Should you always support vegan brands? Or, to be more specific: Should you support vegan brands owned by less ethical corporations? I’ve been asking myself that question a lot, recently. I’ve raised the issue a few times here and over on Ethical Bargains, most recently in my post on Conagra Brands. I’ll get back to Conagra and a few other examples in a bit. First, here’s my answer to this question:
Yes, I think it’s generally a good idea to support vegan brands that are owned by less-ethical corporations. That comes with one fairly obvious condition: that the vegan brand itself scores pretty well for ethics – i.e., above 2.5 Green Stars on my 0-5 green star scale for social and environmental impact. My rationale is that you are supporting a corporation’s attempt to improve, ethically, and that’s a good thing.
There’s also a case for supporting ethical vegan brands owned by large corporations because it helps plant-based food to take off, and this is critical for mitigating climate change and deforestation. Here’s how The Vegan Society, the British organization behind the Vegan Trademark, puts it:
The more products that are available, the easier it is for people to be vegan. The more products that are created, the better they get. The more demand there is for those products, the cheaper they become to produce. What we are observing is veganism becoming easier, more enjoyable and more affordable than ever.
What motivates giant food corps to change?
These corporations are, of course, launching or acquiring vegan brands in order to increase revenue. I’m not saying that the CEOs suddenly see the light and decide to live in harmony with the planet – this is particularly unlikely to happen for publicly-traded corporations. They just want to get a piece of the plant-based action and make some money from it.
So, would it not be better to support a company like Beyond Meat that’s more mission-driven and entirely plant-based? Well, yes – I mostly try to support companies that have a triple bottom line (social, environmental, and financial) ethos. But the giant multinational food corporations aren’t showing any signs of diminishing, so the best thing we can do when it comes to them is to avoid their less ethical products and support their move towards sustainable, plant-based food.
Virtually the only way to persuade a giant food corporation to change is via its bottom lines – revenue and profit. That’s one of the main reasons why I encourage you to write reviews that include a Green Stars rating.
Support Gardein despite ownership by Conagra Brands?
I recently did an ethical evaluation of Conagra Brands, and rated the company 1 out of 5 Green Stars (this score runs from 0 to 5 Green Stars, by the way). I might bump that up to 1.5 green stars based on some slightly positive recent news, but it remains a very poor score. Last week, I wrote a review of Gardein’s Turk’y roast on the GSP’s sister site, Ethical Bargains, and scored it 3.5 Green Stars for sustainability and social impact. Better than average and certainly better than buying a real turkey.
So, I don’t love Conagra Brands but I would love it if the company changed for the better, so I’ll probably buy Gardein products from time to time. However, remember the caveat – the brand itself needs to be ethical. Most plant-based brands are fairly ethical by nature but there are a few exceptions…
Avoid Earth Balance
Conagra acquired another big vegan brand around the same time as Gardein: Earth Balance, which is a line of vegan butter substitutes. I rated Earth Balance 1/5 Green Stars for reasons that overlap with my low rating for Conagra, particularly Conagra’s palm oil sourcing policy. So, buying Earth Balance products does not actually encourage positive behavior at Conagra Brands – it just supports business as usual.
If Earth Balance were to drastically improve supply chains (e.g., Palm Done Right certified palm oil and organic sunflower oil) then I would recommend supporting the brand. Conversely, if standards at Gardein slip, I would recommend dropping this brand. In other words, buy the brands that represent the world you want to see, and keep an eye on them in case standards change.
So you get the picture. Here are a few other examples that I’ve come across.
Sweet Earth, now owned by Nestlé
Some of the companies that were acquired by giant food corporations didn’t choose that fate, and I expect that some employees had mixed feelings. Several of these brands were once independent companies, respected in their community, like Gardein in British Columbia. That’s certainly true of Sweet Earth, founded in 1978 and still based in the Monterey Bay area. Sweet Earth has been making plant-based foods like seitan and vegan bacon for years and, in turn, supports other local companies like Far West Fungi.
Sweet Earth was acquired by Nestlé in 2017, and despite the fact that I’m really not a fan of Nestlé, I still buy some Sweet Earth products. I reviewed Sweet Earth pizzas (which do contain cheese as well as meat substitutes) and rated them 3.5 Green Stars. Their vegan products would get a higher rating – I particularly like their Benevolent Bacon. Overall, I’ll support Sweet Earth;s vegan products, partly because I liked the company and partly because Nestlé needs to change.
Lärabar, now owned by General Mills
I can’t say that I’m that excited about Lärabar products, but I think the products deserve 3.5 Green Stars for social and environmental impact. I haven’t completed research on Lärabar’s parent company, General Mills, yet but my rating is shaping up to be lower than that (I’ll post it here when complete).
Like many of the food giants, General Mills rates quite poorly but has a few brighter spots that rise above the intensive agriculture and commodity market ingredients. I intend to review one of these General Mills brands, Cascadian Farm, over on Ethical Bargains soon. As I mentioned in my review of Lärabar, General Mills is getting into regenerative agriculture (but at what percentage of total land used?).
Back to Nature cookies, owned by B&G foods
Back to Nature makes plant-based cookies that look and taste a lot like the “real thing.” I reviewed Back to Nature cookies and gave them 3 and 3.5 Green Stars (there were two kinds). Not fantastic, but better than average if you are craving vegan chocolate chip cookies. The parent brand is now B&G foods – a New Jersey based company with a bunch of brands that you may have heard of. This is one of those fairly generic-sounding brands that are owned by generic-sounding parent companies – ultimately you just have to rely on whatever information you can find about the product itself.
Should you always support vegan brands? – Final thoughts
I’ll still choose to support mission-driven companies for most of my processed food (Miyoko’s, Beyond Meat, Alter-Eco, Nature’s Path, etc.). But there is some merit in buying ethical brands from less-ethical corporations in order to promote change. But this has to be quite selective and only as needed. I’m OK with encouraging Nestlé and Conagra to sell more plant-based products, but want to be clear that I’ve no interest in their bottled water and sketchy palm oil.
Should we come up with a name for this practice of boycotting 95% of a company’s brands but supporting the 5% that measure up? Share your suggestions in the comments, please!