Effective Vegan Advocacy

Why Advocacy (and how we do it) Matters

Bad Experience at Vegan Club

Last month, I became interested in effective strategies for vegan advocacy after an uncomfortable meeting with a CU Boulder vegan club. My initial interest in the club, The Vegan Justice League, started over the summer when I was searching for clubs to join at CU. I was immediately excited about it because I had been vegan for the past year and strongly supported the moral, ethical, and environmental effects of the lifestyle. The first meeting of the year was a social for “Vegan, Vegetarian, and Veg-Curious”, which I thought was a brilliant idea that would allow people interested in plant based diets to learn more about them and potentially try them too. I brought my girlfriend, who had been vegetarian for the past year, to come check out the club with me. After the meeting, we both agreed that we did not want anything to do with the Vegan Justice League.

vjlWhat made this meeting so uncomfortable was the approach to advocacy, both from other vegans and from the club itself. My girlfriend told me that during the social, every person she talked to negatively judged her for consuming eggs and dairy. All of the vegans she met tried to convince her to give up eggs and dairy. Some even tried to make her feel guilty about her diet. She said that she had never felt so judged in her life.

What made me uncomfortable about the meeting was the video they showed from a vegan activist organization, Direct Action Everywhere, which the Vegan Justice League supports and directs its members towards. The video showed vegan activists: running across baseball fields during a game, interrupting CU’s graduation ceremony, and protesting in grocery stores. One part of the video I found particularly disturbing was when the activists protesting in the grocery store put on pig masks and poured blood on themselves to disgust and scare customers. It was clear that any non-vegans at that meeting would have felt extremely uncomfortable, despite the club’s intention for it to be inclusive of vegetarians and veg-curious.

Why It Matters

Advocacy is essential for the goal of veganism, which is to end consumption of animal products. By encouraging people to reduce their animal product consumption, vegans can have a larger effect than they would cause through just their own diet. However, after this meeting I started wondering about the effectiveness of the methods of advocacy I saw at the Vegan Justice League. Is a judgmental attitude towards non-vegans the best approach to get people to understand, try, or maybe adopt a vegan lifestyle? Do negative protests blaming meat consumers for their behavior actually bring us closer to the goal of reducing animal product consumption? Is it not my responsibility as a vegan to use the best forms of advocacy in order to get more people to try a plant based diet?

After the meeting I asked my girlfriend if I have ever seemed judgmental of her egg and dairy consumption, to which she responded “only once or twice”. I was shocked that I had exhibited the kind of judgmental attitude that the Vegan Justice League demonstrated. Since then I have researched how to effectively advocate for a plant based diet and have been trying to implement them in a way that encourages acceptance of veganism and elicits a positive connotation with the word “vegan”.

Effective Form of Advocacy?

Here is a video by Direct Action Everywhere, the organization that the Vegan Justice League supports. The video shows activists interrupting a ribbon cutting ceremony at a Whole Foods. dxe

 (Direct Action Everywhere at Whole Foods)

How effective is this sort of advocacy? Is it likely that the people at Whole Foods that day went home and thought intensely about meat consumption? Judging by the boo-ing and certain hand gestures, I assume that the audience was more annoyed than inspired. Maybe I am wrong though, and this organization has had success in spreading veganism. Looking at their website, the only section that shows the results of their advocacy is a page of news articles that they have been featured in for their protests. However, their website shows nothing about how effective their protests were; it only shows the fact that they held protests.

(Direct Action Everywhere Press)

I would even argue that Direct Action Everywhere’s activism is counter-productive in some cases. By holding these aggressive protests, many non-vegans may be dissuaded from considering veganism. This militant-veganmeme shows a common attitude that I have observed from non-vegans and demonstrates how poor advocacy can be detrimental to the overall goal of veganism: to
reduce animal product consumption.

