Wayne Hsiung
Published on
January 4, 2014

Reflections on Consumer Boycotts

A question that has come up recently is whether one can participate in our campaigns while continuing to shop at Chipotle -- which, after all, is one of the few fast food chains that provides a vegan option. We'll be offering a more detailed analysis later, but here are some preliminary reflections.

1. Our campaign, like most other campaigns against huge institutions (state or corporate) is about imposing moral and political pressure -- not direct economic pressure.

There are two reasons for this. First, there is an extensive research (by the best minds on the planet) showing that institutions and ideas have big impacts on, and might even be determinative of, economics ( So even if your primary goal is economic shifts (i.e. more vegan demand, less meat supply), changing social norms is an important strategy to get you there. 

Second, even if we convinced *every single animal activist* on the planet to boycott Chipotle, the corporation would not even notice. At the handful of restaurants initially targeted for sofritas introductions, fewer than five percent of the sales are vegetarian, much less vegan. We can cut a couple orders of magnitude off of that figure, as a maximum number of people who would join a prospective boycott. (Most people who happen to buy a vegetarian burrito are not actually vegetarian. And most people who are vegetarian are not likely to engage in activism.) So that's a top-line estimate of 0.0005 of current sales. 

And this is as the *most promising* locations! The notion that we can significantly affect the Company's nationwide bottom line directly through a vegan boycott is even more whimsical.

2. Our central request of activists is to join our protest campaigns -- to engage in speech and action rather than modified consumerism.

Chipotle has grown by 1000% in the past five years (yes, that's correct: one thousand percent) because of the beautiful story they tell. "Food with integrity. Responsibly raised. Unconditionally loved." People go to Chioptle, and pay a 100% premium over other fast food chains, because they get a "warm glow" from eating there. The food is good. The design is elegant. And the ethics are humane. A prominent Silicon Valley social marketing space called Chipotle the master of the social narrative. 

When we protest the company, we start to poke holes in that narrative. We force people to think for a bit, as to whether Chipotle IS any different from its former owner (McDonald's). We make people question whether they should be paying $8 for a burrito that, really, is no different from a $3.50 Big Mac. And, most importantly, we confront the public with the Orwellian absurdity of "humane slaughter."

Sometimes change happens immediately on the street, as in the examples above. But to make real waves, we need to create media (social and mainstream) firestorms with a unified and nationwide campaign. We need to foster such tension and dialogue that our community, and this multi-billion dollar company, are FORCED to confront this issue. The operating hypothesis is that, if we are forced into a genuine dialogue, in our friendship circles, in our local communities, and across the country, we can win the debate.

The intelligentsia and progressive punditry are already on our side. See recent writings by Dawkins (directly comparing animal ag to human slavery) or Kristof (noting that future generations will be horrified by our current inaction to stop animal holocaust). And the world is looking for a counterpoint to Chipotle's narrative. (The press loves to find flaws in a supposedly gleaming, ethical story.) What we need, as my friend Lauren put it, is to give life to our ideas. (

This doesn't come from any one conversation. It doesn't even come from any one campaign. (The Civil Rights Movement had fits and starts over a decade, for example, and there were many occasions, when public dialogue had died down, when the activists felt that all had been lost.) It comes from an accumulation of protests and campaigns that cohere into a broader animal liberation narrative. But to create that sort of coherent movement, we have to stop companies that try to defuse our energy by diverting potential activists into docile consumerism at the altar of American Fast Food. 

3. Refusing to buy from Chipotle as a political stance is great. But so too is being a current customer who begrudgingly buys from the company, due to a lack of options elsewhere.

But what should we do when we're not protesting? Are we calling for a boycott of vegan products at Chipotle? On the specific question of whether to eat at Chipotle, I agree almost entirely with the analysis here. There are compelling reasons to avoid animal killing restaurants, particular in the fast food sphere, if there are alternatives available. These MNCs have no interest in animal rights, and they will steal not just the economic but the moral lifeblood from our movement, the first chance that they can get. (

But I also think that we have to be sensitive to the fact that this is not as easy for everyone. Not just in a material and economic sense, but in an ideational one. We are bombarded by marketing and coupons and social pressure to eat animals. Standing in the face of that tide, with little support, is tremendously difficult. And the truth is, animal exploitation is impossible to avoid. It's so embedded into the basic structures of modern life -- both economic AND social/political -- that being a "pure consumer" is impossible. We have to reshape what it means to be an activist -- away from consumerism and toward speech and action -- so we can change the institutional structures that shape *all* of our decisions. 

That, more than anything else, is the principal objective of this campaign. Preempt the threat of co-optation. Start a dialogue within our movement as to whether we should be focused on creating more consumers, or more activists. And empower activists, even in remote places, behind a strong message of total animal liberation.

If that means boycotting Chipotle, then great. We'll support you 100%. But if that means begrudingly shopping there, because you don't have a plausible alternative, while simultaneously telling the corporation that you think their lies and violence are unacceptable, that's ok too. 

The important thing is not where you shop, or what you buy, but whether you are lending your voice and your hand to the animals whose bodies are being torn to pieces before our very eyes.

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