The Individual and the Bathwater

We at Fau­n­a­lyt­ics are en­couraged by the progress be­ing made in the effec­tive an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy space, par­tic­u­larly in in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns for farmed an­i­mals. How­ever, we have some con­cern that the pen­du­lum may have be­gun to swing too far away from in­di­vi­d­u­als and their re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Yes, given that our re­search de­part­ment is made up of so­cial sci­en­tists, it is our nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion to think about in­di­vi­d­u­als. That in­her­ent bias aside, we feel that there are sev­eral rea­sons to con­tinue to fund re­search and ad­vo­cacy with in­di­vi­d­u­als in ad­di­tion to in­sti­tu­tions. Th­ese rea­sons broadly fall into two cat­e­gories: the fact that re­search into peo­ple’s thoughts and feel­ings to­wards an­i­mals—and how to en­courage changes in them—is still in its in­fancy, and con­cerns about pos­si­ble limits of the thus-far tractable in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns.

The Prob­lem With Individuals

There have been re­cent calls in the an­i­mal ad­vo­cacy space to shift most of the re­sources used to try to cre­ate in­di­vi­d­ual diet change to in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns (e.g., Reese, 2018). This type of call likely arises from the fact that a num­ber of stud­ies haven’t found much of a link be­tween ad­vo­cacy and diet. How­ever, un­til very re­cently, most of these stud­ies were too small (and in some cases, too poorly-de­signed) to draw even weak con­clu­sions from their null effects.

There is cur­rently a long list of things we don’t know about what peo­ple think about farmed an­i­mals, how they feel about them, what is­sues mat­ter most to them, and what they want to do to help. And while more and more high-qual­ity re­search is be­ing done, the over­all pro­gram of re­search is still in its in­fancy. Some of the main rea­sons for the mod­est progress in­clude the size of the topic, the num­ber of re­search ques­tions, the in­her­ent com­plex­ity of at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iors, and the his­tor­i­cal lack of fund­ing for this type of re­search. We feel that there should have been a push for bet­ter so­cial sci­ence re­search in­stead of shift­ing so many re­sources into a do­main with even less real-world em­piri­cal sup­port.

In ad­di­tion, even if it turns out that it is cur­rently too difficult to get in­di­vi­d­u­als to change their diet en masse, that does not mean that in­di­vi­d­u­als are un­in­ter­est­ing or un­nec­es­sary in the effort to im­prove the lives of farmed an­i­mals. This is be­cause diet change may be the last step of a pro­cess with other es­sen­tial com­po­nents. We know that, with be­hav­ior change, at­ti­tudes of­ten pre­cede the in­ten­tion to make changes, and that in­ten­tions of­ten pre­cede be­hav­ioral changes (Gol­lwitzer, 1999; see also Prochaska and Velicer, 1997). We be­lieve that all stages will prove to be im­por­tant. Put an­other way, it will likely be difficult to change be­hav­ior when the right at­ti­tudes and in­ten­tions are not there in sup­port. And as we ex­plain be­low, these at­ti­tudes, in­ten­tions, and be­hav­iors also seem to be es­sen­tial for in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns to be effec­tive.

The Prob­lem With Institutions

As men­tioned above, we ap­plaud the in­sti­tu­tional cam­paign work that has been done to date. Changes are be­ing made that will very likely im­prove the lives of mil­lions of farmed an­i­mals.

How­ever, just as push­ing the nega­tive ends of two mag­nets to­gether be­comes in­creas­ingly difficult the closer they get, in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns may face in­creas­ing re­sis­tance as the asks be­come more sub­stan­tive and less in-line with how con­sumer mar­kets and voter sen­ti­ment are already shift­ing. Without the di­rect and grow­ing sup­port of in­di­vi­d­u­als, there may be a fun­da­men­tal limit on what agri-busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments will be will­ing to agree to in re­sponse to lob­by­ing from an­i­mal rights and welfare or­ga­ni­za­tions. In the fol­low­ing sec­tions, we con­sider some rea­sons that this in­creas­ing re­sis­tance may be likely.

