Monday, September 10, 2012

Hacking at Branches: On Petitioning Whole Foods

James McWilliams recently posted a petition on to persuade the Whole Foods supermarket chain to stop selling meat. More specifically, the petition is (was?) to convince the chain to shut down its meat counters. In his petition, McWilliams does offer up some sort of quasi-broader contextualization for its focus:

Forget (for the moment) dairy and eggs and all the animal-based products dependent on systematic suffering that you believe are integral to a robust stock price. We can deal with these items later.
This contextualization does little to change the fact that for a non-vegan supermarket chain that prides itself on its offering its customers so-called "happy" animal consumption options, singling out animal flesh as significant would just send a confusing message. Whole Foods' "articulated values" (as appealed to by McWilliams) are all about providing its customers with these purportedly "kinder" options. It's not -- and never really has been -- about offering consumers an alternative to using other sentient beings. Instead, Whole Foods profits off of its lulling consumers into thinking that there is such a thing as ethical animal exploitation: This is part of its raison d'ĂȘtre.

Nonetheless, McWilliams suggest the elimination of its meat sales to Whole Foods as a first step it should take. He cushions it by temporarily excusing the sales of other animal products until "later" and then throws this weird bit of flattery in:
As a loyal patron, vegan advocate, and historian of agriculture, I’m asking you to do what you have done so well since the 1980s: lead.
That left me earnestly baffled. I'll 'fess up and admit that I've been reading many of McWilliams' blog posts off and on over the past several months whenever I've had time to sit back and catch up on advocacy-related reading. At one point months ago, I would actually get excited reading some of his posts since they seemed to reflect the thoughts of someone who "got it" and who was bent on forwarding an unequivocal message that other animals deserve nothing short of our going vegan. How on earth would he come to see a company such as Whole Foods as "leading"?

The thing is, though, that even if McWilliams' petition had called on Whole Foods to stop selling all of the animal products it stocks on its shelves, whether meat, dairy, eggs, honey and the other ingredients that manifest themselves in the processed foods and non-edibles it carries, the petition would have been -- however possibly well-intentioned -- really wrongheaded and pointless. As Whole Foods' co-founder and co-CEO James Mackey pointed out in his official response to McWilliams:
Whole Foods Market has no plans to stop selling meat and poultry…or seafood, eggs and dairy items for that matter.


Our first stakeholder is our customer and the most of them purchase and eat meat.


At the most, about 10 percent of our customers are strict vegetarians and probably around three percent are strict vegans. To not offer a full array of food options is basically suggesting that we voluntarily commit business suicide.
None of this should come as any surprise, yet many animal advocates have reacted to Mackey's response with outrage. You would think that he had suddenly revealed something quite shocking that should leave him worthy of being deemed evil incarnate. The bottom line, however, is that Mackey is a businessman and that perpetuating the myth that some animal use can be more ethical than other types of animal use has been and is essential to Whole Foods' operations. Asking them to cut out selling a particular animal product when Whole Foods has been insisting to its customers that all of the products it sells come from animals who've been raised "happy" goes completely against how Whole Foods justifies including itself in the cycle of animal exploitation.

Focusing on the middle-man really makes no sense where animal advocacy is concerned. If Whole Foods stopped selling meat, its customers would just go elsewhere to purchase it. Why wouldn't they? Mackey knows this and it baffles me that McWilliams wouldn't see this, as well. Mackey was right in saying that McWilliams was ultimately asking Whole Foods to engage in "business suicide".

More so than this Whole Foods affair (which is just perplexing), McWilliams' recent promotion of Melanie Joy has left me a little saddened. Joy's work emphasizes the ethics and psychology of meat eating, highlighting so-called "carnism" as she calls it instead of acknowledging the actual issue of speciesism as a whole. She chooses to publicly pooh-pooh the delivering of a vegan message as being too extreme, insisting that talking about veganism is somehow counter-productive when trying to get people to take other animals seriously. McWilliams' endorsement of her work was a sad surprise. I had come to really enjoy his writing style and his writings themselves had seemed to indicate that he did indeed understand that teaching people to not use others animals was the first step in making a difference for those other animals.

In his more recent article for
Slate ("Vegan Feud"), McWilliams actually takes issue quite explicitly with the those who present veganism as a moral baseline for animal rights advocacy. McWilliams touts it as extremist. Instead, he champions HSUS, whose bread and butter (yep) is also wrapped around lulling consumers into thinking that there is indeed such a thing as a kinder, gentler and more ethical way to treat other animals as things. In his piece for Slate, McWilliams champions HSUS and then specifically singles out abolitionists and the work of Prof. Gary Francione as too, too demanding with their focus on teaching the public to take the rights and interests of other animals seriously by choosing not to participate in the use and exploitation of these other animals.

I won't weigh in on the Slate article at this time, since Francione has already done so and even extended an invitation to McWilliams to discuss all of this in a podcast via his Abolitionist Approach website. McWilliams has agreed to participate in the podcast and it should be falling into place sometime in October. I really do hope that the discussion they have brings McWilliams around to realizing that singling out those who provide consumers with what they want or asking them to stop providing in no way convinces those same consumers that they should stop viewing other sentient beings as things. The only way to fight speciesism is to get those who provide the demand that perpetuates the cycle of animal exploitation to understand that animals aren't ours to use. Limiting their options in terms of where they can obtain animal products certainly won't accomplish that.

Francione gets that. I get that. A lot of you get that and even Whole Foods' Mackey gets that. Hopefully, come October, James McWilliams will get it, too.


MiriamJones said...

First I want to say I love your blog.

Second, how about new barometer: the HSUS barometer. Those who feel HSUS is Doing Good By The Animals are either hugely misinformed or else victims of speciesism themselves, so we can just ask folks where they stand on that organization, and that should tell a lot.

Lucas said...

(Cue in violins and soft piano)

Poor little HSUS... (sniffle, sniffle) Why are all those mean and abusive abolitionists always picking on them?

I find many problems with McWilliams Slate piece, but I think it's particularly troubling how he attaches violent language to those he describes as abolitionists: "attacking", "savages (HSUS) at every turn", "strong-arming", and even "hard-hitting".

It's as if critics of welfarism are little more than school-yard bullies picking on the good kids who are undoubtedly "doing something right" for others.

Lorraine said...

I disagree with you and frankly am surprised by your post.

So why don't you start encouraging vegetarian restaurants and markets to start selling meat, afterall business has NOTHING to do with ethics but has everything to do with profiting and the almighty dollar.

Or how about businesses lying to people to get money from them, like for instance by supplying food that is harmful to them, pretending that the food is actually good to eat. Who cares about honesty. It's ALL about business, right?

Of course I'm being sarcastic but from your post, this sounds like what you would suggest.

Sure, it's important to make money in business but a GOOD business person is also ethical.

Sorry but I think the animals are just a little bit more important than a market selling animal dead flesh and parts.

Maybe Whole Foods would be still successful if they went total veg. They may not make as much money but I doubt if the owner is a candidate for the poor house.