Animal Welfare + Business

As commerce becomes increasingly cutthroat and profitability is championed at any cost, is there room in the economic equation for kindness, conscience, and humane values? Many business leaders are putting their hand on their hearts and saying yes…

For decades, the boom in new technologies and expanding markets led to massive corporate growth and record profits. But that bottom-line success came at a huge cost to the environment, labor practices, and our treatment of animals, from their mass confinement on factory farms to wildlife trafficking and laboratory testing. As we move deeper into the 21st century, however, a new story is emerging. Those same innovations and advancements are not only bringing more awareness to animal cruelty issues, but they’ve become a force for good in the hands of today’s most innovative corporate leaders and entrepreneurs.

Companies like Walmart, Whole Foods Market, and Chipotle Mexican Grill are paving the way by using creative solutions to stop the exploitation of animals, and although these businesses are driven by the belief that it’s the right thing to do, they’re seeing huge financial benefits as well. It’s a simple matter of marrying our values with our behavior, says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, the country’s largest animal protection organization. In his new book, The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals (HarperCollins/William Morrow), a hopeful follow-up to his 2011 best seller, The Bond: Our Kinship With Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, Pacelle explores how innovative entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 CEOs, and scientists are rallying around this social movement and leading us forward by eliminating cruel historic practices.

Pacelle recently met with Whole Foods co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey, a pioneer and leader in animal welfare, to talk about this new movement. They spoke about companies they admire, the next practical steps, and exciting predictions for the future.

Is there a sea change under way in how businesses large and small engage with animals?

Wayne Pacelle: I see an enormous change at work in our relationship with animals. I started an animal advocacy group when I was in college, and at that point animal protection was a protest movement. When your ideas are viewed as on the margins, it’s easy for people to shunt them aside, to cast them as heretical or radical. Almost 30 years later, they’re at the center of the economy, and we’re really experiencing a period of punctuated change in all sectors of the animal-use economy. We’re seeing big changes in food and agriculture, we’re seeing big changes in science and animal testing, and enormous changes in fashion, wildlife management, entertainment. One reason that I’m happy to be here with John is that he’s been a leader in the corporate world in marrying our values with our commerce. When you disassociate values from business, you get terrible outcomes—things like slavery and child labor and environmental despoliation. This time you not only get better outcomes when businesses have their activities filtered through the lens of a good value system, but now there are great economic opportunities because the values have permeated society, and animal welfare is a universal value.

John Mackey: I think values have always been in business. What’s changing is that consciousness is evolving. One hundred years ago, women didn’t have the right to vote; 150 years ago, almost half the United States still had legalized slavery. Our consciousness is evolving in all these different areas where we’re more aware. Part of it’s because, with the Internet and social media, things are much more transparent. The livestock animal business is probably about the least transparent part of the entire world economy: animals on these factory farms are hidden from the public’s view. People used to be able to see cows grazing and they’d see chickens running around, and now they’re all in these shut-in giant sheds. The public doesn’t see that. Wayne and I have jointly sponsored a documentary film called At the Fork that’s going to raise consciousness. It’s going to have an impact.

WP: There are animal documentaries every week that I’m learning about. Look at what Blackfish did with SeaWorld. This was one of the toughest entertainment companies out there. It was able to fend off activist protests for many years, but this single documentary upended that business model for the company. In the wake of that film, I was able to negotiate a landmark deal with the new CEO of SeaWorld and get the company to pledge to end all captive breeding of orcas and sunset its use of these creatures. SeaWorld also committed to a raft of other reforms, including redoubling its commitment to rescue and rehabilitation and joining in our global advocacy campaigns against commercial whale and seal and shark finning.

JM: It’s a great example of the thesis that we’re talking about. What Blackfish revealed is the exploitative nature of using animals as entertainment and how these animals are enslaved and abused. And now it has upended the business model, because the public is outraged.

WP: If only 15 or 20 percent of people in America are very visibly agitated, they can create a lot of trouble.