Cor­po­ra­tions are about dol­lars and poli­ti­ci­ans are about vot­ers. Agri-busi­nesses and poli­ti­ci­ans have surely done their re­search and know the tide of an­i­mal welfare at­ti­tudes is turn­ing. How­ever, our own re­search has shown that be­ing sup­port­ive of cor­po­rate cam­paigns may not nec­es­sar­ily lead to changes in pur­chas­ing be­hav­ior (Fau­n­a­lyt­ics, 2019). If con­sumers are not will­ing to pay an ad­di­tional amount or switch brands for an ini­ti­a­tive that in­creases costs for pro­duc­ers, the in­sti­tu­tions could walk back changes or re­sist fu­ture asks. Similarly, if vot­ers are not con­scious of and vo­cal about re­forms, poli­ti­ci­ans will have lit­tle rea­son to pur­sue them. For these rea­sons, we think that en­courag­ing in­di­vi­d­ual change will be nec­es­sary for the con­tinued suc­cess of in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns.

In­sti­tu­tions are likely aiming for “good enough.” Hap­pier, less-stressed an­i­mals tend to get sick less (Diener & Chan, 2011), and there is pres­sure from health agen­cies to re­duce or elimi­nate sub-ther­a­peu­tic an­tibiotics (e.g., Dall, 2017). Th­ese facts add an­other in­cen­tive for agri-busi­nesses to im­prove the lives of an­i­mals. How­ever, these in­cen­tives are driven pri­mar­ily by es­ti­ma­tions of cost sav­ings and con­cerns about an­tibiotic re­sis­tance rather than a fo­cus on the welfare of the an­i­mals them­selves. There­fore, as the lives of an­i­mals be­come good enough to pre­vent the high prevalence of dis­ease, they will also be­come good enough for the math of the in­sti­tu­tions. The pres­sure of pub­lic opinion is needed to drive welfare be­yond “good enough.”

A few hold-out in­sti­tu­tions could un­der­mine the progress made. If con­sumers do not differ­en­ti­ate prod­ucts made with more an­i­mal-friendly farm­ing tech­niques from those made with pre-re­form con­di­tions and value those differ­ences, they will not be will­ing to pay for a higher-priced product or be will­ing to sup­port gov­ern­ment man­dates re­quiring the welfare re­forms. Pro­duc­ers who vol­un­tar­ily em­brace re­forms in such an en­vi­ron­ment will face higher pro­duc­tion costs with­out the price pre­mium to sup­port those costs. If even one ma­jor pro­ducer holds out on a vol­un­tary re­form that the pub­lic is in­differ­ent to, they would have a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage. As a re­sult, their pro­duc­tion could in­crease over time and the pro­duc­tion of other cor­po­ra­tions could de­crease due to low de­mand for their product. This would drive down the net benefit of the re­forms for an­i­mals over time. The same type of effect could oc­cur across bor­ders if differ­ent states or coun­tries adopt differ­ent welfare re­form man­dates.

In gen­eral, then, we feel that many of the pos­si­ble limi­ta­tions on in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns have the same solu­tion: chang­ing the hearts and minds of the pub­lic. Without peo­ple mak­ing sup­port­ive pur­chases and mak­ing their de­sires known to poli­ti­ci­ans, the gains of in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns may be short-lived.

