International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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6th European Vegetarian Congress
Bussolengo, Italy, September 21 - 26, 1997

Ethical Vegetarian Consumers
Francisco Martin

Founder and President of AVE (Spanish Vegan Society) and General Secretary of IVU

I think that in order to understand the complexity of a sophisticated society such as ours, we must think in very simple terms. We must understand what is meant by a "consumer society" and on what ideologies these concepts are based. There is a very big difference between a consumer society based on the concept of continual exploitation, which is what we have at the moment, and a society based on limited use of natural resources. It is obvious that our society places very few limits on consumption, since there are big business interests aiming to keep these restrictions to a minimum. So if we talk about ethical vegetarian consumers, we are talking about a concept which is not yet fully developed.

Unfortunately our problem as vegetarians is that we tend to fall into the same mental trap. We think that everything is ready made for us, that everything should already be in place and all the questions already have answers, but it isn't like that. It is something which is developing on a day-to-day basis, being built up bit by bit. Talking about life on a complex planet like ours requires simple attitudes but we must keep our ideas as flexible as possible so that we can develop the concepts necessary for us to be ethical consumers.

As consumers we have enormous power, but we are not using it. We have become slaves of the consumer society and when I say slaves I mean willing slaves, since we accept willingly and without question these ideas which have been instilled in us. We consume anything offered to us. There are many consumer associations around the world. I receive from them publications which should be defending the interests of consumers, but sometimes I'm truly horrified by the things I read and see, because the concepts these associations work by are completely out of line with what is really needed if we mean to be ethical.

The concept of a consumer association involves ethics of course, because they are trying to be tolerant towards those consuming the products which these societies or groups are informing us about. What is unacceptable is that they have very few limitations. There are limits in fact to the kinds of products that may legitimately be used by a human being, yet consumer associations only try to inform people how to buy products at lower prices compared to other products on offer - without generally casting doubt on the need to buy.

As I said earlier, we consumers really do have a lot of power, but in order for us to become a powerful vegetarian consumer lobby we must admit that we do not make up a big majority of the population at present. If however we became better informed about the power we actually have, then we would have much more influence not only as vegetarians but as consumers in general.

We all know there are campaigns for example for fair trading with the Third World. There is a concern that the way we do business with the rest of the world, especially the Third World, is very unfair. Many native people do not have the means to set up lobbies or groups of any kind to defend their interests, and these people are clearly being abused. Most of the profits from the sale of products obtained by exploiting these people are converted into consumer products such as coffee, which is a cash crop, in fact one of the most important ones worldwide. All this is obvious exploitation. There are some organizations really trying to reach the best arrangement, demonstrating their concern for the interests of the producers by paying them what is considered a fairer price for the produce in question.

However, I generally still see very little interest or thought for the fact that we live on a planet also inhabited by other - nonhuman - life forms sharing their existence with us. There are also associations concerned with native people, who aim to defend their rights. Hunting is considered a dirty word and always will be among people who believe that life should not be destroyed for the sake of those who would assume the right to take the life of any living being. These associations, then, would defend the rights of native people both to hunt and trap, because they think that they have been doing it for many years and that their way of life would be endangered if these rights were taken away.

A word about Survival International, a group devoted to the interests of native peoples. They have been speaking out against some recently created parks and other activities which have been started up, on the grounds that they are infringing the rights of these peoples. The parks in fact are turning out to be inadequate, leading to a highly controversial reduction in hunting.

I think we must try, as responsible ethical consumers, to take every possible common interest into account. We should never take up a position without good reason. If we want to be fair, and really want to establish a system of fair trade, we need to set fair standards applicable to everyone. Until the time comes when the interests of every living being, and I am including plants as well as animals, are taken care of, we have to widen the concept of consideration towards all that is really part of our environment, our world, all that makes us part of something which is so important for our own survival; in fact, it is the origin of our existence. The things we need, the products we consume, the foods we eat, the air we breathe: everything is a part of one whole. I know that I can say this in general terms but I think we tend to forget it, and do so too often. We tend to forget that we are here because we are breathing air and that this air comes from somewhere. We belong to an ecosystem. We are not really taking care of this ecosystem, but tend to see ourselves as independent beings, as if we could act without breathing air, eating food, drinking or whatever.