The annoyance felt by non-vegans towards vegans extends beyond just Direct Action Everywhere. Vegans have often been stereotyped as being over-emotional, militant, and crazy. This is why vegan advocacy needs to be re-evaluated. In order to eliminate the negative connotations and spread acceptance of veganism, effective strategies for advocacy should be determined and utilized.


Psychology of Meat Consumption

The Meat Paradox

To develop better strategies for advocacy, it would be beneficial to look at what we know about human psychology and why animal products, particularly meat, are consumed regardless of the consumer’s knowledge of meat production or morality. Veganism should be a concept that is easy to sell in theory. It advocates for compassion towards animals and care for the environment (and more). I personally do not know anybody who says that they hate animals or the environment and I assume that most humans in general do not hate dr-joythem either. So what is causing veganism to be so difficult to spread? Why do people paradoxically eat meat when they love animals?

Dr. Melanie Joy (left), professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Massachusetts, gives lectures on this topic. For the lecture I will discuss, you can watch it online here (1 hour 16 minutes) but I will summarize the main points.

(Dr. Joy Psychology of Meat


Dr. Joy’s theory on the difficulty of vegan advocacy is that meat-eaters’ paradoxical behavior is due to a system she calls carnism, which is a cultural belief system that conditions people to eat meat. This belief system makes meat eating the social norm and meat consumption becomes no longer a choice, but an expectation. Carnism promotes the meat eating paradox by using defense mechanisms that block our sense of empathy for animals while we eat.

One defense of carnism is denial or invisibility. The process of meat production is so far removed from the consumer that the horrible environmental, moral and social implications are out of the mind of the consumer. Thus, the consumer cannot affirm that there is a problem. This creates a cognitive dissonance in which meat consumers act against their beliefs. Even though, the consumer may care about animals, the environment, etc. they do not view the meat they consume as an animal. Rather, they may view it simply as food and do not analyze it further.

The next defense of carnism is justification of meat consumption. People attempt to rationalize their behavior via the usual arguments that meat consumption is “natural, normal and necessary”. People often use the myths about meat consumption to justify their behavior such as “it is the only way to get enough protein in your diet” and thus it is necessary. The arguments that these myths provide are used by meat consumers to make their behaviors seem logical and vegan behavior to seem illogical.

The last defense Dr. Joy identifies is the cognitive distortion of perceptions about meat. Meat consumers attempt to make meat consumption more comfortable to their morality by learning to objectify animals. Meat eaters learn to call farm animals “it”, instead of “him or her”, in an attempt to deny the animals’ sentience and make them acceptable for the consumer to eat.

Dr. Joy uses the analogs of slavery, male dominance, and heterosexual supremacy to demonstrate how these psychological defense mechanisms have been used in a variety of ways that extend beyond carnism. Denial has been used by males to argue that that there is no patriarchy in our society. Justification by myths has been used to argue why homosexuality is not normal or natural. Cognitive distortions such as objectification have been used to dehumanize African Americans. These defenses clearly exist and place an impediment on any social change. So how do we overcome these defenses?

Overcoming Carnistic Defenses

More Info ≠ Better Advocacy

Many people expect the facts of veganism to sell the ideology. If people understood the environmental, social, and moral consequences of meat production, then they should become vegan right? This is not necessarily true. Facts and logic are not always the best way to advocate. An example of this can be seen in the DARE program. About 80% of students should remember participating in the DARE program (it was implemented into about 80% of elementary schools). The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program is intended to educate students about drug abuse and how to “say no to drugs”. Although this program aimed to reduce drug abuse through education, it failed to make any significant difference. Current systematic reviews (studies that analyze many other reliable studies) show that the DARE program failed to decrease drug use among students at all.

(DARE Meta-Analysis)dare

Despite the education about drugs that students receive, other factors like socioeconomic status and school dropout rates are more likely to be better indicators of student drug use. So how does this relate to vegan advocacy? I am sure any vegan can provide a wealth of evidence that meat consumption has serious consequences to the environment, meat industry workers, and human health. However, the facts of veganism will not make it more appealing to non-vegans. The carnistic defenses create an illogical system of meat consumption and trying to use logic or evidence to overcome them will not likely work. For example, if a vegan tells a non-vegan “Did you know that meat production is extremely resource intensive, and it takes about 460 gallons of water to produce a 1/4 pound of beef?” the non-vegan is unlikely to respond “Wow I did not know that! I am going vegan.” More information does not necessarily make the vegan argument more convincing.

(USGS Water Intensities)

Relate to the Audience

However, Dr. Joy describes ways in which the carnistic defenses may be overcome. First, she proposes that when people ask about veganism, we tell our story of transitioning to veganism and trying to relate to the emotions of non-vegans. By telling the story of how you once consumed animal products, the audience gets a sense that you are similar to ththem.

Dr. Joy encourages vegans to discuss how they might have had a disconnect between their morals and diet. Vegans should talk about how they once ate animal products, even when they knew the social, environmental and moral consequences of animal product production.

The stereotypes that non-vegans might have held about vegans starts to fall apart when they hear that vegans are normal humans too who understand what it is like to have a cognitive disconnect between beliefs and actions. Of course, vegans may not want to pick apart a non-vegan’s argument and call out their defenses. Vegans should not say “you have cognitive distortion and are objectifying animals despite your moral beliefs!” which may come off as hostile.

It may be that the more that vegans acknowledge their own previous carnistic defenses, the more legitimate their argument seems. If a vegan used to justify meat eating through illogical arguments such as “if we stop eating meat, farm animal populations will explode”, then he/she should acknowledge that previous behavior and discuss that. By doing so, non-vegans can see that they are normal to have the behaviors they have and a discussion with a vegan becomes less hostile.

Focus on the Process, NOT the Objective

Have you ever had a conversation with someone who’s goal was to convince you of something? It is extremely annoying and causes the audience to put up psychological th-1barriers or argue with everything the speaker says. That is why it is important for vegans
to not focus on the goal of conversion when talking with a non-vegan. If the vegan actively tries to convince the non-vegan to change their behavior, the carnistic defenses will
surface and no progress can be made. Instead, the focus should be on the process of the conversation. It may be better for vegans to focus on talking about the non-vegan’s concerns about veganism and share each other’s perspectives. This way, vegans may be able to come off as more understandable and rational.

What Becoming Vegan Requires

Avoiding Judgment

Speaking from personal experience, it can be easy for vegans to make reductive judgments no-judgement-zone-desktop-750x469about meat eaters. It can be easy to assume that meat eaters are less moral than people on plant based diets. But this judgment is not productive and encourages hostility between vegans and non-vegans. Dr. Joy’s theory of carnism tells us that vegans should acknowledge that meat eating really is not about moral choices. Meat eaters are victims of a society that promotes meat consumption to the point where people are expected to eat meat. Although most people love animals, they are under the pressure of societal expectations and social norms to consume meat.

It Is Hard

It is also important to understand what it requires for a person to become vegan. It is not simply a change in behavior, but a change in the way a person thinks about animal products and their production. It is much more difficult to change a way of thinking than it is to change a behavior. Vegans may benefit in their advocacy by acknowledging that taking the step to vegan is not easy at all. In fact, if a meat eater makes a dramatic change to veganism all at once, it may be too difficult for them and they would become discouraged and give up on being vegan. Instead it may be better to encourage smaller transitions such as becoming vegetarian or even just reducing their daily meat consumption.

Strategies for Selling Veganism

Normalizing Veganism

One of the possible reasons that veganism is not widely accepted could be that it is not common to be vegan. Again, society’s carnistic values make veganism difficult. So how can the tables be turned to make veganism th-2normal?

During a presentation of the Science of Animal Advocacy, Nick Cooney (Founder of the Humane League, left) presented research on how research on human psychology can be used to advocate for veganism.(49 minutes)

(The Science of Animal Advocacy)

Some of the research he presented showed how people care more about social pressures than environmental, economic or communal reasons when it comes to conserving energy. When energy conservation was seen as the normal behavior, people significantly reduced their energy consumption. The environmental, economic and communal benefits of saving energy had little to no influence on peoples’ conservation.

Cooney argues that when vegans talk with non-vegans, it should be a goal to have the non-vegan “walk away thinking ‘you know, that person is just like me, but they don’t eat animals'”. Vegans should make it a goal to relate to non-vegans and make it seem like veganism is normal. The more people that walk away thinking that, the more likely it is that more behavior will be changed.

Foot in the Door

Cooney also presented research that showed how requests for small initial favors led to an increased acceptance of larger favors. This research analyzed how people were more likely to put a sign in their yard that said “Drive Safely” if they were initially asked to put a sticker with the same message on their rear car window. Since the small favor was much internships.jpgeasier than the larger favor, more people were willing to put the sticker in the window of their car. Additionally, after those people put the sticker in their car, they began to associate themselves as someone who promotes safe driving. Because of this, they were more likely to put the large sign in their yard a few weeks later.

This could mean that by encouraging small requests, such as eating less meat, we can introduce more people to veganism rather than turning them away. So instead of requesting that people give up all animal products entirely, we could ask smaller requests like eat less meat per meal or avoid eating beef due to its large carbon footprint. By making small requests, we can encourage positive action towards the goal of veganism, while dissuading less people.


Small Steps

The world will not become vegan overnight. To approach the fragile discussions with non-vegans, it may be better to have small goals in mind and create a positive connotation of vegans. In this way, vegans will be able to make veganism normal and have an easier time spreading it to more people. Any amount of progress towards more mindful consumers is beneficial for the vegan movement. But vegans need to critically assess how their activism affects others and their overall goal. I would encourage vegans to analyze what form of activism works best for them, quite possibly one that I did not mention, and stick with that. I personally will be working on adjusting my attitude and critiquing how I approach conversations with non-vegans in order to benefit the movement.


Veganism is a delicate topic that has many obstacles around it due to society’s values around animal product consumption. In order to get around these obstacles, vegans should be aware of the psychology of animal product consumption and have an empathetic perspective when talking about veganism. Then vegans should pursue activism in the way that works best for them. I have discussed a couple strategies above, but these are by no means the only effective strategies. Overall, I ask vegans to analyze their activism and adjust their own approach to advocacy in order to benefit the vegan movement.







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9 responses to “Effective Vegan Advocacy

  1. Alec, thanks for landing on this topic for your blog post. Veganism has become more attractive to me over time, in large part by friends who have a reasonable approach based more on attraction rather than promotion.

    I have three kinds of vegan friends: Those who rarely ever mention it and quietly go about their dietary lifestyle. Those who bring it up from time to time and serve yummy vegan dishes at get-togethers. And finally, those who are judgmental jerks with a superiority complex. You can imagine which ones do a better job at making it seem like a reasonable lifestyle both from a moral and health perspective.

    You’re right, the militant vegans turn me off with their rhetoric and self-righteousness and frankly, I have no desire to be associated with them in anyway.

    I have significantly reduced the amount of animal based food in my diet over that last five years or so. Whether I adopt a completely vegan diet may or may not happen but posts like your are the type of thing gently nudging me in that direction.


    • Alec Camp

      Thanks Willie! I completely agree with your 3 categories of vegans. There are of course the militant vegans who are very passionate about veganism but come off offensive or pushy. There are the quiet vegans who try not to discuss their diet (possibly because they do not want to come off as a militant vegan). And then there are my favorite, who like to cook yummy food. I think cooking is such a positive way to go about vegan advocacy because it (hopefully) eliminates the popular myth that vegan food is not tasty. I live with 3 other guys currently and love cooking. Whenever I make a vegan meal, they all tell me that they love the food (way better than microwave beef taquitos). I think I am surprising them with how delicious a vegan diet can be! Eventually I hope to get them to put down the Hamburger Helper and cook up some vegetables with me!


  2. katieorlady

    I found your post to be a very interesting and unique approach to the discrepancies associated with vegans and non-vegans. Your explanation of veganism and the concept of making it more approachable and relatable to non-vegans by just talking about the subject and not pushing a vegan conversion I found to be a very realistic idea to grow the vegan movement. The ideas in your blog about advocacy towards the diet made it more understandable to me and now I feel more likely to try it.

    I agree with you that a big issues behind the vegan movement comes from people who express their passions toward veganism in an passive aggressive way like you experienced at the CU Boulder Vegan Club. I have had similar experiences in the past and these actions have turned me off from the diet. I appreciate that you are non-judgmental towards other’s diet preferences. Do you think that people like those at the CU Vegan Club are hindering the movement more than helping it? Do you think in the future veganism will ever become a widely popularized diet or is our society too depended on meat products?


    • Alec Camp

      Hello! Thanks so much for your feedback! As for the CU Vegan Justice League, I think that it is great that they are standing up for what they believe in. Not only are they trying to make change through their personal diets, but are trying to spread veganism to others. However, I believe that some of their efforts to spread veganism have been counter-productive. I am sure that the aggressive form of activism that they support has converted some people to become vegan or at least eat less meat; although, I believe this form of activism dissuades many more people from even considering veganism. I encourage vegan activists to analyze their advocacy to see if it is effective at getting people to eat less meat. In order to spread the vegan movement as much as possible, the most effective forms of advocacy should be used. As for the future (very far future), I believe that US society has a small potential to become entirely vegetarian. In order to do so, plant based diets would need to become the norm. If we can get US society to the point where more than half of the population adopted vegetarian diets (which would be quite the accomplishment by itself), then there would be a social pressure for meat eaters to join the majority and become “normal”. Eventually, this could lead to everyone adopting a vegetarian diet. Veganism could potentially do the same. More realistically though, I see veganism becoming more widespread in certain social groups (i.e. liberals and college-educated) but not in others. Regardless of how far it will go though, I believe that plant based diets are extremely important and need to be spread for the abundance of benefits they offer. Just because it may not ever become widely accepted, does not mean that we shouldn’t take action 🙂


  3. amyquandt

    Great, thought provoking post! Did you manage to find any vegan advocacy groups that use the more effective advocacy strategies that you mention?


    • Alec Camp

      Not yet. There is one club I am interested in called the Animal Welfare Society. From what I have found on their Facebook page, they seem more discussion based, which I am excited about. I will be looking into it soon!


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  5. This is a really awesome post! This was a great approach to addressing many different aspects of this issue. I like how you talk about the psychological/social part of why there is push back on eating vegan. I think it would be interesting to see if more males were opposed to eating meat cause of the whole aggression thing. Myself as a vegetarian tried to was able to convince my male roommates to not eat meat for about 9 months before they decided they wanted to integrate meat back into their diet, just less frequently. Obviously I don’t get mad at them for cooking it or eating it, I think its good that you talk about having a non-judgemental approach is so important to the movement spreading.


    • Alec Camp

      Thanks for the comment Halina! There is a podcast I follow called Thought for Food Lifestyle on Soundcloud. In one of their episodes they address the issue of why eating meat is sometimes seen as masculine and how men may feel that a plant based diet would take away from their masculinity if they were to switch. They produce a fantastic talk show that covers hundreds of topics surrounding a plant based lifesyle. Fantastic job on getting your roommates to try it! I have been trying to encourage my friends to try vegan by showing them how delicious the food is. I’ve been teaching myself to cook for the past couple years and now I blow their minds with how fantastic plants can taste. My favorite quote from my roommate was “I didn’t know carrots could taste like that!” I also recently got my friend to buy tofu the other day and I am offering to teach her how to make different marinades for it. I’m glad to see that people in my life are starting to understand the benefits of a plant based lifestyle on their own. The only obstacle after that is to get them to try it out and that’s where I think positive activism will be a tremendous tool.


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