Voting with Our Dollars for Chipotle

Vote with your dollars.  That’s the message Mike Levy, my tenth grade history and ethics teacher, delivered to Moorestown Friends School’s graduating class in 2004 (the same year 34justice author Jon Zaid delivered a convincing anti-war speech to that same class).  That idea – that I send a loud message with my decisions as a consumer – has grown more and more compelling to me over the past ten years.  When I boycott companies for their horrible labor practices (like Walmart) or anti-gay attitudes (like Exxondespite their improvement a few days ago), use my Working Assets credit card or CREDO Mobile cell phone plan, or transfer my money out of major banks and into my credit union, I’m exercising some political power.

Advocating that people vote with their dollars supports a consumerism-driven society, which I find somewhat problematic.  And most items I purchase and the services I use, even the ones mentioned above, still have plenty of hidden costs along the production line – it’s virtually impossible to buy ethical gasoline, for example.  I am currently unwilling, however, to forego modern civilization to live an entirely ethical life, and I doubt I’d make much headway suggesting that we all sell our belongings and return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  At the same time, the more we consider the social, environmental, economic, and political costs associated with the items we buy, the better off the world will be.

Food has been a primary focus of my monetary votes since I took a nutrition class with Clyde Wilson during my junior year at Stanford, but I was initially more concerned with health than anything else.  Wilson convinced me to drastically increase my consumption of salads before meals, cut out every drink other than water (and the occasional alcoholic beverage) from my diet, and to dramatically reduce my intake of white carbohydrates.  I also began to order a CSA box from Albert & Eve Organics once I graduated.  It was not until reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, though, that I thought deeply about the political significance of our food consumption.  Michael Pollan, the book’s author, completely revolutionized my perception of both health and the social impact of our food choices.

Pollan beautifully summarizes the differences between typical industrial factory farms, industrial organic operations, local farms, truly sustainable farms, and wild foods.  He demonstrates how, when we eat processed packaged goods or most conventionally produced meat, we harm farmworkers, the environment, and our bodies in one fell swoop.  Pollan’s research on and ideas about food deserve considerably more attention than I will give them in this post, but an overview can help explain the impact of the gains he notes for food movements.  The industrial organic movement, for all its flaws, has grown into a multi-billion dollar a year industry largely on the backs of people voting with their dollars.  Consumer purchasing decisions have driven a food culture where many food companies (in the Bay Area, at least) attempt to portray themselves as pioneers at the cutting edge of the “slow food” movement.

The question, of course, is whether these companies truly outrank their competitors on food morality or merely want to hoodwink us into casting our financial votes in their favor.  David Sirota’s article on Chipotle’s new scarecrow ad (see below) caused me to reflect on this question as it pertains to Chipotle.

Sirota, one of my favorite columnists, argues that the ad misleads because it juxtaposes factory farming with vegetarianism instead of contrasting typical industrialized meat with meat from more sustainable sources.  Since most Chipotle eaters consume meat in their burritos, Sirota’s critique has some merit.  He does give Chipotle some credit, writing that he’s “actually psyched that there’s at least one major fast-food company willing to publicly rail against factory farming methods” and noting that Chipotle recently introduced sofritas, a vegan alternative, on their menu (for the record, sofritas are really freaking good).  But despite the ad’s problematic qualities and Sirota’s acknowledgements of some Chipotle positives, I think Chipotle gets an unfair shake in Sirota’s article.  The company is pretty revolutionary in terms of fast food and monetary votes for Chipotle can help support significant social change.

Full disclosure: I love Chipotle burritos.  I started eating them once a week during my sophomore year of college and probably still come close to that frequency of consumption.  Their deliciousness contributed to my New Year’s Resolution this year to only eat meat that meets, at a bare minimum, the sustainability standards Chipotle sets.  After doing some more research, however, I feel justified in having set that bar.

Though Chipotle’s ad is misleading, it does significantly more good than harm.  The difference between the food most people eat every day and Chipotle’s food is many, many times greater on nearly all the metrics Sirota lists – carbon emissions, energy supplies, water resources, and health – than the difference between Chipotle’s meat and vegetarian options.  Yes, Chipotle’s food is closer to the normal fare from the “Big Organic” industry than the food which one could eat at a truly sustainable farm, but I’d argue, based on everything Pollan brilliantly documents in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the typical vegetarian’s diet does worse on these metrics than a diet which focuses on sustainability across the board and includes meat.  Two of the articles Sirota cites to claim the virtues of vegetarianism conflate meat eating in general with the majority of meat eating done in the United States, while the two others provide indirect support for my argument above.  Pollan also makes a strong argument that eating animals that live happy, free lives is completely acceptable from a moral perspective.  While I am fairly certain more people would be vegetarians if they followed Pollan’s lead and reflected on meat-eating by participating in the slaughter of animals raised on sustainable farms, I don’t think it’s Chipotle’s job to subject people to that imagery.  What Chipotle should have done in their ad, in my opinion, is shown some Niman Ranch pigs rooting around happily before having the scarecrow serve a carnitas burrito.  That would have been more honest.  But while Sirota deserves props for his commitment to vegetarianism, there isn’t a ton of difference from a social, environmental, or ethical perspective between that decision and the decision to eat sustainable meat.  If Chipotle’s ad drives people towards better meat options, that benefits us far more than the ad’s omission of the pigs hurts society.

