Nestlé has hit the vegan news headlines in recent times, for two vastly different stories with vastly different coverage.
The media attention surrounding Nestlé picked up earlier this month, when the company announced its plans to release a vegan chocolate bar, the vegan KitKat, later this year - complete with The Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark. Many vegans were delighted, with the plant-based press quickly picking up the story and celebrating Nestlé’s latest move into the ever-growing vegan market.
However, a few days earlier, Nestlé had featured in the news for something entirely different: this time for its involvement in a landmark child labour lawsuit, alongside leading food and drinks manufacturers Mars, Mondelēz and Hershey.(ref 1) The lawsuit, which was filed by the International Rights Advocates (IRA), sees eight young adults take legal action against some of the world’s largest chocolate producers for their role in the forced labour of children on Ivory Coast cocoa plantations.
At first glance, these stories may seem worlds apart - but this simply isn’t the case. They are, in fact, inextricably linked. We cannot consider The Vegan Society’s approval of Nestlé’s plant-based KitKat without questioning the sinister reality of cocoa bean production.
We can’t help but question: if a vegan chocolate bar, albeit one that doesn’t contain animal-derived ingredients, implicates human health and safety in its production, can it still be considered a vegan product?
When is vegan not vegan at all?
Of course, the answer to this question varies depending on who you ask. Veganism has a myriad of interpretations, and regarding the vegan community as a monolith is neither helpful nor accurate.
For many, veganism is an all-encompassing, ethically-charged lifestyle influencing much more than just food choices. On this side of the vegan spectrum, the overarching Do No Harm motto means that supporting humans and non-human animals is equally as important. Companies that rely on any form of abuse are neither tolerated nor worthy of financial support for individuals who value these rules of veganism.
However, for others, veganism might simply be about eschewing a plant based diet, toiletries, clothes and household goods that contain animal-derived ingredients. Holding companies accountable for their involvement in non-human animal cruelty may remain central, but not necessarily those that also implicate human safety and well being.
At both ends of the spectrum, being the ‘perfect vegan’ (i.e. acting in a way that both aligns with the generally accepted definition of veganism and your personal values) is near impossible. In a world where animal and human exploitation permeate every industry and practice, exercising due diligence when checking food packaging labels can only take you so far.
Following a lifestyle that centres kindness and compassion for all has become even more challenging given the influx of large corporations taking advantage of the expanding plant-based market. As a growing number of companies - including Nestlé - commercialise what is an ethical market place, it becomes increasingly difficult for vegans to know exactly who and what they are supporting.
Again, we need to ask the question: when is vegan not truly vegan?
Is it vegan to drink coffee, knowing that children as young as eight may have picked the coffee beans?(ref 2) Can we eat avocados, knowing that western demand for this superfood may have fuelled cartel violence in Mexico?(ref 3)
It is here that we must circle back to The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism, which reminds us that we should exclude all forms of cruelty ‘as far as is possible and practical’.(ref 4)
Interpretations of this vary throughout the vegan community. For some, buying Nestlé’s plant-based KitKat falls within the realm of their vegan values - simply because it doesn’t contain animal products.
It is this system that The Vegan Society adheres to when deciding which products to stamp with its Vegan Trademark. The organisation’s four-step approval process confirms that the product in question does not contain animal ingredients, rely on animal testing or use animal-derived GMOs, but does not investigate companies’ involvement in anti-vegan or immoral behaviours, such as the use of child labour.(ref 5)
As a charitable organisation, refusing Nestlé its stamp of approval - even in light of the ongoing lawsuit - could lead to a series of problems for The Vegan Society, including legal action. Under the current system, Nestlé is entitled to display the Vegan Trademark, as long as it meets the established criterion.
The case is similar for other leading vegan organisations and governing bodies, such as PETA and Vegan.org. When it comes to giving their stamp of approval to food, clothes, toiletries and other goods, they consider the product, not the company.
It’s time for this to change. As vegans, we must recognise that our fight won’t end until animals and humans are treated with respect and compassion. Supporting any form of animal or human exploitation is abhorrent, and in a time where consumerism and veganism have become so intertwined, we truly do vote with our money.
By encouraging vegan organisations to join this mission, we could start to see truly tangible change. Collectively, we need to re-shape the criteria that currently insists they publicly approve and support unethical corporations.
Dismantling and re-building these internal systems won’t be easy, and it will inevitably mean that fewer products get the vegan community’s acceptance. However, if this withdraws financial support for the companies profiting from forced labour, deforestation, and a whole host of other deplorable acts, then it’s a mission worth fighting for.
To add to Tom Regan original quote, ‘The animal rights movement is part of, not opposed to, the human rights and environmental movement’.
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1. Oliver Balch, "Mars, Nestlé And Hershey To Face Child Slavery Lawsuit In US", The Guardian, 2021 <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/feb/12/mars-nestle-and-hershey-to-face-landmark-child-slavery-lawsuit-in-us> [Accessed 20 February 2021].
2. Jamie Doward, 2020 <https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/guatemala-children-as-young-as-eight-picked-coffee-beans-on-farms-supplying-starbucks/> [Accessed 20 February 2021].
3. Tom Phillips, "Mexico Cartel Hangs Bodies From City Bridge In Grisly Show Of Force", The Guardian, 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/08/mexico-bodies-police-uruapan-drug-cartels> [Accessed 20 February 2021].
4. "Definition Of Veganism", The Vegan Society<https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism> [Accessed 20 February 2021].
5. "The Vegan Trademark", The Vegan Society<https://www.vegansociety.com/the-vegan-trademark> [Accessed 20 February 2021].