JM: More like 5 percent, even. So it is evolving very rapidly. We’re living in this revolutionary time where we as a people are becoming more conscious. Diets are changing; the way we relate to animals is changing. Social media in particular makes things move very rapidly. In the food business, I’ve never seen as much change as there is right now, from online delivery to ingredient meals like Blue Apron and Plated to full-meal solutions and food trucks.

WP: And we have companies that are innovating, like Hampton Creek, which is providing a plant-based egg substitute that’s hidden in the product. The consumer doesn’t even know the difference. It’s a functional equivalent in terms of the taste and texture. It’s not inconceivable that in 30 or 40 years we can produce meat in a laboratory setting where the meat is an animal product but without the brain or the heart and very little in the way of a moral problem.

How do these options become embraced by consumers?

WP: You need innovation and entrepreneurs who can develop the product and then market it. But I think you also need time—the ideas take a while to seep in. They marinate in society, and as they do, these things become acceptable. Look at gay marriage. We did a ballot measure in California in 2008 to stop extreme confinement of animals on factory farms. We thought we were going to lose, but we won, and we got more votes than any citizen initiative in American history at the time. On that same ballot, voters in California, which is viewed as among the most progressive of states, passed a ban on gay marriage. So from 2008 to 2016, we’ve seen a complete change on that issue.

JM: Society is always evolving simply because old people die and young people come in and reach the majority. Now 80 million millennials are in this society, bigger than boomers. Boomers are retiring, some of them are dying, and so increasingly that millennial generation, which is more interested in the very things we’re talking about, is having a greater and greater influence.

WP: If you believe that animals matter, that has practical implications for daily behavior, and once you convince people to align their beliefs with their behavior, that’s when you have a market opportunity. You have companies that can take advantage of that consciousness, like Whole Foods, Hampton Creek, or Cirque du Soleil. Ringling Bros. was one of the fiercest opponents of animal protection, but they gave up their elephants because they did the surveys: The customers didn’t want the elephants traveling to 120 different cities a year, living on chains for 22 hours a day, and they knew that was not something they could invest in while retaining the brand strength of the company, so they changed, which is also why SeaWorld agreed to end any breeding of orcas in order to sunset their use and make the existing whales the last generation at their parks. There are alternative forms of attracting and entertaining crowds. Cirque du Soleil showed that you can have amazing theatrical productions involving human acrobats and feats of incredible physicality, and it’s just so superior. You don’t have any of the moral baggage that comes with orcas or elephants in captive settings.

What other changes are happening in entertainment?

WP: The film situation is incredible. With computer-generated imagery, we have an incredible revolution that can take the live animals out of the equation but still give viewers a rich and superior experience. When you think of the toughest movie in terms of representing animals, it would probably be Noah. [Director] Darren Aronofsky used CGI to create this incredible animal diversity, and it was vivid and alive and authentic. The Planet of the Apes movies are the high watermark for this. You don’t need to victimize chimpanzees. This is how social change works: You no longer have the movie industry blocking an effort to protect chimpanzees that are endangered in the wild. There was always an exemption because the biomedical people wanted to use chimps in experiments, and the movie people wanted to use them, but now we have alternatives to using chimps in laboratories and in the movies. Chimpanzees [are listed as] endangered, and they have a highly protected status now.

JM: “Doom and gloomers” are always projecting a problem out into the future, not understanding the continual creativity and innovation part. I get asked a lot by journalists, “What do you think the world’s going to be like in 10 years?” Ten years ago, let’s see: Tesla cars did not exist. If you go back 15 years ago, no one was using an iPod; no one was using a smartphone, and there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter. The point is, there’s continual innovation; there’s continual creativity. That’s basically the ultimate resource: limitless human creativity. We will solve our problems in ways that we can’t even foresee now.

WP: We’re solving the problems quicker.

