Consumer boycotts won’t solve big problems by themselves. For centuries social movements have integrated boycotts, not as panaceas, but arrows in a quiver directed at systemic change. Economic non-cooperation has consistently collaborated with media campaigns, policy reforms, voting, picketing, marches, protests, and other forms of direct action. White American colonists boycotted British goods over the passage of the Stamp Act. Under apartheid, black South Africans boycotted buses and potatoes. Under Jim Crow, black Americans boycotted buses in Montgomery. Exploitative labor practices prompted the National Farm Workers’ Association to initiate a boycott of select grapes and wines. International supporters of a free Palestine continue to call for “Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions” of Israel and its corporate accomplices. In recent years we’ve seen attempted boycotts of Apple, Amazon, Monsanto, Nestlé, Chick-fil-A, and large financial supporters of President Trump’s re-election campaign. Conservative groups have also deployed boycotts, signaling that, in the words of Sunaira Maira, “the boycott is…not intrinsically a tool of the left—it is a tactic, not an ideology, so its politics depends very much on the context of its deployment.”
Boycott scholar Monroe Friedman defines the consumer boycott as an “attempt by one or more parties to achieve certain objectives by urging individual consumers to refrain from making selected purchases in the marketplace.” Veganism, or refraining from purchasing and consuming meat, milk, eggs, milk, fur, leather, and other animal substance-containing commodities, certainly fits this classification. Animal liberation, environmental, and vegan advocates have long enacted and promoted this boycott, and in doing so they participate in an established tradition of politically-motivated economic disengagement. But if this is so, then why is veganism regularly referred to as an apolitical, amoral “lifestyle choice” rather than a boycott like any other? One is left to wonder whether veganism’s ostracism derives from its purported impotence, its allegedly utopic objective, or its starting claims about the ethics of animal agriculture.
Some insist that veganism is ineffective or insufficient for causing systemic change. Agricultural production and supply chains are large and complex, and virtually unresponsive to consumer choices. In addition, “vote with your dollars” thinking misguidedly individualizes and consumerizes social responsibility, placating citizens through feelings of personal righteousness and moral consistency rather than prodding them to collective action. But first, contrary to popular thinking about contemporary markets, there is good reason to believe that individual abstentions actually do make a positive difference. Second, frequently elided is the fact that veganism itself only advocates a form of economic inactivity, and not greater or even alternative market participation. It is a boycott, not a “buycott,” with the latter distinctively urging individuals to purchase from substitute vendors to achieve political ends. There is nothing intrinsic to veganism that promotes active “dollar voting” and consumerist ideology.
But the most persistent political critique is summarized here by Zephyr Teachout, who warns that “boycotts allow people to import virtuousness into their life without the struggle of organizing and building a coalition.” The worry is that boycotts stunt organizing by convincing potential activists that they’ve “done enough” by consuming or not consuming in a particular manner. However, boycotts hardly ever arise and operate autonomously, uncoordinated with complementary strategies devoted to “organizing and building.” Moreover, for those focused on community organizing and direct action planning, incorporating veganism carries virtually zero opportunity cost. Activists can easily perform all of their movement work while vegan. Zooming out, we should also ask why this argument is directed almost exclusively at veganism and not all consumer boycotts. What about King Jr., Chavez, BDS, and other figures and movements that have included the consumer boycott in their movement ecology?
More specific to veganism is the suggestion that it doesn’t quite fit the definition of a boycott. Boycotts isolate brands and businesses, overpriced items, organizations, and even states and countries, but not an entire cluster of product categories (beef, pork, chicken, leather, etc.). But historically commodity boycotts have taken various forms, some targeting select producers or retailers (“single-firm boycott”), others isolating brands or specific products from an individual brand (“brand name boycott”), others decrying commodities priced above a certain level (“partial boycott”), or even all items within a particular commodity category (“complete boycott”). Veganism functions as a complete commodity boycott, impelling consumers to refrain from buying all items in a large, second-order product category: animal substance-containing products. In addition, veganism qualifies as a “secondary boycott,” engaging sites of sale rather than production, as the two are rarely identical with the latter virtually inaccessible to the average consumer. These “primary” sites of production (e.g., factory farms) are frequently the targets of direct action tactics executed with the shared objective of dismantling the animal agriculture industry.
Maybe the difficulty in perceiving veganism as a boycott stems from its most striking and exceptional characteristic, rivaled only by the breadth of its tabooed categories. This feature is its aim—the total dissolution of animal agriculture. The goal is abolition, not reform, and even non-abolitionists typically support the end of factory farming. The boycott opposes any return to production, no matter price alterations, increased accessibility, environmental protections, or improved “working” conditions of captive animals and human laborers. Veganism is thus not merely a “long-term boycott,” but what one may call a “terminal boycott,” a refusal seeking the permanent disappearance of the boycotted products once and for all.
