The Individual and the Bathwater

by Tom_Beggs5 min read29th Nov 20193 comments



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.