There has been much debate over McDonald’s’ introduction of a vegan burger trial in Finland. I have seen lots of different opinions shared about the possible positive and negative results of this development shared online, so I thought I would try to summarise and clarify them here, then come to a conclusion on the issue. As ever, my priority is the total effect on animal suffering, so I have phrased the argument in these terms, although I recognise that other animal advocates may have slightly differing priorities.
Reasons that this change might increase animal suffering:
1) McDonald’s is a company which is involved in animal suffering on a massive scale and so supporting it financially, in any way, might lead to further animal suffering.
As well as personal discomfort from supporting such a company, there is the potential for animal suffering to be increased. If the company makes profit through the sale of its vegan products, it would likely reinvest a substantial proportion of this profit. This might, in theory, lead to the total number of products being sold by McDonald’s increasing, if it enables them to open new stores.
In spite of declining net income, the number of total worldwide restaurants has been growing from 2012 to 2016, from 34,480 up to 36,899, according to their 2016 Annual Report (p. 12) and stock prices have also been rising (p. 11). They also note the threat that “if we do not anticipate and address evolving consumer preferences, our business could suffer” (p. 4). The McVegan burger seems to be part of an attempt to prevent this threat from becoming a reality, in the light of the growing popularity of veganism, and it may therefore help to support the continuation of McDonald’s’ growth. There is a chance that not supporting McDonald’s might contribute in some way to this threat becoming a reality for McDonald’s, and so a decrease in their overall market share.
In newly opened stores, animal products would still be served, and the welfare of the animals raised and killed for McDonald’s products might be worse than the equivalent welfare of the alternative businesses whose customers McDonald’s would be taking. Note, however, that in spite of stories of notable welfare abuses (such as that noted by PETA here) Tobias Leenaert has argued here that McDonald’s isn’t as bad as you might think (from an animal welfare perspective) and is mainly only an especially bad company as a symbol of the problems of capitalism itself.
Whilst selling lots of McVegan burgers might lead to a total increase in McDonald’s meals being produced and sold, it seems unlikely to me that this would lead to a significant increase in non-vegan meals being sold by McDonald’s. It seems more likely that the product’s success would lead to a roll out of the McVegan, or even to further vegan products being launched and promoted and hence to a higher proportion of McDonald’s product sales being vegan products (see the later section on this).
2) Support for the McVegan burger might improve McDonald’s’ public perception, leading to overall increase in their sales
This might lead in turn to a total increase in their sales of non-vegan products, as well as of their vegan products, which is described more fully in the section above. This seems especially plausible if it starts being seen as an acceptable location for mixed groups of non-vegans and vegans to go, when McDonald’s might otherwise have been avoided. Most of the caveats and wider concerns mentioned in the point above apply here too, however.
3) McDonalds might create a vegan product which isn’t very nice and actually puts people off vegan food
I am perhaps most concerned by this risk. Some bad products can certainly give vegan food (or any type of product) a bad name. I remember when I first went vegan, I bought the first brand of vegan cheese that I found in Holland and Barrett. I tasted it and decided it was disgusting, and assumed that all vegan cheese was similarly disgusting and that I wouldn’t ever get it again – it wasn’t until I had Violife on a vegan pizza from a restaurant that I realised I had generalised unfairly. I also personally think that the gooey vegan cheese on Zizi’s vegan pizza is disgusting. I can imagine more adventurous non-vegans trying out these sorts of products and assuming that all vegan pizzas, or all vegan cheeses, or all vegan burgers, or even all vegan food products, were unpleasant, and therefore never buying them again.
4) McDonald’s might attract business away from “better” companies selling vegan products
McDonald’s is presumably testing this product because they see an opportunity in vegan fast food as a growing industry. If, however, they attract business from people who are already buying vegan fast food (as opposed to their current customers simply switching from animal products to their vegan products), then this would lead to a decrease in support for “better” businesses, such as chains which sell exclusively vegan products. So for example, people might give up going to Temple of Seitan, because they can go to McDonald’s instead. Although this would have no immediate, direct impact on animal suffering – people would be buying vegan products either way – it might reduce innovation, or discourage small businesses from entering the market, who might otherwise have further popularised veganism and made it even more accessible, convenient and appealing. This is a risk, but it seems likely to have only a very small and indirect effect on animal suffering. It is also likely to be counteracted by the fact that in the long-run, products like this will probably help to encourage demand for vegan products overall.
Reasons that this change might lead to a decrease in animal suffering.
1) Any increased availability of vegan products (especially popular products) would make it easier for non-vegans to try out veganism and for vegans to stay vegan.
If the McVegan burger becomes widespread, it makes it that little bit easier for people to try out vegan products, and even to try going fully vegan. Granted, this one product alone is unlikely to be the instrumental change that convinces anyone to go vegan overnight, but as part of a wider process of the increasing availability of vegan products, this sort of product might make veganism seem less difficult – like less of a sacrifice – meaning that more people will go vegan. Tobias Leenaert has argued more widely about the benefits of this point in his chapter “Environment: Making Things Easier” (pp. 81-112) of his book How to Create a Vegan World, which you can read my review of here. He remarks, for example, that “creating a facilitating environment is a means of bypassing the need for an individual to be highly motivated. By tweaking the environment… it’s possible to make it easy to do good.” (Leenaert, 2017, p. 110).