As radical as this may seem at first, veganism’s political reasoning aligns perfectly with at least two of the standard motivations for boycotts listed by renowned political scientist Gene Sharpe: first, the conviction of the “immoral qualities” of the boycotted item itself (e.g., using and killing animals for food is immoral, hence so too the products derived from them); second, the boycotted item symbolically expresses a “wider grievance or a general discontent with the status quo” (e.g. opposition to industrialized racial capitalism, speciesist domination, environmental destruction, labor exploitation). Since these problems cannot be sufficiently remedied through changes to or within the industry, the only solution is elimination.
In some ways, veganism resembles the 19th-20th century Teetotaler movement that likewise envisioned and sought the absolute and permanent end to the production, distribution, and consumption of an entire product category: alcoholic drink. The principal, though not sole, difference lies in the perceived “immorality” of the boycotted product: veganism views animal-derived commodities as inherently violent, teetotalism sees alcohol as an unavoidable catalyst for violence. Nevertheless, no matter how unpopular their aims or improbable their successes (let’s not forget that Prohibition lasted for 13 years, legally speaking), both movements are indexable consumer boycotts with logical and historical precedents. Laura Hahn adds, in the context of vegetarianism, that no matter the various ideas motivating the product boycott, “the effect is the same: a boycott of the meat industry.” This also applies to the various motivations behind the wider boycott of dairy, egg, and other animal industries.
In the absence of convincing arguments against boycotts in general, or against veganism’s categorization as a boycott, the only remaining option is to criticize the content of the boycott itself. This objection may deny that animals’ well-being needs to be taken into consideration at all, and thus, without persuasive anthropocentric arguments, the boycott is unfounded and unnecessary. The much more common and plausible objection accepts that animals’ well-being does matter to an extent, but this only entails that some, and not all, animal products (e.g., foie gras, shark fins) or brands (e.g., Smithfield, Tyson) should be boycotted. As a result, a single commodity boycott or brand-name boycott is much more appropriate, and with it the goal of reform rather than abolition.
However, apart from the small minority that denies the moral relevance of animals’ well-being altogether, the still-skeptical majority that does accept its relevance must confront the jarring and indisputable reality that virtually all “food animals” live and die in places of brutal disregard, otherwise known as factory farms. Hence even if one remains unconvinced of the ethical-political necessity of completely abolishing the commodification of animals, they nevertheless remain committed to opposing the continuation of factory farming, which supplies over 99% of purchasable animal-derived commodities. Philosopher Peter Singer, who accepts the hypothetical possibility of permissible animal use and consumption, admits its virtual absence in the real world and consequent irrelevance. Compared with arduously tracking down allegedly “humane” animal products, “(g)oing vegan is a simpler choice that sets a clear-cut example for others to follow.” For all intents and purposes, factory farming is the industry, so even skeptics must back its elimination, which is the real-world aim of a total animal product boycott. So to those critics who support boycotts in other contexts, accept that animals’ well-being does matter, agree that factory farming is ethically indefensible (for myriad reasons), and acknowledge that factory farms account for nearly all available animal products, I ask:
Why aren’t we all boycotting factory farms?
Expectedly, boycotts will face great resistance whenever they target commodities with which consumers have formed strong personal and cultural allegiances. Aaron Gross emphasizes that eating animals is “a major locus for the creation of meaning.” Dinesh Wadiwel adds that as a result, for many people “giving up animal-based products becomes akin to a loss of world.” These are critical points for anyone with an instinctual (and perhaps defensive) aversion to acknowledging veganism as a boycott, admitting its consistency with historical precedent, and confessing its political necessity and urgency. On the flip side, advocates of veganism would be wise not to crudely reduce others’ consumption of animals to superficial motivations such as taste, price, and convenience. How we relate to animals, especially through eating them, deeply determines who we are and who we think we are, whether we like it or not.
The upshot remains that if we support consumer boycotts as a movement tactic and also admit the ethical atrociousness of factory farming, then we already agree with a consumer boycott aimed at the industry’s demise. We may resist the personal implications of this conclusion, at least at first, given how strongly consuming animals has contributed to the development of our senses of self—as individuals, families, communities, cultures, and even as a species. Ultimately this fear of “losing world” through the abstention from animal consumption must be overcome by a recognition of what we owe to others—humans and nonhumans—and a sincere effort to deploy all the weapons available to fulfill those obligations. Veganism is just one arrow in the quiver, but perhaps the only one most of us can shoot on a daily basis.
Jonathan Dickstein is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. His research spans Animals and Religion, Religion in South Asia, and Comparative Ethics.