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December 2002/January 2003
Cruelty-free Retail: Can we Shop Our way to Animal Liberation?

By Adam Weissman


In a word, no.

As people of conscience have questioned the cruelty and suffering built into the products we consume, a burgeoning industry has arisen to fulfill this niche market. In return, vegetarians, vegans, and other socially conscious consumers have embraced these “guilt-free” products with open arms as a solution, the only drawback to which is that they have not been universally embraced by the general public. One national animal rights leader has even said that the most important development towards animal liberation is the advent of “packaged vegan convenience foods.”

But are we betraying the questioning spirit that led many of us to challenge the impact of our purchases in the first place?

The concept of the “cruelty-free” product denies a fundamental and unavoidable reality. Exploitation is woven into every level of every activity of our civilization, which was built upon, and continues to exist through, the subjugation of the earth and animals—human and non—and where productive activity is designed to produce economic growth and transform our living planet into capital.

We can look at almost any “cruelty-free” product and find massive amounts of exploitation in its production, even if it abstains from exploitation in one or two significant (and heavily advertised) ways. Take a pack of Tofu Pups for example, an alternative to hot dogs and a favorite of people who abstain from flesh-eating, but wish to enjoy some of the comfort foods from their past.

For starters, we can look at the growing of the soybeans used. Vegetarians and vegans have been horrified—and rightfully so—by the atrocity of raising and slaughtering animals for consumption, but in the process, many have turned a blind eye to the exploitation and suffering involved in raising crops.

The creation of farmland involves the destruction of wildlife habitat and natural ecosystems, whether this means logging a forest or simply threshing land for crop rows and loosened soil. Animal species and the ecosystems they rely on have survived because they are part of a highly specific set of habitat conditions that have evolved over millions of years. When we turn biodiverse, unspoiled plains and forests into farmlands, countless animals fall to their deaths as trees crash to the ground or are crushed by tractors and plows; and scores of native creatures are rendered homeless and deprived of food sources.

According to the July 15, 2002 issue of Time Magazine, Oregon State University’s Steven Davis “has found evidence that suggests that the unseen losses of field animals are very high. One study documented that a single operation, mowing alfalfa, caused a 50 percent reduction in the gray-tailed vole population. Mortality rates increase with every pass of the tractor to plow, plant, and harvest.”

Those animals who survive, attempt to subsist by consuming the crops that have replaced the native plants. For this act of survival, they are considered “agricultural pests.” As punishment, they are hunted; poisoned with pesticides and fumigants; or consumed by “biological control agents”—animals introduced by farmers specifically to prey on “pest” species.

The work of maintaining these lands is handled by some of the most severely exploited workers on the planet. The veganism of grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and strawberries does nothing to address the horrible exploitation of the farm workers who sow, till, fertilize, apply pesticides, and harvest crops.

According to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, conditions for farm workers in the U.S. include: strenuous and often deforming physical labor in hazardous working conditions; average earnings far below poverty; child labor; sub-standard housing; and some of the nation’s poorest health conditions, including elevated rates of infectious and chronic diseases, malnutrition, and infant and maternal mortality.

This is to say nothing of the impacts of the petroleum-based plastic and tree-based paper packaging, the energy used to turn soy and other ingredients into a pup, the resources needed for product transportation, or the waste created when the packaging is disposed of. In many cases, “cruelty-free” brands are owned by mega-corporations which mask their ownership to prey on our concerns for the animals, the environment, and our fellow humans. And ultimately, cruelty-free or not, our consumption contributes to the waste stream.

So, what is the alternative?

Foraging for Change
Before agriculture, before industry, even before the advent of the ritual hunt, (I suggest reading Jim Mason’s book An Unnatural Order on this point), humans provided for themselves through direct communion with nature’s bounty, foraging for fruits, nuts, seeds, berries, and roots. The land was not owned and food was not a product. People consumed to meet their needs, with little opportunity for waste or overconsumption. The only “producer” was Earth itself. Humans existed as equals with other animals and the environment, not as owners, conquerors, “stewards,” or destroyers.

