Buyer’s Remorse: Companies Drop Pledges They Were Bullied Into Making

When someone is being held up, the common advice is to just hand over the wallet so things don’t get worse. After all, credit cards can be canceled, phones can be locked, and the real losses will be minimal.

Some businesses adopted the same response to the animal liberation movement. When activists showed up with signs and bullhorns, some companies agreed to sign a pledge to make them go away. But it’s not a one-time hold-up. These minor appeasements have led to regular harassment from activist groups. And when companies have found these pledges to be unrealistic to implement, these groups have doubled down on their harassment campaigns.

To understand why outside pledges may not be in the best interest of a company, we must first understand how these pledges started, why they’re so difficult to abide by, what it means when companies fail to follow through, and how companies should respond moving forward.

The Pledge Trap

Sign-a-pledge campaigns have become commonplace on social media. Led by and other online petition platforms, pledges are a way to get attention on an issue without really doing anything to change it.

But the same is not true of the animal rights movement and its effort to secure corporate pledges. For decades, animal liberation activists have pressured corporations into making public statements about their plans to transition away from traditionally sourced animal protein toward whatever humane standard was in vogue at the time.

For the companies, it seemed like an easy win. Dodge activists by pledging to do something within the next 10 years and kick the can down the road.

But this appeasement strategy only fuels the animal activists. The activists take pledges from one company and use it to bully other companies on the same issue. They also come back to the original target with more demands, knowing that the company has already caved once.

The activist pressure focuses minds on the short term. Now, some companies have realized they’ve promised the impossible.

Impossible Follow Through

The goal of the animal liberation movement is not modest improvements in the quality of life for farm animals; It’s the abolition of all animal products. These pledges are constructed with that goal in mind.

Consider early pledges to use “crate-free” pork–that is, pork from farms where sows were not housed in individual maternity pens. (See Issue Brief: Sow Housing for more on this issue.)

Some companies, including McDonalds, publicly expressed a goal of using crate-free pork and put forward a pledge to do so in 2012. But in 2012, almost no pork suppliers in the country produced pork that would meet this different standard. Flash forward a decade and supply of crate-free pork isn’t much larger. The cost of obtaining the product made the pledge impossible to keep. This led to a second round of harassment, as activists targeted McDonald’s with a proxy campaign–which McDonald’s won handily. (See Case Study: McDonald’s.)

Of course, McDonalds is not alone. Subway, Burger King, Costco, Safeway, and others all made similar pledges around the same time. And each now faces annual backlash from activists for failing to meet the demands of their impossible pledges.

Here are just a few companies that have been targeted for failed pledges in recent years:

  • In 2012, Campbell’s Soup promised to eliminate maternity pens from its pork supply by 2022. But as of last year, none of its pork is produced without the use of maternity pens. The company also promised in 2016 to source 100% cage-free eggs by 2025, but recent indicators show the company has an even smaller percentage of cage-free products in 2022 than it did in 2018.
  • Panera Bread already missed its goal of being fully cage-free by 2020. It then extended its deadline to 2025, but things haven’t gone well. The percentage of cage-free eggs was lower in 2021 than it was five years prior.
  • In 2012, Jack In The Box promised to eliminate maternity pens from its pork supply by 2022. But by 2019, the company had removed the promise from its website and stated that it was “discussing” the issue with its pork suppliers.

Animal Welfare and Environment

Animal rights activists constantly move the goalposts. When food companies give in to demands, the activists target them with more. It feeds a cycle of pressure. Lost in the noise are the fundamentals: Are these policies good for the environment and animal welfare?

Pledges demanded by activists have negative consequences for the environment and sustainability efforts, as well as animal welfare. See our Issue Briefs on Sow Housing and Antibiotics for two examples.

Most animal rights activists have no expertise on veterinary medicine or animal science. They don’t understand how certain practices can keep animals safe and healthy. Decisions about what constitutes a humane standard should be left to experts, not pressure campaigns.


Consider the following points:

  • Animal activists want to eliminate all animal protein, no matter how it is produced.
  • Animal activists use astroturf campaigns to push companies into making pledges.
  • The pledges are proving impossible to meet.

The lesson is this: Don’t dig yourself a hole. If the activists come calling, ignore them.