concerned with the necessary expansion and accumulation of capital. The popularity of these ideas threatens actual improvement in the lives of other animals, and therefore, requires critique at face value.
In the last decade, we have seen a rise in the popularity of market-based approaches to regulating the welfare of other animals. This is evident in the proliferation of targeted labelling and information disclosure designed to aid consumer choice, including ‘free range’, ‘humane certified’ and ‘ethical meat’. Even governments are propagating this discourse. For example, in 2011, the Australian Federal Government endorsed ‘the industry argument that if significant bodies of consumer’s desire certain value approaches to food production, the competitive forces will typically compel producers, or at least some producers, to cater for these needs’.4 The idea is that if each consumer can choose freely what to buy and each producer can choose freely what to produce, the market will settle on a product distribution and prices that reflect the intersection of this level of supply and demand. Inherent in this idea is the ability of consumers to regulate the food chain by choosing the production method that they want to valorize through their purchasing choices, thereby signaling to producers their preference for more ‘humane’ products. Pacelle argues that increasing trends in individual ethical consumerism and Corporate Social Responsibility are influencing aggregate production towards better treatment of other animals.5 However, production and consumption in the context of free market capitalism just aren’t capable of bringing about this kind of change for animals.
For producers, profit maximization is not a matter of choice, it is necessary for economic enterprises that wish to survive within the globally competitive capitalist market. If producers don’t utilize methods that minimize expensive inputs, such as human labour, reduce production time, cut costs, and increase outputs then they can’t produce commodities at a competitive price and they risk not reproducing let alone accumulating capital. The competitive pressures of the market compel capitalists to manipulate the lives of other animals – from the food they eat, to the length of time they live, their social interactions, their physical surroundings – all to produce wider profit margins, regardless of the moral implications of those actions. In this way, exploitative social relationships between humans and other animals are largely shaped by capitalism. The consumer demand for huge quantities of meat and the industry drive to accumulate capital has directly lead to other animals being used as instruments and objects of labour at the expense of their welfare. Other animals’ physiological and biological processes are both utilized or ignored in the production process depending on their ability to contribute to the economic bottom line.
So if change can’t be rooted in the behaviour of producers, what about consumers? Market driven solutions are fundamentally premised on the notion of consumer sovereignty: the idea that industry responds to consumer demand. Individual consumers communicate their preferences to producers by choosing between commodities in the market. Theoretically under the competitive conditions of capitalism, no single producer should have the power to influence or set prices, therefore, to maintain competitive profit margins producers and investors must respond to signals in demand. By this logic every time we go to the shops and choose between commodities, we choose what and how goods should be produced by investing in their capacity to continue producing in this way. In Pacelle’s ‘humane economy’, humans are consuming more ‘ethically’, thereby ‘voting’ for producers who treat other animals better, or who don’t use other animals in production at all. So, by exercising our preference for animal absent products we can use the market place to promote the welfare of living creatures and reduce the overall level of animal cruelty.
This is a powerful but gravely flawed narrative as it invokes the neoliberal emphasis on the individual and the market, at the expense of regulatory power and intervention. This is compelling as regulatory changes have historically been very slow in bringing about change for other animals. Animal welfare laws of various types have been around for almost 200 years, however, there has been no significant progress in improving the lives of other animals used in human society. In fact, the number of other animals raised and killed for human use – some 150 billion globally per year – has increased rather than decreased.6 In relation to legislative changes, the individual seems relatively powerless – as it is reduced to a limiting ballot vote once every 4 years (depending on where you live).
On the other hand, the idea of consumer-led change is powerful, as it is consistent with the neoliberal zeitgeist of many western economies. Discourses of freedom and agency designate power to the acts of individual consumers rather than community or structurally aimed solutions. This emphasis on the individual consumer appears to give them the power to regulate food production whilst still being able to consume as much as they want. They can exercise change making choices just by deciding what food, clothing, and entertainment they consume. A survey measuring consumer attitudes to animal welfare found that 74% of respondents in the member states of the European Union think that they can influence the welfare and protection of other animals through their purchasing behaviour.7 In several countries, this number exceeds 80% including in Greece (84%), the Republic of Cyprus (90%) and Sweden (94%).8 ‘Voting with your wallet’ is an appealing form of ‘activism’ as it requires little out of the ordinary action with relatively little sacrifice for the individual.
