Love the Vegan Option? Then You Should Love Our Campaign
by Wayne Hsiung
Fast Company reports today that Chipotle's vegan option -- sofritas -- is now going nationwide. This is the first ever menu addition in Chipotle's history, as the company has prided itself on a simple, elegant menu. And the addition comes despite paltry sales: less than 3% even in the locations targeted as especially suitable for the introduction.
I've previously blogged about how vegan options are mostly irrelevant to the animal rights movement's success, and might even serve as a significant obstacle, if framed in a way that reinforces the traditional "personal choice" narrative of veganism. But even if you disagree, what the sofritas introduction shows us is that our 6 month old protest campaign has had exactly the effect that we predicted all along. It has solidified the company's commitment to the vegan option.
Why? It's quite simple. As the pioneering social justice activist Randy Shaw writes in his wonderful book, The Activist's Handbook (Berkeley Press) , we cannot smile our way to success. With powerful people and institutions who have no intrinsic interest in helping our movement, we have to use a strategy that Shaw calls "Fear and Loathing." We have to show these powerful institutions that we are not afraid to criticize them when they fall short of their rhetoric because if they feel there is no cost to betraying us, companies like Chipotle will do so in a heart beat.
In fact, that is exactly what Chipotle did in 2010. It introduced vegan Gardein in a few restaurants, watched as the positive press (and endless praise from animal rights groups) came in, then quietly threw away the vegan option when the press and public stopped paying attention. A few activist groups who had previously praised Chipotle gave the slightest bit of a whimper in protest. But it didn't matter because the news cycle, in both mainstream and social media, had already passed (and activist groups did now want to admit defeat to their fundraisers). So Chipotle had its (bloody) cake, and ate it too. The animal rights groups got to claim a victory (without having to actually ensure that the "victory" was sustained). And everyone was happy... Except, of course, the animals who continued to scream in terror at Chipotle's massively growing engine of violence.
We can't allow ourselves to be duped by these corporate shenanigans again. Chipotle is not an ally to the animals. It is the third largest publicly traded restaurant company in the world, and a corporate empire that has a legal duty to focus single-mindedly on maximizing profits. To effect real and permanent change, we have to show companies such as Chipotle that half measures are not enough, that they will face continuing pressure to do the right thing, and that if they want to claim the mantle of "integrity," "love," and "compassion", they will have activists watching them to ensure that their behaviors match their rhetoric (and calling them out the moment they fail). This is exactly what Shaw calls Fear and Loathing. If you want to be successful as a social justice activist, you have to show powerful institutions that there is a cost if they betray or lie to you.
Unlike the Gardein fiasco of 2010, that is exactly what we did, this time around, and lo and behold, the vegan option has stuck around.
But that is not the end of the story. Because Chipotle continues with its brilliant manipulation of our movement. As I discussed last weekend in our most recent open meeting -- Chipotle's Seven Deadly Sins -- Chipotle has followed the exact divide-and-conquer strategy (bribe the opportunists; persuade the moderates; attack the radicals) that was set out by a meat industry PR firm two decades ago. And the very Chipotle executive who is interviewed by Fast Company, about the wondrous vegan option at Chipotle, was also quoted in the New York Times (in a moment of inadvertent honesty) as saying, "You put tripe in a bowl and tell them it’s from a humanely raised cow, and they’re going to eat it."
When a corporation is this blatant and obvious in trying to manipulate and deceive, not just the public but our movement... when it is going out of its way to mock the exact rhetoric it is using, and to the flagship newspaper of our times... how can our movement possibly continue to believe these lies? How can our movement continue to support one of the largest and fastest growing animal killers in the world? And yet our movement does support Chipotle, with many of the most prominent voices not only aggressively defending Chipotle's empire -- but going out of their way to attack and undermine a grassroots campaign to protect animals from Chipotle's violence.
There are many complicated answers to the question of why our movement has fallen under Chipotle's spell. Some answers (corporate bribery) are darker than others (earnest faith, however misplaced, in the good intentions of a multinational empire). But the reasons are irrelevant. The question is what we do, going forward. And what our protest campaign has shown is that we can not only speak truth to power -- even in the face of withering criticism and hate by Chipotle's corrupt or misguided defenders -- but we can inspire activists all over the world to join us.