International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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Congress Logo 33rd World Vegetarian Congress
Chiang Mai, Thailand, January 4 - 10, 1999
'Vegetarianism is the Way'
an unforgettable visual, cultural and gastronomic experience

Vegetarian Consumer Power

The following is the text of talk and workshop discussion by Francisco Martín

The subject of vegetarian consumer power deals with what we as vegetarian consumers can do to exert pressure on the financial and economic system which rules the world. Money is power, and if vegetarians count it's not because the world has decided all of a sudden that vegetarianism is a wonderful philosophy, but because companies which are making money have realised that we are an interesting economic group, that they would like to cater to, so that they can increase their profits. It is almost like saying: "Well, we don't care how animals are saved", for those of us who are campaigning on animal rights issues. Our main concern is that we can save them, by whichever means. Ideally the world should be a more perfect world, but it isn't. And so we have to find ways so that things that we are trying to achieve for the good of the planet, for the good of our health, the health of others, and the welfare of animals and our environmental concerns, actually take place.

There are guidelines for eveything that human beings do. We have guidelines which could be of a religious, social, cultural or spiritual nature. And most of these guidelines are agreed to without much questioning being involved. People who strictly follow the dogmas of religions, the rules whereby companies are run, or any social structures that are set up, they have guidelines which must be respected if the system works. When it comes to the economy in food production, there are also guidelines. But we should question: Are those guidelines always aimed to improve the quality of life, the health of the individual, the lot of the whole planet, the welfare of the animals, or what are really those guidelines set up for? Sometimes those guidelines may be there just to perpetuate an exploitative system, and this is what we have to identify as militant vegetarians. I say this without meaning of course that there should be any agressions of any kind, either in thought or deed. Militantism (the way I describe it), is what we all human beings feel that we should do when we feel that ethically, and reasonably, as human beings we cannot stand by and let things happen the way they're happenning without us having our say.

There is also the comment here of what is really being done to satisfy our needs as consumers. Are we satisfying real needs or are we satisfying wants? And how far does one go to satisfy wants when real needs are not being met? How ethical are we? We think that we are acting ethically, but I think that we should ask ourselves every single day: Are we doing enough? Are we doing things right? Shouldn't we be doing something to improve our mental outlook as well as our mental attitude and our actions, because what we think of course influences what we do. And the important thing is what we do, not what we think, in practical terms. This concept of need versus want is a very very important point, because when it comes to consuming products everyone knows that we are satisfying wants more often than needs. I personally am not a drinker of coffee - and I have nothing against people drinking coffee, or tea - however a lot of human effort and a lot of explotaition is involved in the production of these commodity products. We start to see things from a different angle. If we satisfy wants how far do we go in terms of land use and abuse of the land, the air, the seas...? These are questions which are very relevant to how we see ourselves as consumers and the impact that we will have on the global environment.

I've mentioned coffee and tea which are also part of the fair trade concept. There is actually fair trading of coffee and tea, and I would come to the ethical and health aspects of these commodity foods -or so-called foods-. The concept of fair trade involves a fair mode of conduct, in other words, we have realised that is not fair to have slave labour producing those foods or products which we would use, forgetting what it involves to produce them. In other words, we want to pay a fair price for a product that we want. Gone back to how these products or commodities are produced, how much of that which is involved in the production of these goods are we going to take into account? How far do we go? Do we accept the use of pesticides to produce more of these commodities, to make more money for certain countries in a short term and ruin the land? Because in the end people understand at least the causes of desertification and land destruction. People say, well, people are starving, they don't have anything else, so they just go and destroy the forest, like slash & burn practices, which are still going on in many parts of the world.

In the other hand, the production of these commodities has other adverse effects. These are proved to be the case, that if people consume more than 4 cups of coffee (at least, perhaps less for some individuals), there will be adverse effects on human health. Also tea is a commodity which is used thoughout the world and also there are health effects from the use of this beverage. It has been scientifically proved that there could be health problems if people take more than six cups a day. This might be helped by the use of herbal teas instead, but there are environmental aspects, health aspects and we have to be aware of the implications of all of these, when we choose to consume a product or not, or which product. And whether it has been fair traded or not.

There is animal testing on most products, and here too, we as consumers can be effective in stopping unfair and horrible practices like the use of animals in research. We as consumers and vegetarians have a lot of power in this. Because we are demanding products that are not tested on animals, many companies like Beauty Without Cruelty, the Body Shop, etc., have been set up with these criteria in mind: they do not test products on animals, the products that we use daily for beauty or whatever.

