When will animal cruelty go out of fashion?
By Prof. Dr Wayne Visser
Dr Wayne Visser is Professor of Integrated Value and holds the Chair in Sustainable Transformation at Antwerp Management School. He is also Fellow at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
Every year, more than 150 billion animals are slaughtered, ending their extremely short lives having endured unspeakable suffering under barbaric factory-farming conditions, to satisfy insatiable human appetites for food and clothing. I am undeniably dismayed by this situation, but I am certainly not surprised. We have been killing animals to eat and stay warm (or fashionable) for thousands, perhaps even millions of years.
What I do find surprising, however, especially as an academic working on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development for the past three decades, is how seldom animal rights makes it onto the ethical agendas of business, government and civil society. In this short reflective piece, I want to examine why this is – and more importantly, why the situation is now rapidly changing, happily for the better.
To begin, then, what are the reasons for our ethical blind-spot when it comes to animal welfare? There are a number of plausible explanations. First, some might wonder whether there is an ethical issue at all. They might still believe – often in line with their religious dogmas – that animals were placed on this earth solely for our exploitation. Therefore, it is our right to breed them and treat them and eat them how and when we like.
Then there is the widely held belief that animals are inferior in every way to humans and do not have intelligence, feel emotions, experience suffering, or need to enjoy a good quality of life, as we do. In fact, this has been thoroughly disproved by science – especially in the case of mammals, and even for birds and fish – but that doesn’t change the convenient and pervasive belief.
Another argument is that it is far more urgent and important to take care of human suffering by tackling poverty and human rights abuses. Not to mention other crises as well, like climate change and political corruption and economic growth. The unspoken needs of animals are simply too far down the list of critical priorities. And nowadays, livestock are killed quickly and ‘humanely’, so what’s the fuss anyway?
Of course, not everyone has such a cold-hearted, callous, self-serving perspective. For over 50 years, activists have been trying to bring the plight of animals to the public’s attention. Beauty Without Cruelty, for example, was founded in 1965. And Greenpeace launched in 1970 to stop the barbarism of commercial whaling and seal culling. But these have remained marginal voices for decades, until today.
Today, animal welfare is rising up the public agenda almost by accident, due to a series of unfortunate events. In the past few years, human-induced climate change has been established as a scientific fact and serious global crisis (accepted by all but the most ignorant, narcissistic and sociopathic among us). And as a result, the spotlight has started to shine brightly on the agricultural sector in general and the livestock industry in particular.
Overall, agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of total land use and 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions; and within these numbers, the footprint of meat and dairy production is particularly high. The broader food industry accounts for more than a quarter (26%) of climate-causing greenhouse gas emissions, which is higher than transportation, for example.
And it turns out that diets make a big difference. In fact, according the Project Drawdown, which studied and ranked the top 100 solutions to climate change, switching to a more plant-based diet is the fourth-most effective action we can take right now. An Oxford University study found that a switch to veganism by 2050 could cut emissions by 70%, while saving eight million lives and trillions of dollars in healthcare costs.
To make this impact more concrete, if you were to eat beef 3-5 times a week, you would create a carbon footprint of 1,611 kg per year, which is the equivalent of driving a regular petrol car 4,112 miles (6,618 km), or heating the average UK home for 255 days. By comparison, eating beans once a day creates a carbon footprint of 20 kg per year, the same as driving 53 miles (86 km) or heating the average UK home for 3 days.
This is one of the reasons why veganism has taken off in the past few years. Growth in the UK has exceeded 700% in the past 2 years and now accounts for 7% of the population, while in the US, it has grown 600%, from 1% in 2014 to 6% in 2017. And since veganism is not just a dietary choice but also a lifestyle choice – based on not harming animals or using animal products – this has had knock-on effects for the fashion industry as well.
For example, we now see an explosion of the global faux leather market, which is set to hit $85 billion by 2025, according to a 2017 report by Grand View Research (GVR). Similarly, there has been a 135% growth in vegan cosmetics since 2013, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD). Meanwhile, vegan fashion brands like Steinmetz, Jakke, Ministry of Tomorrow, Cult Gaia and Marais USA are booming.
Donning my (pineapple-leather) academic hat, I foresee a rapid uptake of animal cruelty-free and vegan textiles in the next 2-5 years, as part of CSR and sustainability programs in business. This applies not only to the fashion industry, but to companies from every sector that consume billions of items of workwear – from uniforms and high-visibility jackets to suits and health-and-safety shoes.
To conclude on a personal note, as someone who made the choice to be vegetarian more than 30 years ago and to be vegan just over 2 years ago – in both instances primarily driven by a concern for animal welfare – I can only say that the change cannot come too soon. Animal cruelty must go out of fashion, fast! There are billions of sentient creatures who share the web of life on this beautiful planet. Our survival may not depend on them, but our dignity and humanity does.