I also think it’s important to give Chipotle credit for pursuing profit and ethics simultaneously.  Sirota contends Chipotle’s intentions are about profit alone, but as Elizabeth Weiss’s excellent New Yorker article on Chipotle makes clear, the company’s commitment to continuously improving the ethics of its food sourcing has been around for 12 years, much more time than the “slow food” movement has been a breadwinner for restaurants.  A lot of companies toss around claims about “all-natural” and “grass-fed” food with little indication about what these words actually mean, but Chipotle clearly defines the standards they impose on suppliers for their pork and indicate where they’d like to go for beef, dairy cattle, and chicken.  When a restaurant can’t source enough meat at Chipotle’s standards and must resort to conventional suppliers, the restaurant sticks a large sign explaining this issue at the front of their burrito line.  The sign is impossible to miss.  I know Chipotle has this practice not just because their communications director told the New Yorker about it, but also because I’ve been to a Chipotle displaying one of these signs in the middle of a chicken shortage.  Sirota mentions his belief that Chipotle “is interested in seeming vegetarian without actually being vegetarian,” driven in part by Chipotle’s failure, before 2011, to note on in-store menus that their pinto beans are made with bacon.  While it’s no consolation to Jews who unwittingly ate pig prior to that year, it’s worth noting that Chipotle mentioned the recipe on their website, always informed anyone who ordered a vegetarian burrito that the beans weren’t vegetarian, and issued a “razor quick” response and added a note on their in-store menus immediately after they were made aware of the problem.

Chipotle is far from perfect.  It took the company way too long to sign onto the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, a program intended to guarantee some basic rights for farmworkers.  There’s not a great excuse for the pinto bean oversight and the scarecrow ad should probably have shown some antibiotic-free animals.  In the context of ethical food production in the United States, however, Chipotle is towards the top.  In terms of widely available fast food, there isn’t a single company with food ethics remotely close to Chipotle’s.  And if the company’s past is any indication, Chipotle’s future will feature continued improvement.  I therefore can confidently cast my monetary votes for Chipotle and I hope you feel comfortable doing so as well.  Eating a Chipotle burrito is an incredibly delicious and easy way to “cultivate a better world.”

Update (7/14/14): For a Chipotle ad that contrasts factory farming with Chipotle-style meat production, see below:


Filed under Food

11 responses to “Voting with Our Dollars for Chipotle

  1. Nita Spielberg

    I love your idealism–and your suggestions are well taken, especially in regards to food, have been trying to go only to Farmer’s Markets this summer/fall. But will look into more options for winter. Thanks Ben! Maybe I’ll pick up a lunch from Chipolte tomorrow for work! Love, Mommy

  2. Well said, Ben; thank you.

    Yes, much of what is marketed as “food” is not, and that which is food is often acquired with, well, evil. The best definition of “evil” I’ve found: a preference for one’s own material benefit over the well being of others. Exploitation of workers and cruelty to animals are real, and allowed by government “leadership.”

    Although this initial opening to embrace “the real world” is disturbing, the only apparent options are intellectual integrity with moral courage to have the facts, or to submit in willful stupidity and fear to, well, literally eat shit and die.

    On the other side of this breakthrough to live in reality is extraordinary freedom to commit to, and champion, the possibility for all Earth’s inhabitants to live free from vicious control of “leadership” in oligarchies in government, economics, and corporate media.

    As former IMF Chief Economist, current MIT professor, and two-time best-selling author Simon Johnson puts it, “We can’t get anyone to debate us on the facts because we have all the facts on our side. The only thing they have is money.”

    Oh, and “food for thought,” so to speak: can we safely imagine that corporate media published “history” will only and always exclude facts that will awaken the 99% to our condition of controlled servitude to self-proclaimed “masters” who feed us shit (in so many ways), and seem to treat us as much as they can get away with in the same care as corporate farm animals?