It is also important to keep in mind that what we consume has an adverse or positive effect on others and the environment before we buy such products. As vegetarian consumers, we could also impact on the way companies manufacture these products, and we could in fact have boycotts of certain products that are not ethically produced, and they do certainly listen to us. There is one company in particular, Nestlé, based in Switzerland. The boycott to their products is the world's most popular boycott, because of their unethical marketing practices of baby food. I will just mention that Nestlé controls 40% of the baby milk marketing business, and they donate free supplies of their formula to health facilities in nine countries that have been surveyed. And they give free samples to mothers in 14 countries by setting up milk nurses in hospitals as health educators, and you know what the peer pressure can be. They can make women feel useless, in fact make women feel that they are second hand products, rather than the basic life system to their babies. And this is why many people throughout the world are outraged at those practices.

I'm trying to lay out the problems that being a consumer entails, and what we can effectively do to change the global situation being in a minority position as consumers. Because the world as it is ruled right now is formed mostly by ignorant consumers, who are easily controlled by those companies that are supplying to them products which are unhealthy, useless, dangerous, and it is only through the enlightning and informed views of ethical consumers, that the situation is not as bad as it potentially could be. So I just would open up a debate here, if anyone would like to make comments on the subject.

FROM the PUBLIC: The formulas that Nestle donates have been banned in North America. Certainly the most environmentally degrading product that is produced on this planet is cotton. The cotton industry uses 50 percent of the world's produce of chemicals, fertilizers, insecticides. Because we all consume cotton at a great level they continue to get away with this. So one of the things that we can do is to swing over our consumption to organically grown or natural fibres, one of them being hemp, which has been prohibited around the world for the very reason that the chemical companies and the corporations risk in their products. Organically grown fibres, like hemp, tend to be produced by individual farmers and the cotton companies are unable to make a profit from that. Thereby degrading the planet. If we as consumers do swing over to obviously the more expensive hemp and other organically grown fibres, we do several things: we ensure that people who are in a poverty position start to acquire some of the monetary gain that seems to be accumulating at the top, we end up with a better product and we start to make our planet healthier.

F.M.: It's important to remind and to inform people because this will obviously not be done by companies that advertise their products on television or the media. In fact, I mean this is why the media and the commercial television is really such a brain washing machine, because of the programs that are being put on most television stations at least throughout the western world nowadays. I think all the commercials that are passed on in Spain (the same commercials are seen throughout Europe) they really tend to make us idiot, or more idiotic than we might be already.

The use of organic products is very little understood by the average person. We have been taught to think that price is the primary element for consideration. If we go and say, "how much does this shirt cost?", and we hear: "Five dollars", and then "how much does that one cost?", "Twenty dollars", we go and buy the five-dollar one. We don't question how much more money might be payed by all of us to clean up the garbage that is in fact generated by that cheaper product. So when people tell me: "Oh, but this product is cheaper than that one", I say "Well, seemingly so, yes, but how do you rate cost? Do you rate cost in terms of what you actually pay directly at a particular moment out of your pocket? Or do you pay out of what in fact is involved in the production of that product in terms of that it might affect your health or that of others, or the health of the planet, or the quality of our oxygen, or air, or whatever. I know that those seem to be intangibles, but it's important to make people believe that without those intangibles we would not be here, or we wouldn't even exist.

FROM the PUBLIC: Just to say that one important thing is that you mustn't only boycott the products or companies, but you must let them know that you are boycotting them, because if you just won't buy the product, they won't notice it, that they are being boycotted. You have to let them know, you have to write to them that you will be boycotting their products as long as they do something wrong. That of course, in a polite lection. And another thing is that if a company does something very good, you should let them know what you think.

FROM the PUBLIC: One problem it that very often people say: "What can I do as a single person?", --especially women say that. "The mighty will do what they want anyhow and I can do anything". So I think it's important that one starting a group, says "Yes, one is too weak but all together we are strong". We have very many groups in Austria and in Germany, for example, for mothers' milk instead of Nestlé, and in the group people get so strong, especially women get so much courage, to make a boycott. And on the other hand ask for the products we want, because we must do that, go out of a shop and say "Oh, I don't want this, I'll come back when you have that one I want (or I need )".

F.M.: There is another company that has been very much in the news, McDonalds. Who hasn't heard of McDonalds? Who doesn't know about the famous McDonalds trial? We can really face giants, because although they have money, they have clay feet in terms of where they stand on. All we need to do is to get fairly well organised, and a small bunch of people could literally demolish the foundations upon which any large corporation sits. Of course, McDonalds is taking advantage that many consumers -the vast majority of them- are in fact brain-washed and it's very difficult to deprogram those people, by showing them exactly what the facts are, and what it means to be a consumer. People go by image; they are very clever companies. I think in fact what we need to do as vegetarians is to be as clever as them.

