Institutional Change and the Limitations of Consumer Activism
Jacy Reese Anthis
Co-Founder & Research Fellow
February 12, 2020

In early 2019, we started drafting papers to submit to peer-reviewed journals, in order to help build the research literature on effective animal advocacy (EAA) and moral circle expansion (MCE). The second of these papers, “Institutional Change and the Limitations of Consumer Activism,” is now published with Palgrave Communications. The first paper is here, and the third paper is specifically on the idea of MCE, currently under review at an ethics journal.

This paper on institutional change makes the case for social movement actors, particularly animal advocates, using the “institutional approach,” meaning a focus less on individual consumers and more on businesses, governments, social norms, and the like. This has been one of the main strategic findings of Sentience Institute’s research (and work by others, such as Animal Charity Evaluators) over the past few years. We hope this paper also helps other researchers publish this sort of “social movement strategy” work, since it is so important yet neglected in the current academic literature.


Organizations that aim to encourage or mitigate social change frequently face strategic trade-offs between changing the behaviour of individuals or institutions. This paper provides a conceptual analysis of this trade-off and an initial case study on the grand challenge of industrial animal agriculture. The nascent movement attempting to address this global issue has so far heavily focused on changing individual consumption with central messages like ‘go vegan’ and tactics like handing out pro-vegetarian leaflets. This paper critiques that focus, proposing instead what we call an institutional approach that focuses on changing governments, firms, social norms, and the like, particularly through developing and commercializing new food technologies. This paper argues from a perspective of effective altruism, aiming to maximize positive impact, that an increased use of the institutional approach may help organizations more effectively achieve their ethical goals. There are some cost-effective uses for the individual approach, so it should not be abandoned entirely, but a significant reduction may be prudent, at least in this context, and further research is warranted on this trade-off in other social contexts.



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