The Open Wing Alliance (OWA) is a global coalition of 70+ organizations that are working to change the way the world’s biggest companies treat animals. Alexandria Beck, director of the OWA, explains how the coalition is spreading its ideas across cultures in its quest to set a new standard for corporate animal welfare policies in every major market.
We’ve lightly edited Alexandria’s talk for clarity. You can also watch it on YouTube and read it on effectivealtruism.org.
Thank you so much for being here today. My name is Alexandria Beck, and I'm going to talk about global movement building — specifically how the Open Wing Alliance is spreading ideas and driving progress worldwide.
I want to start off by quickly introducing myself. I'm the director of the Open Wing Alliance at the Humane League. I live in Denver, Colorado, with my partner and our two cats. And this is my first time visiting London. I'm really excited to be here. I got involved in animal activism several years ago when I started my university’s first student animal rights group and launched a campaign to make the dining halls at our university cage-free. Today, I'm responsible for coordinating organizations around the world to take effective action for animals.
I also want to quickly acknowledge my colleague Amy Odene, our global corporate relations coordinator. She's not here today, but she created several of the beautiful slides that I'm about to show. She also shared a lot of the same information during the CARE conference [2019 Conference on Animal Rights in Europe] in Warsaw. If you're interested in checking out a recording of her talk, she spoke for about 40 minutes on the global cage-free movement.
For those of you who aren't as familiar with the Open Wing Alliance, we're a global coalition of 70 organizations working to end the abuse of chickens worldwide.
And together, our coalition is changing the way that the world's biggest companies treat animals. We're setting a new standard for corporate animal welfare policies locally in every major market, and globally.
Our first step toward achieving our goal is eliminating battery cages from the planet. We chose to focus on helping egg-laying hens, because billions of hens are confined around the world in cruel cages like these, which don't allow them to express any of their natural behaviors. Right now there are over five billion hens laying over one trillion eggs every year. And while these figures are incomprehensible, at least for me, luckily we are starting to make progress on this issue. Thanks to organizations working in the U.S. and Canada, cage-free is becoming the norm. Food companies across all major sectors have committed to go 100% cage-free, with over 500 commitments secured across North America.
The Humane League Labs recently published a comprehensive report on U.S. egg production that shows the percentage of hens living in cage-free housing systems. It's currently just over 20%.
This is a huge step in the right direction compared to where it was five or 10 years ago. And it's safe to say that corporate commitments have a direct impact on this increase, alongside other important activism strategies like supporting legislation.
Similarly, across Europe, which is home to some of the largest egg producers in the world, animal protection groups have worked to secure over 750 cage-free policies.
This number is constantly increasing, and the European Commission reports that over 50% of hens across Europe now reside in cage-free systems. It's also safe to say that this increase is directly correlated to corporate commitments.
But because the abuse of animals raised for food is a global crisis, the kind of progress that we're seeing in North America and in Europe needs to be seen across the globe.
This is especially true when you consider that even if all of the companies in Europe, Africa, North America, Latin America, and Oceania committed to being 100% cage-free, we still wouldn't be halfway toward eradicating cages for hens, because Asia currently produces over 60% of the global egg supply.
With this stark realization in mind, we founded the Open Wing Alliance in 2016 to bring groups together to disrupt animal agriculture by leveraging the competitive advantage of each organization in the coalition, and filling any skill gaps through training and shared resources. We believe that building a global network to rally behind this issue is the best way to drive progress.
I think that the first and most fundamental aspect of the framework that we use — our decentralized coalition model — can create positive social change in other cause areas as well. Rather than creating branches of the Humane League all over the world, we team up with existing local organizations that have already established an organizational infrastructure, a volunteer base, and cultural knowledge.
By bringing groups together, we can achieve our shared goal much faster and more efficiently. And today, the global network of the Open Wing Alliance stands at 70 organizations in 57 countries.
Another important aspect of this coalition model is distributed leadership and decision-making. We do have basic coalition-member responsibilities and rules. And we have our agreed-upon strategy and shared goal [of eliminating battery cages]. But coalition members have the autonomy and freedom to self-organize, be creative, and use their preferred campaign tactics.
The OWA is certainly not the first or the only coalition to use this type of model. So I want to briefly touch on a few other ways that OWA functions to support its members and its mission.
First, we provide free resources and trainings to our member groups. We have an online resource library with dozens of corporate campaign-related resources. We also host several events throughout the year, such as a global summit and smaller regional summits, to provide a space for coalition members to strategize together around our shared goal. These events also serve as training sessions for newer groups.
This photo was taken at our third annual global summit in Warsaw, where we hosted about 140 activists, coming from 44 organizations and 46 countries.
Newer coalition groups are also able to request personalized training from a more established group to help them come up with a strategy that's suitable for the cultural and political context in which they work.
And in addition to training and resources, we give grants to some of our member groups to fund their corporate campaign work.
