How Research Predicted the Popularity of Meatless Mondays
Faunalytics has been conducting research for the benefit of animals and animal advocates for more than a decade. One of our first independent studies, which we began in 2004, was an examination of semi-vegetarians and meat reducers, including how many there are and their opinions, motivations, and barriers to further change. What we learned not only predicted the success of the “Meatless Mondays” concept, it also validated incremental advocacy for animals. This notion – that we can achieve more through gradual change than by seeking overnight success – applies to almost all forms of animal advocacy.
To be clear, this incremental approach is not necessary for all issues or target audiences, but it’s essential when the behavior or opinion you are trying to change is accepted by a majority of society. Examples include meat, egg, and dairy consumption, as well as medical testing on animals, breeding companion animals, and visiting zoos and aquariums. Incremental advocacy may be most important when it comes to animal-based diets given that about 97% of the (U.S.) population consumes meat and dairy products. In this case, an all-or-nothing approach to advocacy will guarantee you nothing, at least with most people.
Nick Cooney discusses this in his book “Change of Heart,” and calls it the “foot in the door technique.” As Cooney writes, “The foot in the door technique works by altering self–perception… For example, asking a person to wear a small pin about breast cancer awareness may do little in and of itself, but the person who agreed to wear it is now more likely to believe ‘I’m the sort of person that cares about breast cancer.’ That belief makes it easier for breast cancer groups to later solicit that person to volunteer time or donate money to combat breast cancer.”
In our report on semi-vegetarians and meat reducers, Faunalytics wrote something similar: “The challenge for vegetarian and vegan advocates is to find ways to encourage people to make small changes relative to where they are now, and then to continue encouraging additional small changes over time. Currently, however, most approaches to vegetarian/vegan advocacy appear to involve trying to persuade people to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets directly, without identifying interim steps to achieve that desired end goal.” But Faunalytics’ research showed that there are three times as many people who are willing to cut their meat consumption in half when compared with those who are willing to eliminate meat entirely.
Sound familiar? This incremental approach is exactly the tactic being used by advocates of “Meatless Mondays” campaigns, which are evidently showing early signs of being very successful. The program run by Johns Hopkins notes that 49% of food service directors who implemented their Meatless Mondays program saw an increase in vegetable purchases, while 30% saw a decrease in meat purchases. Begun in 2003, the program (and others like it) may be partly responsible for the recent and predicted declines in meat consumption in the U.S.
And so the argument for incremental advocacy becomes more compelling. Based on Faunalytics’ research of potential semi-vegetarians and potential vegetarians: “Assuming each group is equally likely to change, if there are 1,000 adults in the target audience, advocates might be able to persuade 240 of them to reduce their meat consumption by half (24% of adults are potential semi-vegetarians), but only about 70 of them to eliminate meat from their diets (7% are potential vegetarians). In this example, advocating semi-vegetarianism would yield the largest reduction in meat consumed.”
The key takeaway for vegetarian/vegan advocates is that we would do well to focus our efforts on encouraging smaller changes in behavior that will lead to more future vegetarians and vegans. Except in very rare cases involving unique audiences, we should drop the “go vegan” mantra and talk more about reducing, replacing, and refining one’s consumption of meat and dairy products. Once people start down this path, they arguably become more open to making additional changes, and advocates must continue to adapt our messages to effectively encourage those changes.
I mentioned previously that this applies to other types of animal advocacy as well. Here are a few examples and recommendations based on the notion of incremental advocacy.
For companion animal advocates:
In a country (the U.S.) where millions of healthy companion animals are euthanized every year, the notion of “responsible” breeding is oxymoronic to many animal advocates. That said, many non-advocates think breeding is an acceptable practice and of course too many people purchase bred dogs and cats instead of adopting. In that context, focusing public opinion on the abolition of so-called backyard breeders, with no standards and no enforcement, would be a positive step forward for companion animals. Even though it does not go far enough, this would represent an important incremental victory for those animals and would shine a spotlight on the entire practice of breeding companion animals for profit.
For wildlife advocates:
For wildlife advocates, an incremental approach could mean not seeking to abolish zoos and aquariums tomorrow, but to improve these institutions and potentially repurpose them. Over time, as public opposition to captive wildlife increases, advocates could develop a better system involving a network of sanctuaries for abused, injured, and endangered animals that will eventually replace zoos. Most advocates recognize that there is value in providing opportunities to learn about animals, so we should also work with those involved in zoos and aquariums to find alternative and non-invasive ways for people to do so; this is increasingly possible through technical innovation. The biggest threat to wildlife is probably habitat destruction caused by humans, however, and in that case an incremental approach may be too late to save many of the world’s animals.
For anti-vivisection advocates:
This is one of the more difficult issues for advocates, given the perceived benefits to humans of testing on animals. However, nearly everyone supports using alternatives when they are available, and technology is working in our favor by providing increasingly viable alternatives to using animals (digital models, in vitro testing, etc.). Supporting the development and use of such alternatives is a core strategy for advocates against animal testing. We also use the incremental approach in other ways such as focusing on the testing of cosmetics and household products on animals (which most people oppose) and/or focusing on an end to testing on certain species like chimpanzees. For an issue like vivisection, which is supported by a slight majority of U.S. adults, it’s especially important to be strategic about our approach, and that includes striving for incremental gains for animals in laboratories.
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This notion of “incremental advocacy” is mostly just common sense based on how people change and how the world works, but it is still very important for animal advocates to understand. I should also acknowledge that the concept is not new. Henry Spira, one of the early leaders of the U.S. animal protection movement once remarked that, “progress is made stepwise, incrementally.” Indeed. And our approach to animal advocacy needs to reflect that fact by focusing on incremental changes and strategically building upon those changes to achieve the humane world that we all seek.