I always watch commercials, I tell people (some people will say "he must be a masochist"), because I want to be absolutely sure that I have understood how that commercial has been produced. What is the company or the product they're trying to push on us? What reaction are they trying to get out of us? And it's really incredible when you look at them. The commercials are very brief, generally they last only a few seconds. But they have studied every movement, the face muscles, the eyes, the mouth, everything is studied very carefully. They send an image of a person that feels very sure of himself, which is what many people really want. We live in little boxes, most of us, in large cities, small apartments. We are basically all put together in a massification system that makes strangers of us, we behave very unsocially, because we are left to ourselves and there is not so much social interaction among ourselves. So we look at television, the images that these companies are trying to make us identify with, and then we say: "Yes, I'll buy that product".

When I say that consumers are brain-washed, what I'm trying to say it that there are patterns that are established by powerful groups that influence society as a whole, that makes something socially acceptable or unacceptable, and within those patterns people seem to be responsible, and not brain-washed. But I go further and I say: well, because this patterns have been accepted without much questioning, that is where I go and say: "That is brain-washing of a very important kind". It's like the two party system in a political way: people are given the concept of democracy, but many times they don't realise that they have been fooled, that real democracy doesn't really exist. There is something which may be better than open dictatorship, of course I think we would all agree, isn't it?

Precisely because the two main parties will always defend the person who disagrees with the other one, and so that leaves you some space to grow and to live without being shot by the other, or being kidnapped or abused or whatever too much by the other. But the concept of real democracy doesn't really quite exist; there is power, and sometimes power maybe practiced ruthlessly, or in some other more subtle ways. In the way of consumerism it's exactly the same that happens, people will go and say "Yes, I want the cheaper product", and it might seem a very sensible thing to do as a consumer. Of course, as a consumer I try to get my products as inexpensively as possible. We all do that. But how far do we go in thinking what the implications of the production or even the use or the contents or whatever are involved with the product that we consume? Or the need for it even?

For instance, in the advertising of these pots of dairy desserts you see a commercial in television with a child asking his mother: "How much did they give you when you were a child?", and she says: "Well, I got two", ..."so I've got to get two of these pots because you were getting two when you were a child", do you know what I mean? So, they make you think in terms of quantity, in terms of how normal it is. It's like mobile phones nowadays, if you hear something "Ring, ring...", you say: "Is it yours or mine?". It is inconceivable that somebody hasn't got one, this is what our society is all about. We just get into that frame of mind, and everybody has got to have one of those gadgets. And everybody has got to have one of those desserts. If you say: "Well, I'm a raw foodist, I don't have that", fox example, or "I don't drink dairy products", or "I'm a vegan and I do not have dairy" or something like that, then you are out of it, you're not a part of us. This is what I'm saying, we have to widen the concept that we have of a consumer. The informed consumer is one that knows more that we all know about the products that we consume. I'm not saying that anyone of us is really knowledgeable, you really have to know a lot about what goes into the products that we consume. Not only in terms of how many animal products are used, but also in terms of what is involved in the production of those products.

FROM the PUBLIC: Even kids are brain-washed to a certain extent. I watch them run into the supermarkets, go for Danone yoghourts, because it is on TV the whole time.

F.M.: Yes, that's right, Danone or any product that is advertised relentlessly will eventually make people think "well, if you see it around, it must be the best one".

Large companies want to stay in business. In Britain, McDonalds for example, because of a lot of public pressure, they know that there's a strong vegetarian movement there. So they have produced the "veggie-burger" which is not marketed in some other countries where consumers are more ignorant, and they are afraid that if they introduce the veggie-burger, nobody would buy their meat ones, because there hasn't been such a meat culture. It is part of their strategy to stay in business: "Well, all right, if we're not going to sell them this, we'll sell them that; we're doing this for business". There are many issues, everything is very complex. You've done something ethical -at least you've looked for a product that does not contain animal food, but there are many other issues involved. I might not go there to eat it, I would definitely not go there, but if somebody does, how do I catch that?

"What's wrong with McDonalds" has been a campaign that has gone on for many years after two young people in Britain produced a leaflet. And McDonalds took legal actions against them, because they wanted to stop it. There have been McDonalds boycotts as far as I can recall, as well as Burger King. The basic reasons have always been the abusive use of the land, the animals and the fact that they never showed much respect for environment in terms of the materials they use to serve their products, it wastes a tremendous amount of resources and pollutes. They require an incredible number of trees to just produce the garbage that they sell to us.

FROM the PUBLIC: I think it's important for an activist to get feedback from ordinary people who know nothing about the abuse of animals, who for instance when he buys a flower from a store won't think of the pesticides used to produce this flower and the animals who have got through toxicity tests in order to use this pesticide. I think one of the best ways to get in through ordinary people is to be seen on the street. And I'm afraid that ordinary people, including my own family and my best friends, are terribly ignorant of what's going on.

