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Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream is delicious, but are we forgoing our ethics by purchasing it?

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Last month, Ben and Jerry’s announced that they were releasing four new vegan flavors onto shelves, and vegans everywhere rejoiced.

Well, mostly.

I wish I could tell you that you’re about to read some straightforward argument, but please allow me to meander through, “should I eat the ice cream or not,” and touch on a few conflicting ideas. The question I’m asking is not one that I think has an easy answer.

Despite the ice cream company putting their best foot forward, a few vegans put their critical thinking caps on, and denounced the actions of Ben and Jerry’s to be “vegan-washing,” a term on par with green-washing and pink-washing, where a company slaps a label or hops on a movement for a brief moment as a means of generating profit. Lili Trenkova of Collectively Free wrote that “this is NOT a victory,” and said it better than I could:

“The Ben & Jerry’s statement came after a petition pleading them to introduce plant-based options took off into social media and gathered numerous supporters. What the petition organizers and supporters fail to see, however, is that their efforts only made Ben & Jerry’s job easier: before they weren’t sure that plant-based ice cream would be a sellable product, but now they are. The reality is that plant-based ice creams are on the rise in trendiness. They are delicious and less unhealthy, and there are more and more options on the market. Of course, Ben & Jerry’s would like a share of the profit to be had.”

There’s a huge part of me that absolutely agrees with Trenkova. I’m suspicious of corporations like Ben and Jerry’s hopping on a particular bandwagon, but you know what? I’m gonna eat the damn ice cream. Welcome to the capitalist hellscape! In the same way that I’ll purchase vegan boots from Doc Martens or order the lentil-barley burger at my favorite (omnivorous) pub in DC, I’m hopeful that consumer choices will push bigger industries in a better direction. At the same time, my heart wouldn’t break too much if said hellscape crumbled, and the New World Order provided small scale vegan ice cream shops for everyone.

Friends, this shit is nuanced. What I’m getting at here is that I think it’s perfectly okay to get excited that an iconic American company is expanding a delicious product to be delicious and (kind of?) cruelty-free, but let’s not kid ourselves out of thinking that intentions and hearts were pure. That’s just another way of putting blinders and earmuffs on, and la la la-ing our way into vegan complacency, where cruelty is allowed to happen so long as there is a tasty alternative. On the other side of the same coin, I can hear the commenters of Ecorazzi past crying foul, and that “true veganism” doesn’t exist since we contribute, intentionally or not, to non-vegan industries every day by simply riding on a commuter train with leather seats, eating a grain that may have killed field mice, or drinking from a non-recycled cup. I get their arguments, I truly do, and I would be a wild hypocrite if I said I will never again taste on of Ben and Jerry’s flavors.

When it comes down to it, the answer, in my opinion, it an obvious one. We support local and small scale vegan business as much as we possibly can and build their efforts. The Ben and Jerry’s news was excellent for mainstream vegans, but perhaps not as exciting for a smaller all-vegan sweet shop. Depending on where you live, you either have a local ice cream business, or you might not be that fortunate. Popping down at the local Wal-Mart in a town such as the rural Virginia county I spent my summers in is sometimes the only option, and it’s only fair that folks with little small grocer access get to have delicious treats like the rest of us.

I dream of the same future that vegan anti-capitalists do, and at my core, I identify as anti-capitalist myself, but capitalism doesn’t come with an “opt out” form, and participating in the current system is something we must do as carefully as possible.

The other evening while I walked around Georgetown, I poked my head in to Ben and Jerry’s, and sure enough, they were serving up the new flavors. My review? Flawless, delicious, and rich, but surely a decadent treat only for certain occasions. The pints in my freezer will likely continue to be chock full of non-dairy, non-cow abusing goodness from companies with a different standard of ethics… and every once in awhile, B and J might make a brief visit if they should be so lucky.

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  • vegan truth seeker

    If we waited for small vegan companies to make the change worldwide it would take forever…

    Even though ethical vegans dream of a cruelty-free world, unfortunately that will never happen – money dictates the direction big corporations take; if consumers want vegan products they’ll provide those products as simple as that!
    The owners of big business could care less about animals or the environment, therefore if we’re not lucky enough to be able to live in a remote, off-grid, self-sustainable place, then by buying vegan products from big companies we’re telling them there’s a profit to be made in veganism and so they’ll at least provide those products on a large scale, which will allow more people to try vegan products, which will increase their sales, which will make them provide a bigger variety of vegan products and so forth… capitalism at its ‘best’!

    this is the world we live in… if we’re too strict in this particular issue ethical vegans will remain a small niche and that’s not what we want… we want to ‘conquer’ the planet… when do we want it? NOW! Or as soon as possible 🙂

  • RalphUNC

    I’m going to guess you are talking about Meridian Pint’s barley-lentil burger? I can’t imagine there are many other pubs offering that. It is delicious!

    I’m pretty comfortably on the side of encouraging omnivorous places to have vegan options. My values and taste buds will still lead me to support Sticky Fingers and Woodlands Vegan Bistro (now NuVegan) very frequently, but since I can’t eat there all the time, I’m thrilled when places like Meridian Pint are vegan-friendly.

    • Lalasunflower

      Yup! DC vegans unite!!

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