Never Say Never: Why I’m Against Boycotting Non-Vegan Businesses That Offer Vegan Options (and a Few Cases When I’m For It)

When it comes to spending money at non-vegan businesses, the vegan community seems to be divided on whether or not those businesses are worth supporting. To clarify my point, I’m talking about restaurants, stores, and companies that are not vegan overall but list vegan-friendly options as a part of their menu or product offering. Every now and then some of these companiesA case against boycotting non-vegan restaurants and businesses for vegans get called out for selling something  made with a certain degree of cruelty, and various animal welfare organizations plea the average vegan shoppers like you and me to boycott them.

Overall, I agree that the calls for boycotting can be beneficial: even if a store or a restaurant doesn’t lose all of its business, the outcry of animal rights advocates raises awareness about the cruelty that animals in food supply chains of those businesses have to go through. There are plenty of success stories too: The Humane League has petitioned the Subway restaurant franchise to demand better life conditions for its chickens, and Subway recently obliged. Walmart has agreed to sell cage-free eggs only at their stores in the US and a number of other countries after another campaign by The Humane League (at the same time, they are remaining deaf to hear the pleas to do the same in Mexico). You can see other successful campaign results on The Humane League website.

However, I do believe that sometimes boycotting a non-vegan business that otherwise is willing to accommodate vegans can be impractical for a lot of people, or even counterproductive for the vegan cause. I know that expressing this opinion may make me less than popular in some vegan circles. But before you scoff and move away from this article, please hear me out.

5 Reasons Why I Won’t Be Boycotting Non-Vegan Businesses

1. They may be the only option for vegans in some situations. For vegans who have lived in vegan-friendly meccas like Seattle, Los Angeles, or New York, traveling through the Deep South or the rural Midwest will provide a sobering experience once all of the vegan snacks brought along have been depleted. A situation like this will make anyone develop a new level of appreciation for a Subway veggie sandwich or a Taco Bell fresco bean burrito.

2. The opportunity to boycott non-vegan businesses is sometimes an example of privilege. Not everyone can just move on to shopping at another grocery store for a variety of reasons. When I first moved to the US eleven years ago, I lived in a small Florida town, didn’t have a car, and worked minimum-wage jobs, sometimes two at a time. Doing my weekly grocery shopping called upon some major feats of strength and patience. On my days off, I walked 45 minutes to a Walmart – the only grocery store that was within walking distance (I was surprised to find out later that most of my American friends considered ‘walking distance’ to be reachable within 10 minutes or less). I bought my groceries, and then carried them back the same way, stopping every now and then when the bags started feeling too heavy, and fighting off sketchy individuals yelling at me from their cars. Sometimes I waited for a bus, which stopped about ten minutes away from my house on the way back – bring on more heavy lifting 🙂

I was not vegan then, neither was I aware of various animal welfare violations that Walmart is regularly accused of, but for me at that moment it was the only readily accessible and fairly affordable grocery store option to buy food. Had I been vegan then, I would have felt trapped by my willingness to help animals yet being unable, both financially and logistically, to just start buying groceries elsewhere. My situation has since improved, but I will never forget those days. Nor will I ever look down on people (vegan or not) for whom shopping at stores like Walmart is the only affordable and accessible option.

3. By buying vegan products or ordering veganized food options at these businesses, we prove that the demand for vegan options is strong. Case in point: Ben & Jerry’s made national headlines when they launched their non-dairy ice cream line in 2016. While the vegan community is still divided on whether or not spending money on Ben & Jerry’s is morally right (the bulk of their profits still comes from dairy-based ice cream – cue in the unethical treatment of dairy cows and their children), the demand for their non-dairy ice cream grew so strong that in 2017 they’ve added three more flavors to their original offering! Other non-vegan ice cream lines are jumping on the dairy-free bandwagon, with Breyers adding two new flavors, and a petition aimed at Häagen-Dazs  making its rounds online.