As you can see, our grant program has grown significantly in the past three years. And if you're interested, you can see a breakdown of our grant recipients by country and organization on our website.
Now that I've explained the basics of how our coalition is structured, I want to get into the actual work that we do in terms of securing these animal welfare policies. I’ll also cover some of the unique challenges that we've encountered and our approach to overcoming them, and some of the results that we've seen so far.
To date, groups have worked to secure over 65 policies in which companies have committed to go cage-free across their entire global portfolio.
These are just some of the biggest companies to release global policies, with the most recent being Wyndham Hotels & Resorts and Best Western. The Best Western victory alone impacted over five million egg-laying hens.
These global policies are a great way to have a huge impact on a large number of animals. And while most of these commitments were secured through dialogue and negotiations with company leadership, in some cases, it has taken massive global campaign efforts from OWA groups to encourage companies to commit.
For example, a relentless group of activists came together to show Hilton just what we thought of their cruel cages. Hilton ended up releasing their global cage-free policy just 24 hours after the OWA campaign launch.
The next step, after getting global policies in place, is holding the companies accountable. One way we do that is to ensure that the companies translate their policy into the appropriate regional languages.
This is a great way to drive progress in areas where it's more difficult to get corporate commitments, or that are less conducive to social change, like China. We recently saw the first six companies with global policies there translate them to Chinese.
In addition to these massive, coalition-wide global campaigns, groups are able to self-organize regional campaigns.
One recent example is of groups teaming up to pressure Subway to extend their cage-free policy to Asia with a 2025 deadline, just as they had done in the Americas and in Europe. Some groups participated by having negotiations and dialogue with the local Subway leadership, and other groups participated by launching pressure campaigns against Subway, like one in Thailand supported by the SPCA in Malaysia.
Because these groups are part of the OWA, they easily got support from the rest of the coalition members to pressure Subway. And earlier this month, these groups celebrated when the sandwich giant extended its cage-free policy, with a 2025 deadline, to seven countries in Asia.
Speaking of Asia, now I want to get into some of the region-specific case studies and review the unique challenges that groups are working to overcome there.
In terms of securing corporate animal welfare policies, these seem to be the main barriers that groups are facing:
* Over 90% of hens throughout Asia are in cages; it's an extremely pervasive problem.
* There's very little existing momentum in the region.
* Consumers seem to be less sympathetic to farm animal causes.
* Several large corporations are headquartered in Asia, so we have extremely influential companies in quite difficult areas to infiltrate.
* The environments in the region are less conducive to social change.
However, groups are doing amazing work there. There are two tactics groups are taking to overcome these barriers and drive progress.
The first is using global commitments to trigger movement in certain areas. It is especially effective if the global policies are translated into regional languages.
Second, groups in Asia are doing corporate relations and campaign work on the ground to drive regional commitments. These groups are working tirelessly to secure cage-free policies from local businesses, largely through a more cooperative approach. Many countries within Asia are practically impossible to campaign within, so the groups are overcoming these challenges by being creative and nimble.
One example of a creative initiative happening in Asia is the Cage-Free Producers Alliance that an OWA organization called the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST), started. Because a lack of supply is a real problem for many companies in Asia, EAST created an alliance to bridge the gap between companies and suppliers, and to assist them in their cage-free transition.
This seems to be working pretty well, as several producers have already signed on to participate in this alliance. The leaders at EAST think that there's potential to spread this idea and create similar alliances in other countries where it makes sense. Because EAST is part of the OWA, we can easily get and share resources from them with other groups, so that they can try similar tactics — and hopefully achieve similar results.
Because of these innovative solutions to regional barriers, we are starting to see some progress. Carrefour, the largest retailer in Asia, released their cage-free policy for Taiwan after working with EAST and the Humane League. With momentum starting to build in the region, we've also made connections with many promising organizations in Asia, and we're really excited to get more familiar at our inaugural regional summit in Taiwan.
At this summit, these groups will be able to come together, further discuss barriers to progress, and brainstorm solutions.
Next, I want to briefly talk about Latin America and some of the challenges that groups seem to be encountering there.
1. The region has very little regulation and no jurisdiction security. For example, recently in Brazil, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to completely neglect the definition of the term “cage-free.” For nearly 40 days, producers couldn't sell cage-free eggs.
2. Agricultural industries have a very large and heavy influence on politics.
3. This is due to social inequality and a challenging distribution of land. Producers that can offer cage-free eggs can typically only do so in a certain part of the country. It's really difficult to obtain a commitment that will extend to the entire country.
4. Consumers generally seem to have a poor understanding of farm animal welfare and are disconnected from their food sources.
It's a very challenging environment to be doing this type of work. And it's also quite different from the environment in Asia.
To help drive progress in this region, we have started to give grants to some organizations working in South America. One of those groups, called the Asociación para el rescate y bienestar de los animales (ARBA), is using some of their funds to run awareness-raising campaigns in Peru.