F.M.: I think she's given an excellent example with the flowers. It's really what I've tried to point out as the problem. If you see a beatiful shop window, filled with beautiful flowers, who would ever think that might be anything wrong with that product? But those people who have seen the product from the beginning to the end, who have seen where it has gone through and why and what is involved with the production of it, wouldn't think the same.

We must concentrate our energies mostly to address very important ethical issues, and the main one is that animals, living beings, would not be used to produce anything, any edible product. And this is what we as vegetarians do. But there are specialized protest groups that are concerned with the environmental issues, who may not necessarily be vegetarian.

FROM the PUBLIC: We have a tremendously big consumer power here in this conference this week. Two things have troubled me a little bit in Chiang Mai, that we might do something about. At a gem store (some have been there on the tours), the beautiful gems looked lovely, but outside accross the car park, there's a concrete ranch with animals in little prisons, with no grass, and looking really miserable and unhappy and bored, and it's just not nice. We could boycott them or think about making a petition that we all sign, it is not acceptable keeping animals in these conditions. Also at the temples, there are baskets full of little birds, which people buy to free them.

F.M.: Yes, but it becomes problems sometimes to know what it is what we could do. For example, everyday we're getting the thai papers, where in fact they're talking about our conference. And I see pictures on these sort of insert or section, where everyday so far I have seen dog fighting on the page. I don't understand thai, so I don't know what is really involved here, although it seems to be a section for dog fighting, a regular report like bullfighting stuff. I don't know. I think it would be good if people who are attending this congress gave us their views on what they have seen in the country that they didn't like, so that we could perhaps write officially a letter thanking the appropriate authorities for the hospitality that we have seen in Thailand on so forth, however pointing out those things which we would like stopped, because they have hurt our sensibility. In Spain dogfighting is not allowed, but it still takes place in a couple of communities around the mediterranean coast, but clandestine. But here it seems to be legal. And cockfighting as well.

We might find it a little difficult to get across the cultural barriers. About the birds, I understand the intention involved. But like all intentions, if they're not questioned they become bad habits. I'm sure that it looks very nice to be able to free a bird that is imprisoned in a cage, which is what we all would like to do. But it becomes a bad business to keep this good habit going.

FROM the PUBLIC: Something positive: in Austria we achieved by demonstrations and street work that the last animal farm for furs had to close, so we don't have any animal farms now. And another good thing, all over the country we have raised a fund to instruct unemployed teachers about animal rights, and we are allowed to get into all schools, all over Austria -quite a fight- to instruct the children about animal rights (even the six-year-old). We had a big fight with the bunches because they said that children came home and said "I don't want to eat eggs and meat any more" and the families and mothers were horrified buf finally we succeeded, all over Austria these teachers are allowed into the schools.

FROM the PUBLIC: I don't know if you've heard about the action against Nestlé in Italy that happened recently, about the Panetone. It turned into an absolute disaster. Panetone is like halfway between bread and a cake (they're obviously not vegan; I haven't tried them). These are eaten traditionally in Lombardy, at Christmas time. And two poisoned Panetone were sent to a press agency in Bologna. The italian A.L.F. claimed responsibility, and said it was a protest against genetic engineering. They said that the poisoned Panetones were in all the stores. Of course the media started to talk about eco-terrorists, and they created a really negative reaction. And that's to be expected. Nestlé reacted, and was given a lot of publicity, they started giving out free Panetones on the streets, this was televised. It turned in a wonderful promotion for Nestlé. Also people started buying more Panetones as an act of solidarity. I think this teaches us that we have to control this kind of actions in the animal rights movement.

F.M.: Just a brief comment about this. For many years I have heard and seen what's going on around the world in terms of civil desobedience, and actions which are not legal, carried out by groups in support of animal rights campaigns. As well as the Panetone, some other actions have taken place before, like poisoned chocolate. My personal comment is that these products are already poisoned, I would never try to poison them any further, because there is no need for. So, I have always told activists: "Forget about it!! Never do this, because you are even giving credibility to the product; you are implying that the product was edible before you tampered with it, and that in fact is not true". So why get into that kind of situation? I just say that the product is poisoned by itself, because of what it contains already, officially. So I don't need to add anything further to make it any more poisonous.

There are of course actions which are justified on an ethical basis, although not on a legal basis. If somebody breaks into a laboratory to rescue a dog that is being tortured, I think most ethical people would say "I don't see anything wrong with that action"; perhaps it is ilegal to go in there, but ethically you wouldn't be able to say that you condemn the action. But the action by the lab and society is a criminal act, because you have damaged property. However it's not a terrorist act; how many of us have ever killed anyone? But how many of us have been injured, even in peaceful demos? I almost was murdered at the entrance of a bullring in Spain, because people supporting bullfights were so agressive.