The idea that individual consumption can influence relations of production is at the heart of the ‘humane economy’ and it relies heavily on consumer awareness. Pacelle writes ‘in the information age, awareness is spreading and with it the crucial knowledge that can’t be unlearned about the suffering endured by animals … reality is becoming harder to hide’.9 However, this idea that individuals can be perfectly informed consumers is famously disputed, particularly, in recent times by Post-Keynesians including Pascinetti, Palley and Quiggins.
Increased complexity of supply chains and geographical distances between consumption and production undermine the capacity for consumer awareness. Over the past 200 years, as populations have centralised and large urban centers have developed, other animals used in food production have been progressively moved out of sight, into factories in rural locations.10 Additionally, global trade has become spread over enormous physical distances, increasing the concealment of relationships involved in production. There are geographical forces at play that obscure consumer’s capacities to know the productive origins of commodities. This means that consumers must rely on other sources of information to achieve visibility.
Commodities are shrouded in misleading consumer information, giving the false impression of real consumer choice. These marketing messages add additional meaning to commodities and intentionally manipulate consumers purchasing choices. Ethical marketing in particular, is on the rise; however, it doesn’t necessarily reflect actual changes in business practices. For example, Real California Milk ran an advertisement campaign called ‘Happy Cow’. The advertisement asserted that ‘Great milk comes from happy cows. Happy cows come from California’. The Milk Board ads present the dairy industry as a bucolic enterprise that operates in lush, grassy pastures. Some of the ads employ the slogan ‘So much grass so little time.’ In a lawsuit against the company, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) contended that, contrary to the depiction in the ads, the state’s dairy cows lead miserable lives in muddy fields devoid of vegetation and endure chemical and genetic manipulation to produce abnormally high quantities of milk.11 The California Department of Food and Agriculture searched thousands of records, and couldn’t produce a single page that substantiated the ad’s claims.12 However, the Judge ruled in favour of The Milk Board, stating that government agencies are exempt from laws prohibiting false advertisement. Not only does the marketing of commodities construct barriers for consumers to make informed decisions, but, this kind of greenwashing also creates distrust amongst consumers, weakening their desire to consume ‘ethically’.
Ethical consumerism has prompted a wider movement of labeling and certifying goods designed to inform consumers of ‘humane’ productive conditions. Labels specify problematic production characteristics and offer commodities with a visual indicator of improved productive processes, for example, ‘cage free eggs’ or ‘pasture raised beef’. However, a food label is a finite space with the task of containing ever more information. Unlike ‘certified organic’ there are no legal definitions for a lot buzzwords such as ‘humane’, ‘happy’ and ‘free’. Commodities labelled with these ambiguous words can essentially originate from any productive conditions. Thus, they are unregulated and used to market towards concerned consumers who will often buy these products without awareness of their unregulated and undefined meaning.
The growth of industrialized farming has been accompanied with a proliferation of independent certification organisations for animal welfare standards, including Certified Humane, American Humane Certified, Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership, Food Alliance. However, the standards for animal care, level of enforcement, and auditing procedures vary greatly between these certification institutions. For example, Certified Humane requires anaesthesia for castration, but considers break trimming and denying chickens access to outside humane.13 Animal Welfare Approved does not require pain relief for castration, but prohibits beak trimming, and requires outdoor access for birds after 4 weeks of age.14 American Humane Certified, on the other hand, allows castration without anesthesia, beak trimming and cages for chickens.15 Certifications don’t/can’t properly differentiate production practices. This creates consumer confusion and interrupts the process of enabling consumers to make informed decisions about their purchases. These certifications don’t have clear messages and they mislead consumers into thinking that conditions for other animals are much better than they are in reality.
Although there are some labels and certifications that are genuinely attempting to bridge the gap between production and consumption, they inevitably must compete with illegitimate labels claiming to represent the same ideals. Market based approaches rely on suppliers to distinguish their products from less ‘humane’ alternatives. If consumers view labeling and certifications as unreliable, then the whole notion of consumer sovereignty breaks down as consumer purchases can’t accurately reflect consumer preferences. This undermines the capacity for labeling to contribute significantly as a vehicle for reforming methods of production.