Related to this is the fact that many vegetarians and vegans abandon their diet at some point – Faunalytics’ 2014 study in the USA suggested that the figure was 84%! It is therefore also important that vegan products are widely available to make it easier and more appealing for people to stay vegan, as this will ensure that they do not return to eating animal products. Furthermore, this would help to avoid the risk that, as Jaime Hecht notes here, “if we continue to see members going in and out of the practice, we run the risk of alienating potential vegetarians as they may begin to view it as difficult or impractical to sustain”.
2) Any increased availability of vegan products would make it easier for non-vegans to reduce their overall consumption of animal products.
It is very likely that on individual occasions, non-vegans would buy the McVegan burger instead of an animal product. As these sorts of decisions happen lots of times, this would reduce overall demand for animal products. Being less invested in the use of animals would also likely make them more amenable to further change for animal rights in the future.
There is a wider debate about whether we should be focusing on explicitly advocating for veganism or reducetarianism (see Sentience Institute’s summary of that debate here), but however you believe animal advocates should most effectively use their time, this is a for-profit company freely promoting both reducetarianism (unintentionally) and veganism (explicitly in the name of the product) .
3) If the product is successful, it could take over a (hopefully increasing) proportion of McDonald’s’ sales and business.
This would lead to an increase in their sale of vegan products, and most likely a decrease in their sale of animal products.
There is a chance that this might not occur if McDonald’s increasing proportion of sales of products which were vegan simply masked an increase in total sales and output, i.e. whilst there were more vegan products being sold, there was very little effect on the number of animal products being sold. Even then, however, this would probably only come if McDonald’s substantially increased their share of the fast food market. This would presumably then be taking business away from other fast-food businesses (rather than increasing the total amount of fast-food bought), which again, probably, wouldn’t be vegan businesses. This would therefore still lead to a reduction in the total number of animal products being sold, unless the McDonald’s vegan products expanded at the expense of vegan fast food restaurants, as considered above.
(Note: that for the most part, this is the same effect as described in advantage 1, detailed above, but considered from a different perspective, and should therefore not be counted twice).
Potential responses to the change:
1) Encourage vegans to boycott the product
Since vegan consumers would probably make up a decent proportion of their customers for the product (or at least the initial customers – the “innovators” and “early adopters”), this might succeed in preventing the product being rolled out fully, especially if it generated wider negative publicity. This would, however, only be a good course to take if we were convinced that the product was going to increase the amounts of animal suffering in the long-term. And even if we did believe this, it seems incredibly unlikely to me that this would be a good use of the time, effort and resources of vegans (or especially of campaigning organisations).
2) Personally avoid the product, but not promote a public campaign or boycott either
This more moderate option might mean that individuals still supported other vegan food options from “better companies” like small vegan companies as much as they had done prior to the introduction of McDonald’s vegan products. This also wouldn’t do as much damage as a boycott would to the ability of omnivores to try the products out. It would, however, slow the growth of the product (or make it less likely that the trial would be rolled out across other stores), which would in turn reduce how widely available it was to curious omnivores.
3) As above, but actively promote the product to non-vegans, whilst simultaneously discouraging vegans from consuming the product
This approach might enable us to minimise the risks, whilst still encourage some of the benefits.
4) Consume, enjoy and promote the product widely
This would encourage the likelihood of all of the above benefits occurring, but also the likelihood of the risks coming to fruition.
Without further evidence to suggest that the long-run effects would be either significantly positive or significantly negative, this seems to me something that is not worth significant amounts of attention and effort from effective animal advocates. The negative consequences are possibilities, but seem likely to be at least balanced out by the positive effects. My instinct suggests that overall, the benefits are likely to be far more significant than the risks noted here.
I would therefore conclusively rule out the suggestion of a boycott as an appropriate response. Even if the McVegan burger were to contribute to a slight increase in animal suffering overall, there would be far more effective and useful targets for our campaigning and advocacy efforts. As one example, these efforts could be redirected towards corporate campaigning that would result in welfare improvements for animals, as carried out by groups like The Humane League, Mercy For Animals, and Compassion in World Farming.
On the other hand, without further evidence, the likely positive benefits do not so clearly outweigh the potential negative consequences to suggest that we should dedicate any significant amount of time or effort to actively promoting the product.
My personal response will therefore be closest to my 3rd listed possible response; I won’t be rushing out to buy it as much as possible, in order to carry on supporting vegan businesses, but I probably won’t make significant effort to avoid it either. I certainly would encourage non-vegans to try it out, if the right opportunity presented itself!
This reflection has focused explicitly on the new McVegan burger being tested in Finland. These arguments would mostly apply much more widely, however. Several fast food restaurants are testing out vegan products, including a trial of vegan cheese in Pizza Hut in certain stores; many of these companies, like McDonald’s, sell mostly animal-based foods, and most usually prioritise lower costs and prices over higher animal welfare. In a slightly different instance, Ben and Jerry’s, which is owned by Unilever has released a vegan ice cream, but since Unilever tests on animals, many have suggested a boycott of these new products. Although each of these cases has slightly different nuances, the broad arguments are similar, and my conclusion would probably be similar.
Where I most strongly oppose boycott tactics is where they are used against companies whose products are all, or nearly all, vegan. A notable example of a proposed boycott like this has been against Rude Health, for their online support of full-fat milk. My reasoning for this is similar to the above, except that these companies are mostly doing good, and that publicly undermining them for being good but not perfect seems especially counter-productive. In these cases, it may be reasonable to privately contact them to support change, but a boycott would certainly not be appropriate. It is also hypocritical, as I doubt that (m)any vegans boycott all companies that promote animal products in any way – this would leave us without any supermarkets to use, for example. Leenaert has written more fully on this topic in his book (pp. 81-112) and on this post.