4. There’s an opportunity to start a conversation about veganism. Ever had a grocery store cashier ask you why you’re buying so many veggies, or another shopper ask you about what you’ll be doing with that tofu? When we normalize veganism in the eyes of non-vegans by providing a real-life example of what being vegan looks like, we take the cause a step further!

5. Non-vegan restaurants with vegan menu options provide for a smoother socializing experience. Yes, in a perfect world I’d love for all of my friends and family members to go to all-vegan restaurants exclusively when we decide to go out together. To tell the truth, this has happened many times for me, but I realize not everybody is that lucky. A lot of vegans still live in areas where the nearest all-vegan restaurant is hundreds of miles away. This is why non-vegan places with vegan menu options are so valuable. Even if it’s just a plain baked potato and a side salad, you still get to avoid being cast as an outsider who wouldn’t go out with their friends and family anymore since they went vegan.

Of course, it’s completely up to you to decide if you want to boycott non-vegan businesses or not. The world is still very non-vegan, unfortunately, so, as I like to say, all we can do is the best we can do. After all, the definition of veganism coined by Donald Watson 1944, goes like this:

“The word “veganism” denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.”

However, there are situations when I believe that avoiding a business or a product is best out of moral considerations. I use these questions to form my judgement about such cases:

  1. Does this business has a known history of abusing humans or animals?
  2. Has this business been addressed by animal or human rights organizations with pleas to stop the cruel practices, yet the abuse continues to this day?
  3. If I (or less privileged folks) stop buying products or services by this business, can we all survive just fine?

Based on the answers to these questions, I decided to give a boot to a few places or products – I’ll call them…

…Businesses and Products Worth Boycotting Anyway!

Not all of these consider vegans a potential category of paying customers, but their products or services can be appealing to some vegans who are unaware of the shady practices these companies may be engaging in.

– Driscoll Berries: abuse of farm workers on farms supplying to Driscolls has been documented in Washington State where I live, and in San Quintin Valley in Mexico. Workers are often paid beyond minimum wage with no paid overtime, and live in dismal conditions with few opportunities for themselves or their children. (In fact, a lot of produce workers – even on organic farms – experience unfair treatment.) Also, I think we can all survive just fine if we don’t eat berries.

– Chocolate grown in West Africa: the region is notorious for its exploitation of child slave labor in cacao bean farming industry. Unfortunately, most of the chocolate sold in the world comes from this region. Food Empowerment Project has been doing lots of work to bring awareness to this issue, advocating companies and chocolate lovers like you and me to stop buying this ‘bloody’ chocolate. They’ve put together a useful list of chocolate manufacturers who do or don’t buy their cacao beans from West Africa – you can even download it as an app to always have on hand.

– SeaWorld: by now I’m sure you’ve heard about the sad conditions that SeaWorld provides for their beautiful orcas, a.k.a. killer whales. Here in Seattle-Puget Sound area where I live, a lot of those orcas were originally trapped, so we get a reminder about this injustice all the time. Plus, I’m sure that we all can still live a great life if we never step inside of a SeaWorld.

– Wine companies: in addition to the use of animal-derived components during the wine making process (which automatically makes that wine non-vegan), a lot of wine companies provide poor work conditions for their workers, who, just like in the case of Driscoll farmers, are often seasonal migrants coming from less privileged countries. From my own experience, I know that it’s way easier for abusers to get away with mistreatment of people with barely legal (or illegal) status. Once again, the Food Empowerment Project is working on making a list of wine manufacturers who treat their workers fairly AND use all-vegan ingredients – you can find it here. Note that very few US-based companies have made it on this list so far…

Anyway, this is not an easy subject, and learning more about it can make you feel like you’re losing whatever is left of your faith in humanity. BUT! I think it’s still important to know these things and spread the word about them – because if we continue looking the other way, things will never get better.

Question for you: What’s your opinion on boycotting non-vegan businesses? When is it fair to do so, and when do you think it is counterproductive? Also, what can we all do to be better in our choices?