We have to take part in a consumer game. I think we should ask ourselves very seriously whether we want to be part of the game. There are obvious examples that I think everyone is aware of, like paying thousands of dollars for a tiger's testicle or penis or an elephant's or rhinoceros' tusks. I think it is absolutely outrageous that people think in terms of what I call "gourmet foods" or delicacies obtained by the killing of living beings. I don't mean the whole animal but parts of it. Tiger bones can be sold for phenomenal sums of money. It's incredible. Little or nothing is done around the world to inform such people that this is not only outrageous, but absoulutely horrendous and unnecessary. There is absolutely no need for us to use or to be dependent on the products of the slaughter of any living being. There is nothing to be gained; profits from such trade are just blood money, money which harms us because it has been made in the wrong way. These attitudes, by setting a price on the lives of others and not taking their needs into account, are turning us into victims. As ethical consumers we must be aware that we must take the initiative and act, because ethics is and should be our foundation as human beings. We must strive to become better human beings every day, by making a tremendous effort to reject the tendencies or the habits that we might have inherited or acquired. We all know that these tendencies are part of our culture, inherited from our parents, the society we live in, and last but not least, from ideas passed on to us by others. I believe that we need to question everything, starting with where we come from and where we are going.

The diet of ethical consumerism, food production and trading systems are closely connected to an increasing proportion of health problems, exploitative economic systems, environmental destruction and considerable animal suffering. If we significantly increase the quality of the food we eat in an informed way, we will eventually create a fairer and more compassionate world. We must develop a new value system, and to do this we need to build on the concepts which make up our vegetarian philosophy, which we too often forget or neglect. In order to do this we must go back to the roots our consumer needs came from. If we keep our ideas and concepts simple, this enables us to find solutions to complex problems.

We would all agree that we are natural consumers of the foods which are available for us to eat. We must redefine what food is: something to feed us, something to give us the elements we need - minerals, vitamins, proteins and everything we need to stay healthy and realise our desires. As human beings we all have affinities for certain things. This is the core of consumerism: we want to use certain items because we would not be able to live without them; in fact we start protesting or demanding something the moment we are born. The newborn cry, and perhaps this is an inbuilt mechanism to attract attention, to tell others that we need something. In other words, we must recognise that we are part of this world and cannot live alone - we need someone to take care of us or something to satisfy our innate desires. As I have already said, we all know that we need food, ethical food, produced to be eaten to make us healthy, but even among vegetarians we have major disagreements over what foods we should ideally eat. What happened yesterday was a case in point: certain speakers mentioned that some vegetarians use dairy products, whereas many of us object to them. Once we start rejecting animal foods, this can perhaps be taken to any lengths. I think though that what is important is not what we are doing and thinking today or that it is better or appropriate for us, but that we don't lose sight of the main problem. We must never believe we have the whole truth or are better than someone else, because this isn't so. We all have information, which we have classified in our minds, and act according to our experiences. We must have an open mind to allow the experiences of others and new experiences of our own to daily modify our concepts, hopefully in a positive way. We must also be aware that food is not the only thing we need. We also need air, as I said earlier, water or other liquids. We need to feel a part of a society, a community, a tribe, nation, country or some other conglomeration. This natural need of human beings has been exploited by politicians and by those who govern us, who have developed a concept of nationalism which is one of the most destructive forces we too often see. The endless wars and incredible amount of business they generate are something we should think seriously about.

However, we vegetarians are not above fighting - the idea that vegetarians are peaceful beings is not always true. I think we need to make a greater effort to be honest with ourselves if we really want to continue in the evolutionary direction in which, inevitably, all of us are heading. I urge everyone to really think about the importance of having an open mind on all the problems we face, because all human problems, all the world's problems really can be solved more easily with such an attitude. As individuals, we need love, understanding, friendship and so on, but this does not mean that we cannot retain our own identity. The best friends are those who really keep their own outlook on life, otherwise they would be using someone else as a crutch to lean on. We need to be equal parts and this applies in every relationship. If we don't succeed in this then something is wrong.

I don't think my talk on ethical vegetarian consumerism has been a typical one. I wanted to highlight the differences that we as vegetarians should bear in mind when distinguishing irregular concepts from those worthy of reflection. We could start to develop this idea by looking at what we already have and what we potentially could have.

- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)