Now, the ar­gu­ment could be made that we don’t know a lot about in­di­vi­d­u­als, but that we do know that in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns are effec­tive thus far. How­ever, it’s worth point­ing out that while we do know that some in­sti­tu­tions are will­ing to make com­mit­ments, we don’t know what the end-re­sult of these com­mit­ments will be. If con­sumers and vot­ers turn out to be in­differ­ent, will there sim­ply be an in­sti­tu­tional back­slide as bot­tom-line calcu­la­tions en­courage re­ci­di­vism? And how many in­sti­tu­tions will even im­ple­ment their com­mit­ments fully in the first place? Other EA Fo­rum posts have pointed to some of the bro­ken and un­clear cor­po­rate com­mit­ments, and sub­jec­tive es­ti­mates are that roughly 53% of com­pa­nies will fol­low-through (An­i­mal Char­ity Eval­u­a­tors, 2018).

We can use cage-free egg re­forms as an illus­tra­tive ex­am­ple of some of the difficul­ties that can be faced in im­ple­ment­ing in­sti­tu­tional cam­paigns. In­di­vi­d­ual pro­duc­ers are spend­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to up­grade their farms with a to­tal es­ti­mated cost of four billion dol­lars (Bloomberg, 2017 is the origi­nal source, but a free ver­sion is here). This re­sults in in­creased product costs (e.g., Malone & Lusk, 2016). In re­sponse to ini­tially weak de­mand for cage-free eggs, some pro­duc­ers put off im­prov­ing ad­di­tional barns, and some said that their move to­wards the com­mit­ment would halt un­til con­sumer de­mand in­creased (Bloomberg, 2017). Similar out­comes have been seen with ges­ta­tion crate com­mit­ments (Bel­luz, 2016).

How­ever, the tide also seems to be turn­ing some­what: more re­cently, man­u­fac­tur­ers have men­tioned in­creas­ing con­sumer de­mand for cage-free prod­ucts and the effects of Prop 12 (e.g., Cal-Maine Foods, 2019; Pain­ter, 2019). There­fore, based on both the challenges faced in in­sti­tu­tional re­form and the ap­par­ent solu­tion to them, their con­tinued suc­cess is likely to be code­pen­dent on the dietary choices that in­di­vi­d­u­als make and the poli­ti­cal pres­sure they can ap­ply.

No Problem

The ob­sta­cles men­tioned above do not mean we should aban­don cor­po­rate cam­paigns any more than the difficul­ties in try­ing to change peo­ple’s minds are grounds for aban­don­ing in­di­vi­d­ual out­reach. Both ap­proaches will be hard and they will be messy—quick, sub­stan­tial progress will not always be made. While this is frus­trat­ing in the mo­ment, it is also com­pletely nor­mal for any so­cial move­ment. As we in­crease our knowl­edge in both ar­eas, we will make progress in spite of the in­evitable pit­falls—it’s how both ac­tivism and re­search progress.

In sum, in­sti­tu­tional com­mit­ments are an ex­cel­lent av­enue for EAAs to pur­sue, par­tic­u­larly while the sec­tor’s prac­tices lag be­hind pub­lic opinion. Th­ese re­forms may be the low-hang­ing fruit. But as agri-busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments grind to­wards medi­ocrity, these types of cam­paigns may face in­creas­ing in­sti­tu­tional re­sis­tance...es­pe­cially if the pub­lic is in­differ­ent to ad­di­tional changes and in­sti­tu­tions find the nec­es­sary im­prove­ments difficult or ex­pen­sive.

We feel that the con­tinued suc­cess of these cam­paigns will ul­ti­mately hinge on peo­ple’s thoughts, feel­ings, and be­hav­iors. There­fore, we should not throw the in­di­vi­d­ual out with the bath­wa­ter, es­pe­cially when we know so lit­tle about them: The move­ment should be think­ing “in­sti­tu­tions and in­di­vi­d­u­als,” not “in­sti­tu­tions or in­di­vi­d­u­als.”


Thanks to Sa­mara Men­dez, Economist at The Hu­mane League Labs, for her in­put on the eco­nomics of cor­po­rate an­i­mal welfare com­mit­ments. Thanks also to my col­leagues at Fau­n­a­lyt­ics for their com­ments and con­tri­bu­tions. This post is cross-posted from the Fau­na­lylics Blog.