JM: That’s partly because we’re so much better connected. Innovations are copied quicker. If Whole Foods did something 20 years ago, it would take years for [it] to show up anywhere else. And now when we do a new store, not only can we copy our own innovations; everybody else does, too.

Who is leading this current evolution?

WP: One thesis in my book is there’s really an ensemble cast of people who are driving this change. There are entrepreneurs, consumers who are more conscious and alert, scientists who are helping with that, occasionally politicians who show great leadership. You also have huge philanthropy at work. We’re an enormously wealthy society in terms of having a lot of resources out there, and you have billionaires willing to invest in these issues. You’ve got Paul Allen, who is trying to solve problems, and you’ve got titans of capitalism like Carl Icahn who are trying to solve problems. And then you have corporations adapting. They know that they’re going to be roadkill if they don’t adjust to the new realities.

JM: I’m pretty wealthy, and one of the things that happens is that you have all your needs taken care of, so then it’s a question of: Do you just pile up money for money’s sake or do you invest that money in ways that help the world to become a better place?

WP: David Duffield, who founded PeopleSoft, a Silicon Valley company, committed hundreds of millions of dollars to solving euthanasia in dogs and cats in the late 1990s. He was mocked by a number of people: Why would you put all of that money into that kind of enterprise when we have so many human problems? Now you have philanthropists coming out of the woodwork on these issues.

JM: People are beginning to realize that government doesn’t really solve many problems. Instead you have these twin forces: economic business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. Whole Foods has started three foundations, and they’ve all been very impactful in a short amount of time. So you’re combining the nonprofit model with the business model, and sometimes these work together.

WP: Part of that ensemble cast that I talked about driving the change are animal scientists and ethnologists who are teaching us more about animals. It wasn’t that long ago that the dominant animal-behavior theory was that animals operate just by instinct, that they’re like machines in the wild who are on an endless task of food gathering, mating, predation, and defense. Now we know that animals have feelings, emotions. Elephants have burial rituals; chimpanzees have rituals to honor family members who have passed away. We see incredible problem-solving, from crows to dolphins. Once you see that behavior, you can’t think of them as just this thing or commodity. And I think this increase in understanding animal consciousness layers over this social reform movement. That’s why no industry that’s exploiting animals in a severe way is going to be immune from this movement. One area we haven’t talked about too much is the animal testing issue, [which] can be completely overtaken by different technologies.

What do you foresee happening in the near future?

JM: I’ll make a prediction: What is building is a scientific consensus around health. Although there’s a very strong vested interest in keeping people ignorant by the dairy industry, cattle and meat industry, and processed food industry, there’s a strong scientific consensus that is building that eating either none or only small quantities of animal foods leads to optimum longevity. The longest-living people that we know of are all plant eaters. Cancer, heart disease, diabetes—they all correlate very strongly with the more animal food you eat. Sometime over the next five to 10 years, I predict you’re going to see a scientific consensus come around—just like it took a long time for science to gather enough data to overthrow the propaganda machine that the tobacco industry was.

WP: It takes activists and scientists and all of that together.

JM: That’s what’s happening with food now. We have a healthcare crisis in America; we have an obesity crisis. Eighty percent of the healthcare money that we spend, which is bankrupting us, is due to diet and lifestyle. And it’s avoidable. You’re going to see this growing scientific consensus about how to solve our healthcare issues, which will be lifestyle shifts, [which] will correlate well with the humane economy, because it’s very interesting that the thing that will help solve our healthcare crisis and our obesity epidemic is basically living in a more humane fashion and not exploiting animals. The exploitation of the animals is not just harming the animal; it’s harming us. That’s what people don’t understand.

WP: Absolutely. I really like the word “humane.” I chose it very intentionally because the root word of “humane” is “human,” and we’re the ones who are creating the problems, so we’re the ones that can solve the problems. John’s point is really important: It just so happens that when we’re better to animals, we have better outcomes throughout society. Companies are going to be more successful when they have a more animal-friendly sensitivity.

Written by: Kathy Blackwell