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About Alina

Alina first made a switch to a vegan diet in 2013 to optimize her athletic performance as a marathon runner. Being vegan eventually opened her eyes on the issues of animal welfare, environmental protection, human rights and feminism. Alina hopes that her blog will help its readers on their path to making this world a better place.
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6 Responses to Never Say Never: Why I’m Against Boycotting Non-Vegan Businesses That Offer Vegan Options (and a Few Cases When I’m For It)

  1. Mary Ross says:

    My feeling is that if a non-vegan company makes a vegan product, we should buy their vegan product. If enough people buy the vegan product while bypassing the non-vegan products, the company will see an uptick in vegan demand. However, extra emphasis can be applied by boycotting the non-vegan product and praising the vegan product.

  2. Suzy says:

    Gee Alina, I expected a lot more comments here! Here’s my two-cent’s worth. First let me say, I’m not a full vegan. I’m darn close but that’s due primarily to health reasons, and not necessarily the philosophical reason. That said though, I buy vegan, organic, and local as much as I am able. By virtue of these purchases, I am boycotting, let’s say, the full-fat dairy ice cream that I didn’t purchase. I think it is easier to think of it more as “voting with your wallet.” Business runs on supply and demand. As the demand for vegan increases (as Ben & Jerry’s saw), companies will start to realize they also must get on board to stay competitive and successful. I found it interesting that B&J’s non-dairy ice “cream” doesn’t contain the word “vegan” anywhere on the label. When I called them and asked why, they danced around and just kept “assuring” me that it was a fully vegan product. Did they think the word would be off-putting? I never got a good answer.

    My point is that we don’t have to take up arms and “boycott.” When we make choices, whether food, auto, local, etc., we are giving the competition a heads-up. You want my business? Maybe offer these choices.

    Happy Summer!

    • Alina says:

      Suzy, thank you for your comment! You’re right, I hoped to hear more opinions on this post too, but for some reason people don’t like commenting on my blog 🙁 But anyway, I agree with the idea of ‘voting with your wallet’. That rings particularly true for people like yourself who may not be 100% vegan but choose to prioritize buying vegan-friendly products instead of conventional.

      I’ve heard a theory that for some businesses, using the word ‘vegan’ on their products, menus, etc. may be equal to a death sentence, especially if they aren’t already well-established on the vegan market, or if there isn’t a big vegan community in the area where that business is located. I have a friend who’s been vegetarian, then vegan for more than 30 years, and she’s been talking about opening a vegan restaurant in our rural Washington state area, but she says that she would not put the word ‘vegan’ anywhere in the restaurant name or on the menu for that reason. Whichever way a business prefers to go, if it provides plenty of vegan-friendly products, it’s already a win in my book.

  3. Sandy says:

    I loved this post, Alina. You share the same feelings that I have held for many years. I’m sorry I did not comment earlier, but life sometimes interferes with my intentions to move quickly. Therefore, I kept your email in my inbox to remind me to reply. I have never been a confrontational person and prefer to quietly go about my vegan life. I often gently encourage a vegan lifestyle if I am asked for my opinion. Boycotting non-vegan businesses is sometimes ill advised for the very reasons you stated. I show support for vegan options with my purchasing choices. Thank you for your terrific post. I hope you will continue to blog for those of us who enjoy reading your posts. I have printed out and frequently use many of your recipes. Thank you so much!

    • Alina says:

      Sandy, thank you so much for your comment! It really means a lot to me that you keep coming back to my blog and reading my posts. Sometimes I feel like people care less and less about this site no matter what topics I raise, no matter what content I post. The feedback has been on the decline for a while, and I even ask myself if it’s worth keeping this up. But every now and then somebody would stumble upon my site and find exactly what they were looking for, and let me know how glad they are to find it in a comment or an email, and it just makes my day! 🙂 I guess there is a reason in posting on this site after all.

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