Another barrier to the visibility of productive relations is the value form of commodities. The way capitalism organizes commodity production comprises structures that conceal exploitative relationships. Marx began his entire analysis of capitalism by peeling back the layers of the commodity. He argued that commodities possess a use value, for example bread can serve to satisfy hunger, and they also possess an exchange value.16 This is the feature of a commodity that makes them commensurable for exchange in the market. Marx argued that the dominance of the exchange value when purchasing goods and services significantly affected the way that humans interacted with and viewed those commodities.17 The vital point here is that the value consumers interact with in the realm of exchange is immaterial, but objective.
In a supermarket, we interact with the objective characteristics of commodities – the colours, smells, price, and packaging. We perceive the value of commodities in relation to one another rather than the labour that went into them. In this sense the commodity has a life of its own, completely divorced from the social relationships involved in its production. While capitalism organizes production in distinctive social relationships, in exchange, these relationships are expressed and appear as relationships between commodities themselves. Marx refers to this concealment of the social nature of labour – in the objective characteristics of products – commodity fetishism.18 This fetishism works to hide and normalize the exploitative productive relationships between humans and other animals in the process of commodification. For example, milk comes in plastic or cardboard packaging it can be skim, full cream, enriched with B12, or organic, and consumers can purchase 300ml, 500ml, 1L or 2L of milk. These features of the commodity conceal the reality for cows in the dairy industry. Therefore, the structures of capitalist commodity production and exchange also obscure consumer awareness of commodity origins and shape the treatment of other animals used in production.
Ethical consumerism does represent a token attempt to counter the pervasiveness of commodity fetishism – working to make visible the relevant social relations that underlie production. Labeling products theoretically has the potential to illuminate, rather than obscure, the process by which a commodity is produced. However, Marx locates the root of commodity fetishism not in the sphere of exchange, where consumers encounter these ‘ethical’ products, but in the structures of production. If the value of commodities derived from labour is hidden by the more objective exchange value of commodities, fetishism will render social relations – the way humans and nonhumans interact – invisible. Thus, we cannot expect consumer consciousness to change dramatically in the absence of transformed relations of production. Commodity fetishism is inseparable from the production of commodities within a capitalism system, highlighting capitalism’s structural role in preventing truly informed consumption. To move beyond the symbolic challenge of ethical consumerism towards disrupting the fetishism of commodities would ultimately require not confronting unethical market behaviour, but a change in capitalist social relations that underpin them.
An important flaw in Pacelle’s ‘humane economy’ is not just that he attributes so much power to consumption, but that (unsurprisingly) he overlooks the role that capitalism plays in exacerbating exploitation. At the heart of capitalism is the unequal distribution of property relations, which creates a class system. There are those that own the means of production, those that must sell their labour power in exchange for a wage, and those that don’t even own rights over their bodies and who are unwillingly subsumed into commodity production as instruments and objects of labour. Exploitation is an inescapable outcome of capitalist commodity production. The way humans use other animals in production, particularly industrialized agriculture, has not occurred in isolation. It has developed alongside the technological, structural, and market based forces of global capitalism. All capitalists are confronted by the competitive pressure to remain profitable, and they achieve this by producing more, selling more, and lowering costs. This happens at the expense of all the humans and other animals used in the production process. The nature of this exploitation is structural. As ideologies or practices, consumer activities fail to recognize the role of capitalism in the exploitation of other animals and therefore, are not alone capable of achieving true change for other animals.
It follows that any approach to social change between humans and nonhumans must comprise a challenge to societal structures particularly those pertaining to capitalism. Many humans concerned for the welfare of other animals respond with the prohibition on the consumption of commodities produced using other animals. However, vegan consumerism pursued as a universal solution is a consumer based approach to change. Not only doesn’t it challenge structural barriers of capitalism, but it functions within and supports the capitalist market. The same system that exploits and slaughters billions of other animals every year also provides vegans with a niche market of faux meats, coconut yogurt, and soy cheeses.19 This is not to invalidate vegan lifestyle choices. Vegan consumption as an extension of anti-speciesist politics is important for the animal movement. However, by devoting energies purely to encouraging humans to eliminate their consumption of other animals we are perpetuating the myth that consumer demand can shape the market. This approach alone does not challenge the economic system which reduces humans and nonhumans alike to their economic value in the name of unceasing capital accumulation.
