Want to be a More Effective Advocate? Put the (Vegan) Shoe on the Other Foot

Want to be a More Effective Advocate? Put the (Vegan) Shoe on the Other Foot

by Caryn Ginsberg

Why do people resist change when you tell them about the cruelty behind factory farming, fur, puppy mills, or other animal use and abuse? Whether you’re an individual advocate or part of a group, you may feel disappointed, discouraged, upset, or even angry at their seeming indifference to suffering.
To learn how to be more effective, start by putting the vegan shoe on the other foot. You’re used to talking to others about animal issues. How would you react if someone was talking to you or sharing written materials about a different type of issue?

To find out, and to gain some great insight on your advocacy, read the italicized text in the example below asking you to stop shopping at malls or large retailers for clothing.

(If the example isn’t relevant because you already avoid malls and chains and always buy secondhand clothing, think about another “world-­friendly” or health­-promoting action that you may not have taken. For example, do you live without a car, never purchase bottled water, or eat 100% raw vegan food? What would someone advocating for that say to you and why might you not take action?)

Example of what an advocate in another field might say to you about shopping:

Shopping at the mall or in national retail stores hurts the environment and people. It’s important that you never buy clothing in these outlets!

The cotton in shirts has probably been treated with pesticides. Synthetic fibers are produced using petrochemicals. Dyeing and printing consume vast amounts of water and chemicals, and release numerous volatile agents into the atmosphere that are particularly harmful to our health.

Manufacturers source a lot of clothing from China where workers endure long hours. Health and safety conditions in the factories include exposure to toxic chemicals, fire hazards and high risk of industrial accidents.

Are you ready to give up buying any clothing at all in malls or major retail stores? Shoes? Bathing suits? Underwear? If you’re like people I’ve spoken to at conferences, your answer is no.

I’ve used this approach at numerous conferences. Whether I ask people to shop exclusively at second-hand outlets, give up their cars, or eat 100% raw food, I rarely have more than a few takers. That’s because these mini-campaigns don’t go far enough to address three key steps that would make them more compelling.

While nothing can guarantee 100% success, these three steps will help you do more for animals.

1. Answer “what’s in it for me?”

People change when they feel it’s in their interest to do so. When you read the shopping example, you evaluated what’s in it for me. If you weren’t ready to give up shopping at large retailers, you didn’t perceive the benefits of doing so as greater than the barriers.

Even if you valued the environmental and social justice arguments, you may have had concerns about:

-Where else to shop
-Higher prices for organic, labor-friendly goods from specialty retailers
-The quality and selection of second-hand clothing
-The inconvenience of shopping at a thrift shop or consignment outlet

We can talk ourselves blue in the face, but unless we tip the scales for people to feel that taking action is in their benefit, they won’t. Altruism can make people feel good about themselves, but it’s one benefit among many and comes up against the barriers that people often see in making change.

2. Focus on more than message

Crafting effective messages, whether one-on-one or for campaigns, is critical to success. But effective advocacy requires more than education on the issues. It’s about delivering the complete package to inspire change. For example, a campaign to persuade women who wear fur coats to choose alternatives should also provide information on fake furs, identify where to buy them, and explain how to donate a fur coat to an animal protection organization for a possible tax deduction. Businesses know that it takes the 4Ps of marketing: product (the faux coats), place (where to buy), and price (tax deduction) in addition to promotion (communication) to get results.

Much of the growth in the consumption of vegetarian and vegan foods has come from the increase in substitute products and grocers carrying them. Further advances to improve taste, lower cost, and increase availability can be as powerful or even more so than what we say and how we say it.

3. Find out what you don’t know

The appeal asking you to avoid malls and major retailers wasn’t based on any understanding of your situation. Suppose I’d first asked these questions:

-Where do you shop now and why?
-What would you think of buying some or all of your clothing second-hand?
-What benefits would you see in buying second-hand clothing?

Maybe you weren’t that convinced of the environmental impact, but liked the idea of saving money. Maybe you weren’t aware of a nicer thrift shop that had just opened in your area. By finding out what was on your mind, I could have engaged you with ideas, and resources that were much more compelling.

When we talk with people one-on-one, we get better results by listening as much as talking. Rather than “speechifying,” asking questions and genuinely considering the responses give us useful information and can build a better relationship.

When we’re planning campaigns, research is our tool to listen to large numbers of people. In focus groups, participants share detail and nuance on how they feel about animal issues. Surveys reach large numbers of people to provide quantified results that can predict how others will generally respond.

Insight and action

To put these ideas to work for you and for animals, think about each of these key points in planning your advocacy:

Answer what’s in it for me? Consider ways you help people perceive additional benefits and fewer barriers to animal-friendly behavior.

Focus on more than the message. Make it easier for people to adopt animal-friendly behaviors, such as by maintaining a listing of restaurants with great cruelty-free food the area. If alternatives are inferior, costly, or hard to find, explore ways to change the situation.

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