Commentary: Companies Love to Say Their Products Are ‘Humane.’ Most Are Far From It.
Companies that exploit animals profit from their suffering in a business model that’s being shunned by a growing number of socially conscious consumers—particularly millennials, who are about to become America’s largest generation and are making kind choices about what they wear and eat.
And companies are taking notice: They realize that sustainability and ethics are engines for business growth. However, instead of answering the demand for cruelty-free items with—you guessed it—cruelty-free items, an increasing number of companies continue to sell basically the same products that they’ve always sold while attaching labels like “humane,” “ethical,” and “responsible” to them—effectively duping caring consumers into believing that they’re buying compassionately produced goods when they’re really not.
Companies that claim to be environmentally friendly are regularly called out for “green washing.” If you’re looking to invest in businesses that share your values, don’t be duped by “humane washing,” either.
A case in point is the way in which Canada Goose—which is under pressure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal rights groups to end its use of coyote fur and goose down—recently heralded its partnership with Polar Bears International, a nonprofit that supposedly works for the conservation of these vulnerable animals.
Public relations problem solved? Hardly.
Canada Goose’s stunt is a textbook example of consumer deception. Supporting the abuse of one species while claiming to protect another is so transparent.
Animal-exploiting companies are also keen on plastering their marketing campaigns with certifications that trumpet their products as “ethical” or “traceable.” But PETA has shown time and again that these proclamations aren’t worth the labels they’re printed on.
Perhaps the most notable and most recent example of humane washing comes from Patagonia, which is well known for marketing itself as a leader in sustainability with its mission to “cause no unnecessary harm.” Not only does the company boast of its commitment to the Responsible Wool Standard, it also claims to adhere to an even higher “Patagonia Wool Standard.” Despite this, two separate PETA exposés have uncovered cruelty to sheep at Patagonia-linked operations, causing the company to drop one and distance itself from another.
In another example, one of the largest retailers in the world was assured that it was receiving “humane” angora, but when we visited the farm with its representatives, they were horrified at the abuse that occurred there and banned the cruelly obtained material entirely.
When consumers see the “Responsible Down Standard” label used by hundreds of companies, including Eddie Bauer, Helly Hansen, Marmot, and The North Face, they’re supposed to rest easy, knowing that birds weren’t pinned down while workers ripped out their feathers by the fistful. But on farms across China, PETA investigators discovered that live plucking is still widely practiced, even though it’s called something else.
While humane washing in the clothing industry is a relatively new phenomenon, it’s been going on for decades in the food industry, and the reasons couldn’t be more apparent: In a survey conducted last year by the market research firm Packaged Facts, nearly 60% of U.S. consumers said that they’re more concerned about animal welfare—specifically as it relates to the food supply—than they were just a few years ago.
McDonald’s and Perdue Farms try to mitigate those concerns by broadcasting their inclusion on the global “Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare” list (which is merely a reporting of companies’ written standards, without actual vetting). Never mind that chickens bred for McDonald’s and Perdue grow so quickly that they’re often crippled by the weight of their overgrown bodies.
The “free-range” label tops the list of corporate sleight-of-hand tricks, implying that animals roam happily outdoors, basking in the sunlight and scratching around in vegetation. PETA’s 2017 exposé of a leading U.S. free range egg supplier tells a different story: Chickens were crammed so tightly into warehouses that it was difficult to avoid stepping on them—the birds couldn’t even extend their wings. The farm supplies Nellie’s Free Range Eggs—which is owned by Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs—whose products are sold at Walmart, Whole Foods Market, and other stores and boasts that it was the first “Certified Humane” farm in the country. So much for “certifications.”
Whenever there’s money to be made off animals, corners will be cut and animals will suffer. From a business standpoint, animal welfare is a well-known barrier to profit, and ensuring animals’ safety 100% of the time would be prohibitively expensive. It insults our intelligence when companies attempt to convince us that fur, wool, and down—let alone meat, milk, and eggs—can be produced humanely.
Consumers rely on and deserve truth in labeling, but these marketing schemes betray the public’s trust and effectively mislead caring consumers into believing that items were produced more humanely than those produced conventionally, which is often both false and potentially fraudulent.
As we’ve seen with various social movements over the past year—from anti-National Rifle Association (NRA) sentiment to #MeToo—change comes quickly when an issue reaches its tipping point. Years of deception and deflection will catch up with any company that profits from harming animals and attempts to pull the (cruelly produced) wool over its customers’ eyes.
Anne Brainard is the director of corporate affairs at PETA.