    Disturbing, yes. And the facts will always speak for themselves, when we can get them and have the courage to embrace them.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Carl. Do you have any recommendations on other ethically-minded places to eat out in the Bay Area?

  4. Moorestown, NJ

    Hi Ben, I hope you and your family are all doing well. Please say hello to them for me. And…thank you for this thoughtful piece. I, for one, will benefit from your practical suggestions about how to realistically balance food choices and social conscience….. not always easy, but always necessary. Take care. Lynn Paolantonio

  5. Ben, you laid out how it is nice when moral values (ethical treatment of animals, locally sourced food, workers rights, etc.) are aligned with profit-motive in the case of Chipotle, but what about when they aren’t?

    I actually ate at Chipotle a fair amount when I lived by it, but I noticed over the years that the price has certainly gone up (as with the price of just about everything else) and it costs upwards of $9 for a burrito now. That said, how can a family of 4 justify spending around $35 for a meal at Chipotle when they can get one for nearly half that at McDonald’s or even Walmart? It’s not as if the bigger Chipotle gets the cheaper the prices will be. Doesn’t this just create a healthier middle to upper class, and keep those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale eating a nutritionally deficient diet?

    In California all I heard was “buy local, eat local”, but accessibility does not equal affordability. How do you reconcile the fact that even produce (yes produce) is considerably more expensive when purchased from farmer’s markets, yet urge poor people to make smarter (i.e. more expensive) food choices? As for my speech in 2004, I could have sworn it was pro-war…

  6. If I’m wrong on your war speech, I’ll post a correction – it’s certainly possible I’m remembering incorrectly (though if that’s the case, can you send me a copy? I’m very surprised to hear that it might have been pro-war.).

    On your affordability comments, I have a four-part response. The first and least important part is that Chipotle burritos only cost close to $9 if you’re getting them with guacamole (from a taste and health perspective, definitely worth it for me) in a high cost-of-living area. But buy the typical Chipotle burrito in San Jose and drink water and you pay $6.75 max. Buy an extra value meal at McDonalds and, if the prices at are correct, the least you’ll spend is $5.39 (yes, you could get a small fries and McChicken sandwich for $2.19, but I don’t know too many people who do that). That difference in price is only ridiculous if you’re at the extremes.

    The second and third comments I have are not mine, but Michael Pollan’s (from In Defense of Food). The second:

    “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should. Doing so benefits not only your health (by, among other things, reducing your exposure to pesticides and pharmaceuticals), but also the health of the people who grow the food as well as the people who live downstream and downwind of the farms where it is grown” (this includes a lot of poorer people).

    And the third:

    “While it is true that many people simply can’t afford to pay more for food, either in money or time or both, many more of us can. After all, in just the last decade or two we’ve somehow found the time in the day to spend several hours on the Internet and the money in the budget not only to pay for broadband service, but to cover a second phone bill and a new monthly bill for television, formerly free. For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority, We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it a week – and eat a little less of it.” Pollan goes on to explain how we spent 17.5 percent of our income on food in 1960 and only spend 9.9 percent of our income on food today.

    Fourth and finally, I definitely feel for people for whom the choice to eat good food is a much harder one than is mine. But I think these people will reap big rewards if they move to better food whenever they can and re-prioritize their budgets with food as a top concern.

    • Hey Ben, thanks again for the thoughtful response. I do believe Pollan is correct in his assertion that food quality should be a higher priority for those that have the time and money to make it a higher priority, however, I can see how “food fatigue” can set in. We eat at least 3 times a day (probably closer to 4 or 5 including snacking) and we have the unfortunate responsibility to eat every day for as long as we live. This means we have around 30 meals/snacks to plan for each week and a lot of people don’t have the energy to putting forth this type of effort. I know this sounds like I’m defending laziness, but there really is a disconnect between what the actual purpose of food is vs. how it is viewed in American society. I don’t know who deserves the brunt of the blame, but I’m sure there is plenty to go around.

      As for my speech, of course it was anti-war.

      • Okay, I’m glad about the war piece – I clearly need to improve on picking up sarcasm, haha.

        And I’m with you that I can understand the trouble some people have with spending more money on food. My argument (and Pollan’s, I believe) is that it would do us a lot of good as a society if we reappraise our approach to eating. It’s our task to educate people about how better food choices are well worth the trouble.

        On a related side note, I went to the farmers’ market in Mountain View today and I highly recommend it to people in the area. To Jon’s original point, it’s easy to spend a ton of money there. But I also couldn’t be more excited about my lineup of vegetables, almonds, and salmon for my breakfasts and lunches this week.

  7. I just came across this analysis of how to maximize your portion servings at Chipotle (the things one finds on Facebook!).


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