Compromise and Consumers: Beyond Regulations
The animal advocacy movement is often polarized around questions of ethical baselines, such as whether advocates should press for veganism as a starting point, or instead focus on people’s incremental changes to improve animal welfare which might appeal to a greater number of people. While advocates continue the debate, animal industries have attempted to respond to public pressure around the treatment of animals with various labeling schemes to try to present the perspective of humane animal products. Yet, despite the amount of consumer concern for animal welfare, a study in Food Quality and Preference shows that “conventionally produced meat dominates the market,” and consumers often face a situation where meat is labeled in “black and white” ways, where a product is labeled as “organic or not,” or shown as having been produced with animal welfare in mind or produced conventionally.
In an attempt to resolve the discrepancy between consumers’ attitudes (peoples’ desire for animal welfare standards to be upheld) and their actions (people continue to buy mostly conventionally produced meat), researchers are exploring how labeling systems that give more of a grayscale or gradient may allow consumers to make decisions that line up more accurately with their morals. By giving consumers a more finely graded system, researchers tried to identify different segments of the population who are willing to pay for animal welfare to greater or lesser extents, rather than a simple binary / polar system.
What they found was that “the consumer market for animal derived products is heterogeneous in terms of product preferences, moral choice motivations, and related willingness to pay.” In other words, if options other than “conventional” and “high animal welfare” are available, consumers will choose products more specifically based on their willingness to pay. “The introduction of intermediate options in between mainstream and organic have the potential to meet latent consumer demand for beyond-regulatory animal welfare standards.” The researchers identified a range of different layers of consumer demand, and concluded that a variety of options could be a compromise that in their words, “results in a win-win situation for the consumer (need satisfaction), animals (animal welfare), and possibly also the industry (revenue).”
Of course, these conclusions would not be supported by all animal advocates, as many will balk at a suggestion that any system which still condemns animals for human consumption can be a “win-win.” Likewise, advocates of more gradual welfare reforms would also likely reject the suggestion that there should be various lower gradients of welfare that allow consumers to deliberately pick poor treatment of animals at their whim. However, the results show that it may be possible that one of the keys to resolving the tension between consumer attitudes and actions might be in a compromise of purchasing options, rather the current choice between one or the other with no variation in between.