In the context of an economic system that views animals and the earth as raw materials, humanity as a market, and disease and warfare as opportunities for profit, a growing number of people are stepping outside of the conventional economy and reconnecting to our species’ forager roots. Some, like naturalist Wildman Steve Brill, author of Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places and The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, are rediscovering and educating others on wild, noncultivated plants as a food source.

Many more look at the waste generated by mass production and survive by consuming the enormous amount of resources discarded every single day. Variously referred to as urban foragers, dumpster divers, scavengers, or freegans, these people are able to live without financially contributing to exploitative systems while at the same time taking a small bite out of the waste stream.

Urban foragers rarely, if ever, need to shop, providing for such basic necessities as food and clothing through the discards of retailers, factories, and households. Some, known as “squatters,” find, restore, and inhabit abandoned buildings, providing rent-free housing. Through this lifestyle, the forager can escape the cycle of selling their time to a boss and then giving the money back to other bosses to purchase consumables that they believe they need. They can devote their time to defending the earth and its inhabitants, instead of to the forces responsible for their destruction.

Despite its noble intentions, foraging is a hard sell—turned stomachs and upturned noses are an initial reaction of many upon first hearing that people consume trash by choice. The ideology of consumerism says that a thing is only valid if it is purchased in a store, and has greater value if it carries a designer label or is heavily advertised. We have been taught that things become unfit for consumption once removed from the store shelf. Reality of course, differs sharply. Every single night, restaurants, bakeries, groceries, and delis discard massive amounts of healthy, clean, fresh food. Foraging has common sense appeal to a growing number of people, many who do not fit the stereotype of a young hippie or anarchist often associated with dumpster diving. Ironically, the fact that many have been schooled in the value of material things also leads them to be bothered by seeing them wasted, regardless of whether they have a fully developed animal or earth liberation analysis. Some dumpster dive purely for the joy of unearthing free treasures. Others are motivated to provide for their needs out of economic necessity created by low-paying jobs or job loss. Some can’t stomach the idea of eating “dumpstered” food, but are more than happy to recover books, clothing, newspapers, games, and furniture from others’ trash.

There are some cult favorites—Robert Hoyt’s folk album “Dumpster Diving Across America” and the book The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving. Surprisingly, the mainstream media has also been taking note of this growing trend. Two stories on the PBS TV series “Life 360,” one of which followed a band of merry dumpster divers from the Activism Center at Wetlands Preserve, the popular online journal, and the Columbus Dispatch have each addressed dumpster diving.

While the growth of this movement is encouraging, radical foragers are under no illusion that consuming trash, in isolation of other actions, will change much of anything. While consumer choices are important, radical foragers ultimately recognize that we have a moral imperative not just for abstinence from purchasing, but also for ACTION. Whether they are blockading logging roads with Earth First!, raising consciousness with literature like the Independent Media Center’s The Indypendent, or sharing the wealth by redistributing food with Food Not Bombs, foragers view their consumption choices as one element in a lifestyle of resistance to the enslavement of animals, oppression of humans, and destruction of our planet.

If you are unconvinced, why not untie a few bags in front of your local bagel shop? The cops won’t bother you for the most part, provided you don’t make a mess (Please remember: Untie, don’t tear bags! Someone else might want to check out the same trash, and leaving a mess may motivate a store owner to keep food in a locked dumpster.) You’ll be amazed by the abundance of perfectly edible food you’ll find. Within a week, you may find yourself catering parties with dumpstered food!

To learn more about freegan living, read the essay Why Freegan?, online at, or contact the Activism Center at Wetlands Preserve, a New York-based human, animal, and earth liberation group committed to educating on responsible consumption through waste recovery. Call (212) 947-7744, visit or email


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