Ethical consumerism and veganism alone are not only limited and ineffective in the face of structural socioeconomic forces, but they also prevent social justice movements from pursuing structural change. Pacelle’s ‘humane economy’ is part of this industry response to control the animal movement. Market based approaches to change are designed to promote our prevailing economic ideology of individualism and consumerism as they attempt to sell animal welfare as a must have commodity. Capitalists benefit from the logic of ‘ethical’ consumerism and veganism, as they profit from selling more ‘humane’ alternatives at higher prices. Consumer concerns for animal welfare have essentially been co-opted into accepting the larger structural ‘cruelty free capitalism’ and are been channeled into assisting the survival of the capitalist system.20 A system which creates the conditions concerned consumers are objecting to. Unless the animal movement constantly reiterates the message that people should buy less, and do more, it lays itself open to being hijacked by industrialists who need to sell more commodities. Without challenging the integral role that capitalism plays in destroying the environment and all its inhabitants, by reducing them to their economic value in the name of unceasing profit accumulation, the animal movement will continue to employ strategies that maintain and increase oppression for other animals.
It may be true that there are some compelling examples of organisations making slightly better decisions about how they use other animals. But there is nothing ‘humane’ about imprisoning and killing billions of sentient beings every year and that number is increasing not decreasing – a fact conveniently overlooked in Pacelle’s account of his ‘humane economy’. Putting this aside, the theory – or lack of theory – assisting his argument for change is flawed. In our global economy, the behaviours and decisions of producers are regulated by competitive market pressures which force the prioritization profit making. Additionally, the market is not an avenue for democratic expression, as there is always an asymmetry of information between producers and consumers. Thus, consumers are always going to be at a disadvantage in being able to make sure that their consumptive choices reflect their preferences.
More importantly, Pacelle’s ‘humane economy’ does not represent a challenge to the core values of global capitalism. Conversely it proposes that we can use the existing market structure to our advantage and consume our way out of problems. While on an individual level, many ‘ethical’ or vegan consumers may engage in work to raise public consciousness on issues concerning other animals, the logic of ‘ethical’ and vegan consumerism as vehicles for change assumes that the destructive and exploitative nature of capitalism is caused by the demands of consumers not from capitalist commodity production. Consumer-based social movements don’t challenge the exploitative nature of capitalism – they aid the fundamental accumulative and expansive characteristics of capitalism that create conditions of suffering for other animals. Pacelle’s ‘humane economy’ is part of a wider discourse that is designed to halt and commodify social justice movements and concerns.
Banner image: Milk aisle in a Sydney grocery supermarket. Photo: Luke Robinson.
- W. Pacelle, The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals, William Morrow, 2016, p. 248
- Ibid., p. 6
- Ibid., p. 11
- N. Blewett, N. Goddard, S. Pettigrew, C. Reynolds, and H. Yeatman, ‘Labelling Logic’, Final Report, Commonwealth Review of Food Lablling Law and Policy, 2011, p.47
- Pacelle, The Humane Economy, op cit.
- Compassion in World Farming (CWF) ‘Beyond Factory Farming: Sustainable Solutions for Animals, People and the Planet’, Compassion in World Farming, 2009, p. 24. Accessed on 2/11/2016 at https://www.ciwf.org.uk/media/3817096/beyond-factoryfarming-report.pdf
- European Commission (EC) ‘Attitudes of Consumers Towards the Welfare of Farmed Animals’, Special Eurobarometer Report No. 229, 2005. Accessed on 2/11/2016 at http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_229_en.pdf
- Pacelle, p. 11
- S. O’Sullivan, Animals, Equity and Democracy, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
- PETA ‘Law Suit Blows Lid Off ‘Happy Cow’ Ads’, 2005. Accessed on 2/11/2016 at http://www.peta.org/blog/lawsuit-blows-lid-happy-cows-ads/
- PETA, ibid.
- Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) ‘Animal Welfare Standards: A Comparison of Industry Guidelines and Independent Labels’, 2016. Accessed on 2/11/2016 at https://awionline.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/FA-AWI-standardscomparisontable-070816.pdf
- K. Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: The Process of Production of Capital, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1887.
- R. Gunderson, ‘From Cattle to Capital: Exchange Value, Animal Commodification and Barbarism’, Critical Sociology, 2011, 39:2:259-275
- Ibid, p 269.