Alimentarium series: 2. Can consumption be a means of activism?

This post is part of a collaboration with the Alimentarium in Vevey, in the context of the #VEGAN exhibition. Find more on their website (including the video, as well as French and German versions) or visit the museum!

As consumer society has developed, it has become apparent that it is possible to exercise political influence through consumer behaviour, either by boycotting certain products in choosing not to consume them for ethical or political reasons or, on the contrary, by a ‘buycott’, i.e. opting to support the consumption of more virtuous products. Such consumer initiatives complement classical forms of activism by focusing on shaping one’s own day-to-day life rather than on the political stage. This form of engagement is known as critical consumption. However, when it comes to individual consumer choices, which need to be reiterated time and again, such commitment fluctuates. A single deed, such as deciding not to eat meat, can reveal various affinities.

In Switzerland, as in the rest of Europe, it is estimated that around 3% of adults exclude animal protein from their diet, but these figures are still being debated. Some organisations suggest figures three times higher than that. Either way, there is general consensus that more and more people are abstaining from eating meat.

There are various reasons why some eaters decide to give up animal products. They may be concerned about animal welfare, even to the extent of anti-speciesism, which challenges the differential treatment of humans and other animals. Or they may be concerned for the environment. Their choice may also stem from concerns for their own health and that of their family. Such misgivings are amplified by the various scandals that have frequently affected the food sector. Other motives may be spiritual or religious, or sparked by something else entirely. The various reasons often overlap and do not all generate the same level of commitment. Some studies carried out in the US suggest that when such a choice is based on health, commitment tends to be more short-lived than when ethical or environmental reasons come into play. Strong convictions about the conditions in which farm animals live and die can even generate a lasting aversion to animal flesh.

Such motives generate a wide variety of approaches to food. Ovo-lacto vegetarians do not consume meat or fish but do eat dairy products and eggs. Pesco-vegetarians do not eat meat but do eat fish. Vegans only eat plant-based food and may even refuse to use all animal products, such as leather. Others may choose to significantly reduce their consumption of meat, without giving it up altogether. These people are known as flexitarians… For others, it is not a question of giving up meat in general, but of only consuming meat that has been produced locally and sustainably, by sourcing it as much as possible through short supply chains or directly from the producer… This sometimes goes hand-in-hand with the idea of avoiding any waste of a product as precious as meat by consuming the whole animal from nose to tail, thus opposing the tendency to favour only the best cuts or those that are easy to cook. Some of the most committed reinforce their chosen eating habits by taking action publicly. This may stay within the general ambit of activism, such as PETA’s shocking images in its poster campaigns against wearing fur. Others sometimes break the law, by stoning butcher’s shop windows, setting farm animals free, or secretly filming on farms and in abattoirs to expose animal abuse… The illicit or even violent angle is often disturbing. One way to understand such action is to put it into perspective with the activists’ initial motives. From their point of view, their actions oppose practices that are legal, but that they consider extremely violent, unjust and fundamentally immoral. Hence, they believe those practices should be treated as a crime, whereby the victims, the animals, would be our equals.

It is hard to measure the impact of these actions on society in general and on our relationship with animals. Nonetheless, countries such as Switzerland regularly tighten their legal standards regarding farm animal welfare. Such issues also clearly feature in public debates and in the media, which perhaps proves that the questions critical consumers raise are touching a sore spot.

Many thanks to Zoé Lüthi (assistance with research and documentation)

(Translated from the original version in French)

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