Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Fetishization of “Animal-Friendly” Animal Products: The Body Shop Example


In the San Francisco airport earlier this week on return from a conference, I stopped in The Body Shop for the first time in search of a birthday present for a friend. I knew that The Body Shop had a large vegan inventory, but had to ask the sales clerk for certainty as nothing was labeled. While he was searching for a list, he informed me that most of the products were vegan, and those that were not were produced in ways that “doesn’t harm the animals.”  I guess the expected or typical response would be, “Oh, wonderful! My mind is at ease! Let me buy all the things!”  Instead, I was quick to clarify that all exploitation involves harm. 

I told him that the animals used to make the eggs, milk, or whatever else in their products1 have their babies taken away and eventually end up slaughtered.  A little annoyed at his offensive sales pitch, I also said that, “That’s the same thing LUSH says,” though clarifying that The Body Shop was a better alternative because of LUSH’s misogynistic sales tactics.  Hey, that has to count for something, I guess.

Afterwards, I sent a tweet to The Body Shop, expressing my concern that the clerk had so blatantly misinformed me regarding their ingredient sourcing.  Their Twitter account only responded with more nonsense:

@CoreyLeeWrenn Hi Corey, maybe it was a misunderstanding but non [sic] of our products harm the animals

A misunderstanding?  Is there any misunderstanding the violence that happens to the sheep used to produce the lanolin in their products?  Is there any misunderstanding the veal calves languishing in crates and mother cows carted off to slaughterhouses in order to obtain milk derivatives for their products? Is there any misunderstanding the mass killing of bees done to obtain their wax and honey?  Apparently so, as one of my readers reported to me that she was informed by a TBS clerk that their products containing bees’ wax are vegan because “bees aren’t animals.”2 3 I suspect that, like LUSH, TBS also markets cage-free egg-based products or hormone-free/grass-fed/free-range/whatever milk-based products.  Ooh la la . . . exploitation made pretty.  The Body Shop, like LUSH, markets itself as a compassionate company—that simultaneously profits hugely off the institutionalized exploitation and death (yes, death, or rather, murder) of Nonhuman Animals.  Oh, but it is papaya scented!


Telling customers that non-vegan products “don’t harm the animals” is false advertising of the worst kind.  Obviously, the sales clerk was just telling me anything I wanted to hear to get a sale.4  I walked in the door stating that I cared about animal justice and that my friend for whom I was purchasing the present for cared about animal justice.  So, animal justice is exactly what he’s going to sell me.  Of course, TBS, like most companies that exist off the backs of the oppressed, bank on customers never questioning or thinking critically about their ethical claimsmaking.5  As long as they make these claims, use these labels, and enjoy uncritical promotion by large non-profits like PETA, who would really think to question their authenticity?  This is especially so because we live in a society convinced by Nonhuman Animal “rights” and “welfare” organizations that it is okay to use other animals as long as we do so “nicely” (of course, what constitutes “nicely” will be left up to the discretion of those who exploit animals).

What is happening here is that The Body Shop, Aveda, LUSH, and other pseudo-vegan “natural” companies that cater to socially & environmentally conscious customers are fetishizing “animal-friendliness” to artificially meet the demand for ethical products.  Continuing to rely on animal products is likely cheaper (or at least easier) in an industry that has a path dependency on non-vegan ingredients and processes.  In this way, The Body Shop, Aveda, and LUSH are not really much different from Tyson, Smithfield, or whoever else PETA and HSUS are awarding lately for their astounding “progress” for Nonhuman Animals.  When I hear TBS tell me that their non-vegan products “don’t hurt the animals,” I am reminded of Tyson commercials with little cartoon chickens bouncing about as the narrator assures us how happy their chickens are on their vegetarian, hormone-free diets. 

If you have a choice, always shop from a 100% vegan company.  And, if it is a vegan company, also make sure (if you can) that they aren’t hurting humans (is it ethically sourced?) or other animals indirectly (Seventh Generation, for instance, is supporting legislation for “environmentally sound” products that will require genocidal levels of suffering and death for Nonhuman Animals used in vivisection). 

It should be clear from the litany of criticisms surrounding the so-called “green economy” that we cannot buy our way to social justice. I have to buy my shampoo somewhere, so I’m going to get what I need as ethically-sourced as I can based on my access, but I’m not fooling myself into thinking that my savvy vegan shopping is going to end oppression. These products are important to help us maintain our vegan lifestyle (if we are lucky enough to enjoy the access to them),6 but it would be a mistake to expect radical revolution within the capitalist system. The capitalist system is designed to feed on exploitation. Capitalism cannot exist without exploitation.  This means that we cannot have truly oppression-free products within capitalism, but also that we cannot change the world unless we change our economic system.  


Update

The Body Shop responds on Facebook, failing to address what happens to the animals and suggesting that veganism is irrelevant to a "humane" lifestyle.  Using animals "humanely" is apparently just as "cruelty-free" as veganism.



Notes

1.  To be clear, I am not positive what exact animal ingredients The Body Shop uses, as that would necessitate my going through the entire product line and reading each and every ingredient list. I have seen from internet forums that they use bee products and lanolin.  Based on what I know from other “natural” products, I expect egg and milk-derivatives are also used to some extent.  Please correct me if I am wrong, but 99.99% of “natural” companies do this, and I have no reason to believe TBS is any different if they are not a vegan company.

2.  Marc Bekoff would disagree. He has cited some interesting research in his latest book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation that demonstrates an incredible level of sentience in bees.  Bees have many of the same brain chemicals as us, allowing them to feel pleasure and pain (including emotional pain).

3.  My salesclerk provided me with a printed list of their products that are “free from animal ingredients.”  Does this include bees’ products?

4.  I’ve had this happen before when a man selling bees’ wax based hand cream grabbed my hand as I walked by his booth at a festival and began rubbing it into my skin (borderline sexual harassment).  As I was telling him I was vegan and not interested, he was telling me that the product doesn’t harm animals and that bees don’t count. Then he slapped me with a sticker that read, “I just got a hand job!” (okay, now it is definitely sexual harassment).

4.  The recent Starbucks Coffee campaign that offers “free” college tuition is another good example, as is just about any “fair trade” coffee labeling scheme by Starbucks or any other coffee chain.

5.  Keep in mind that “buying” social justice is a tactic only affordable to a small percentage of privileged individuals, and necessarily excludes the masses…the very masses needed to make large-scale social change.