They released a new website with several videos illustrating the difference between caged and cage-free production. This website outlines how 98% of hens in Peru are in cages. It gives consumers the chance to get involved. And it also lists all of the companies in Peru that already have cage-free policies. This strategy of raising awareness, in tandem with corporate outreach and campaigns, seems to be working really well for ARBA.
They've already secured over 22 policies in Peru, with just two staff and a very limited budget. At events like our Latin America summit, they'll have the opportunity to share tactics and lessons learned with the rest of the groups.
Of course, with this work being relatively new in most South American countries, we haven't figured out solutions to every challenge. But our regional coordinator in Latin America recently launched a peer-to-peer mentorship program to provide a space for individuals working within the OWA to share some of the challenges that they're facing and brainstorm solutions together. We're hoping that this program will allow people to come up with new ideas, build bonds and trust between members, and reduce feelings of isolation and burnout that can often come from engaging in difficult work.
One of the people participating in this program recently said, “This program is a brilliant tool to motivate and promote the personal growth of activists inside their organizations and in the broader animal rights movement.”
With so many historic firsts happening in the region, we're excited to connect with more organizations that are interested in working on corporate campaigns in the future, and to help them troubleshoot innovative ideas for tackling some of the barriers that they're facing.
To sum up, OWA groups around the world have created an aligned global strategy to drive progress in this highly neglected cause area. And despite the many challenges of working on a global scale while also encountering regional barriers, groups are making progress in essentially every part of the world.
We attribute our progress to five things:
1. A decentralized coalition that allows for the fostering and spreading of new ideas throughout a larger network
2. Using global momentum to drive progress in challenging areas
3. Supporting regional groups and empowering them to self-organize and launch regional campaigns
4. Adapting approaches based on each country-specific context
5. Remaining nimble and ready to change strategies as needed
I hope that some of these ideas can be meaningfully applied to your movement-building efforts. And I want to quickly mention that you can watch a similar presentation I gave last year at the International Animal Rights Conference, where I shared a lot more case studies and went into more detail.
Thank you so much for listening.
Nathan Labenz (Moderator): Focusing on the coalition structure — because that's really what your talk was about — I’m interested in how similar or different the goals for the different groups may be. I assume some want to go well beyond just banning cages, but maybe some would be content if they could achieve that. How different are the goals across all of these different groups?
Alexandria: That's a really good question. Right now our main focus is on banning cages. However, some groups in European countries have already obtained cage-free commitments from basically every company in their country, and they've now moved on to campaigns that improve the lives of chickens raised for meat, or broiler chickens. The OWA has also expanded to support that type of work. So if groups aren't working on the cage-free goal with the OWA, they're moving onto broiler campaigns.
Nathan: Is that ever a source of tension between groups? There must be divergent goals in terms of what the dream state of the future is for organizations in different places.
Alexandria: Yeah, absolutely. In terms of what their own organizational goals are, that's really up for them to decide. If they want to do additional campaigns outside of OWA work, they're more than welcome to do that. We don't have any kind of control over what organizations want to do at their own level.
But we haven't really seen much tension or disagreement among groups. They're very supportive of one another, and even groups that aren't yet working on broiler campaigns are still able to support those campaigns by putting pressure on the targeted companies from abroad.
Nathan: That's interesting. There’s a question from the audience around communication tools, because you're crossing the “Great Firewall” to some extent. What are the organizational communication tools that you've found to be effective worldwide?
Alexandria: Slack is our main way of staying connected and communicating. We host video calls quite regularly through Zoom. We use apps like Calendly to schedule meetings across time zones without having that confusion of “What time is it for you?” Those are probably the main tools that we’re currently using.
Nathan: Here’s another audience question about operating in different contexts. You mentioned that some countries are more democratic and open to public demonstrations than others. Tell us a little bit more about how that plays out in practice across these different contexts, and what you’ve found to be effective, especially in some of the harder-to-reach places.
Alexandria: In places like Japan, where we have a Humane League office, we’ve had a lot of success by going to meetings with companies, having a dialogue with them, and explaining how the global cage-free movement is going to come to their country at some point — no matter what. It's better for them to get ahead of the curve and adopt these policies now, instead of scrambling at the last minute as the rest of the world changes. That works well.
Also, to get companies that operate globally to make these commitments in parts of the world that are more challenging, we run pressure campaigns.
Nathan: What about following through and the concept of ‘trust but verify’? Are people actually going to chicken farms in China and checking to see what is actually happening on the ground? I imagine that could be pretty challenging in places like Argentina, too. So how does that work in different parts of the world?
Alexandria: Good question. What we've started to do is require company commitments to include progress updates. There are websites like EggTrack that track the company's progress toward their commitment. We put the burden on them to publicly share the percentage of eggs coming from cage-free hens versus caged hens. And luckily, we are starting to see a lot of companies report on their progress.
Nathan: That's awesome. Unfortunately, we’re out of time. But thank you very much.
Alexandria: Thank you.