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 Exxon, despite 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: