One major roadblock preventing sustainable and ethical systems from replacing more problematic production models is the language that surrounds the resulting creations, and therefore their perception within the context of popular culture. Those of us who do the most consuming of resources (America, China and other increasingly westernized, industrialized nations) are often driven by desires meticulously crafted by those turning wilderness into fuel, rainforests into beef and leather, animals into fashion objects, and traditional, disempowered communities into disposable, exploited workers.
It’s difficult to formulate compelling and concise presentations of compassionate production models, or even to differentiate ethical products among a sea of heavily funded, marketed and celebrated objects and processes without resorting to the simple rule of clarity. In other words, it’s easier to say “organic, fair trade cotton pants”, “faux-leather shoes” or “vegan pizza” than to come up with something that both represents the values behind these objects and utilizes the language and imagery of what is overwhelmingly considered desirable. We’re often left with the choice of trying to shift enormous cultural values, asking “why isn’t what’s compassionate valued over what’s pretty or tasty?”, or place these objects outside of what is popularly considered desirable in favor of clarifying how they were made. The unfortunate thing is that, while a word like “vegan” is certainly clear about what will not be found in an object or process (products of intentional animal exploitation), it has overwhelmingly come to be understood as something that is lacking. It is a submissive term in the context of desire. We fool ourselves into thinking that honesty, earnestness and transparency will somehow overcome the grace and simplicity of coveted aesthetic qualities. It’s like comparing a clever soundbite with a lengthy explanation. The soundbite is almost always more memorable, yet rarely provides thorough understanding.
“We fool ourselves into thinking that honesty, earnestness and transparency will somehow overcome the grace and simplicity of coveted aesthetic qualities.”
Earnestness and desirability are rarely bedfellows. In a culture where being perceived as sexy, risk-taking, adventurous, creative, powerful, hedonistic and even rebellious is sought after, those of us redefining food, fashion and other production models miss huge opportunities by ignoring what drives most people toward their purchasing behaviors (and thus, with what they choose to identify). Even when we know that many of these new products, objects and processes are superior to what preceded them – for instance, some of the most exciting innovations in both food and fashion creations are happening in the vegan realm – we always seem to be on the defensive against claims that what we eat, wear and do is in bad taste, of poor quality and contradicts legacy and tradition.
A big frustration, for example, is the perception by the mainstream that the term “vegan” essentially means unpalatable and flavorless. This is because some people probably tired something once that was labeled as “vegan” that wasn’t prepared well. The logical flaw here is obvious when the equation is reversed. If they’d had something awful that wasn’t vegan, it wouldn’t mean that all non-vegan food tastes awful. So this is sort of a call to action in mastering semantics for the sake of creating desire around ethics and sustainability.
Here are some tips and pointers to keep in mind when talking about, promoting or selling vegan products:
• IT’S NOT FAKE, IT’S BETTER
We must stop using words like “faux”, “imitation”, and “fake” unless absolutely necessary. It’s a dirty, bad habit, so quit it! What it tells people is that what we are wearing or eating is aspiring to be something that it is not, automatically making it inferior to that thing. For example, my vegan boots are not faux-leather. They are better than leather in many ways. They are superior to leather. They are advanced, future leather. Or they’re not “leather” at all, they are something entirely new and visionary.
• THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Design must be the prioritized element of anything aiming to win people over. Being morally correct rarely overcomes the perceived correctness of beauty. It is an irrational logic that beauty equals correctness – and, although definitions of beauty fluctuate, this is a prevailing characteristic of almost every human culture throughout history. The overwhelming majority of us are pleasure-seeking, aesthetically-driven animals who enjoy feeling good. If we can develop a mastery of what is currently considered desirable (or better yet, lead the next wave of desirable aesthetics), we will also have a mastery of one major point of leverage from which to drive cultural change. In short, let good design be what’s noticed first, and the ethics are the icing on the cake; they’re yet another reason to enjoy something even more thoroughly.
“Being morally correct rarely overcomes the perceived correctness of beauty.”
• LET THE YUCKY DIE
Vegan Business Darwinism may sound harsh, but we have to stop “saving” the yucky places. If a vegan bakery, for example, is going under because their food tastes like paper, even if it’s an historic vegan landmark, they need to step it up or face going under. Harsh? Yes. But there’s a lot at stake when everything labeled as “vegan” is held accountable to representing an entire cultural movement, and I for one don’t want them representing this movement to the rest of the world. Funneling effort and resources into saving Cardboard Cupcakes Co. is a generous gesture, and our values are correct in supporting an ethical enterprise, but unless you’re putting a new pastry chef in the kitchen, it doesn’t help animals and it doesn’t make veganism look (or taste) good. Essentially, it doesn’t create desire. These are the places that make people say, “Oh I tried something vegan once and it was awful, therefore all vegan food is awful”.
“…there’s a lot at stake when everything labeled as “vegan” is held accountable to representing an entire cultural movement…”
• TACTICAL V-WORD OPERATION
It’s okay to just call it cake. It doesn’t have to be vegan cake (or at least not until after your co-workers have tried and and liked it and then you tell them it’s vegan). I’m not saying to never use the V, but use it with confidence, use it sparingly, carefully, strategically – and for crying out loud, don’t share things that aren’t awesome, especially if it’s someone’s first time trying something vegan. Force it only when it can be seen in a positive light. If someone has gone out of their way to tell you how much they love your shoes? Then they’re vegan shoes. If someone asks you for the recipe because they couldn’t get enough? It’s vegan. But be mindful of scaring people off with the V before they’ve had a chance to swoon about things, and certainly don’t use it if someone expresses how much they hated something. Vegan may mean flawless to you, but it means quite the opposite to many others. Be calculating and tactical, and don’t put ego in place of what’s effective.
• YIN TO THE YANG
Only so many of us can stay motivated purely by gory videos and undercover investigative documentation. Guilt, empathy, shock and outrage are crucial to winning any social justice issue, but in addition to providing those hash truths that result in such powerful feelings, think hard about generating desire as the yin to the yang of the scary stuff.
• GET HUMBLE
I don’t care if you almost reached Nirvana through meditation. I don’t care if you’re next to perfect in your puritanical approach to avoiding every possible means of interfering with an animal’s life (to the point of paralysis). Portraying yourself as more enlightened, having cleaner hands or simply being better is almost always a turn-off to others. This is the opposite of desire. There is a difference between confidence and arrogance, grace and effrontery.
• IN WITH THE INTRIGUE
A friend recently told me how he came to his veganism. He had another friend who was vegan, and when he asked why this person had chosen this lifestyle, she replied “We don’t know each other well enough for you to hear my answer.” This intrigued him to the point of researching it himself. There is a lot of desire associated with intrigue, and we can certainly use it!
Eventually, words like “sustainable” and “vegan” must come to mean superior in aesthetics, design, production methodology, and ethical considerations within mainstream perception in order to win people over. If we create desire, the pleasure-seekers will come.
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