Reading Time: 5 minutes The iconic KitKat is getting a vegan makeover... but should we support Nestlé? Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

It’s shaping up to be the ethical decision of the year: should vegans support Nestlé? Will you eat the vegan KitKat when it launches?

Of course, that question is tongue-in-cheek. There are many more important ethical questions: will MPs ban pig farrowing crates on March 10? Will we get an independent inquiry into the handling of Covid?

The ‘traditional’ KitKat has long been one of the top five favorite chocolate bars in the UK. It’s estimated the average person will eat 1,500 KitKats over a lifetime. It is the global food giant Nestlé’s best-selling chocolate brand. 

But trying the new KitKat V remains an ethical dilemma. Will it help drive demand so vegan food becomes the norm? Do we know Nestlé’s track record on human rights? Is veganism already lost to the capitalist takeover? Should vegans support Nestlé or boycott the company altogether?

There are four questions to answer.

  1. Does buying vegan products from non-vegan corporations benefit the animals?
  2. Should we buy anything at all from Nestlé? 
  3. Do intersectional issues on human justice matter for being vegan?

I said four, but I’m saving the last until the end.

Vegan products from non-vegan businesses

The pragmatic approach to advancing a vegan world is to work with the grain of what we have and change it from the inside, eschewing ‘purity’ for practicality. 

This position accepts that we live in a non-vegan world. We also live in a global capitalist economy dominated by corporations who provide us with most of our food. The vast majority are non-vegan businesses. They make billions off the bodies of animals. 

Will boycotting these businesses lead to the end of animal exploitation? Or does showing these corporations’ demand convince them to offer more plant-based options?

“The more products that are available, the easier it is for people to be vegan.”

The Vegan Society

The Vegan Society works with non-vegan companies. Its reasoning is simple: “The more products that are available, the easier it is for people to be vegan.” 

It is recognition that change comes in stages—people are on a journey—and it helps non-vegan businesses recognize the value of vegan products.

The co-founder of Veganuary and entrepreneur behind VFC Matthew Glover argues the same. He says that by choosing vegan products from these companies ‘we as consumers make it clear to them that this is what we want and that it’s a sector worth investing in’.

But as others have pointed out, every penny you spend could go direct to a fully vegan business. These businesses rely on us. Does the KitKat matter to you so much?

Should vegans support Nestlé?

As reported by PBN, Alexander von Maillot, Head of Confectionery at Nestlé, said: “One of the most common requests we see on social media is for a vegan KitKat. So, we’re delighted to be able to make that wish come true.” 

But is Nestlé really our fairy godmother?

Ten companies dominate over half of all food supply globally. Nestlé is the biggest of these. Its revenues exceed $100 billion every year, with profits of $11 billion. It spends more than $3 billion just on advertising.

It didn’t get to be the world’s biggest food company by being nice.

There’s the baby milk scandal of the 1970s. There have been accusations of child labor, unethical water mining, deforestation, and bailing on Fairtrade farmers.

There’s the ongoing American water scandal, where Nestlé has tried to buy water, bottle it, and sell it back to people on the land that is now dry. This is so serious it has reached the US congress. Remember, too, Nestlé is one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters.

There was also the attempt to trademark the phrase ‘vegan butcher’ for its new plant-based US brand Sweet Earth Foods. Nestlé lost that case, thanks to a challenge from The Herbivorous Butcher to keep the phrase available to all. Nestlé also tried to use the Impossible Burger’s trademark. It lost that case too.

But it isn’t the worst offender. For MarketWatch and the charity Oxfam, Nestlé often comes out best for taking action on major issues within global food supply chains. 

In Oxfam’s Behind the Brands report, it received the highest scores for addressing transparency, water use, and climate change of any major food company. Companies such as Kellogg’s and PepsiCo came out worse. 

So if you’re boycotting Nestlé, you really need to boycott every major food corporation and the companies they own. Does that include the vegan ones, such as Oatly, now with major investment from profiteers Blackstone

Intersectional Lives Matter 

The KitKat and me have history. If you grew up in Croydon, like I did, you would know the huge Nestlé headquarters. You’d know someone who worked there too.

For me, that was my mum. She was in payroll. Like all the staff, she had access to the staff shop. During the first US-UK invasion of Iraq, the shop was flooded with foods they couldn’t sell in the affected regions. That included the Iraqi KitKat. Three-fingered, and smaller than a Penguin biscuit bar.

So I bought them. Lots of them. I sold them at profit (bought for 2p, sold for 10p or three for 20p) in the school playground until the headmaster shut my business down. 

My first (and last) foray into entrepreneurialism was as a war profiteer. But I was only 15. We all make mistakes. I learnt my lesson. My mum was a decent person, right? She wasn’t risking the lives of African babies by pushing milk formula onto them, was she?

Well, she worked for a company that did. The baby scandal saw Nestlé boycotted worldwide by individuals and major groups, including Christian churches. Nestlé knew that by pushing its milk formula for newborns it would be increasing risks to their lives.

Has Nestlé learnt its lesson? They think so. But it seems not. The group Baby Milk Action are still monitoring and challenging Nestlé contraventions of baby milk marketing guidelines, with dangerous claims about their formula’s closeness to mother’s milk. They were still found to be doing wrong in 2018, decades after the original boycott.

Why should this matter to vegans?

Vegans should be against all oppression. It is the right thing to do: we cannot only want a fair and just world for animals at the expense of other humans, especially those historically most oppressed. 

Being consistently anti-oppression is also more effective as a tactic: if animal advocates turn a blind eye to other oppressions, such as racial environmental injustices, why should animal oppressors stop their oppression?

Knowing Nestlé still profits off marketing practices that disproportionately affect historically marginalized groups, no one, including vegans, should support Nestlé.

That fourth question

Why is it, each time there’s a new product veganizing a traditional ‘favorite’ that people ‘miss’ from before they were vegan, the ethical onus is immediately turned on us? Will we buy it? The business behind it is ‘evil’: what will we do?

Well, the company was pretty ‘evil’ before. In fact, veganizing its products makes it less evil overall, you could say. Shouldn’t the ethical burden be on those who continue to buy the non-vegan version?

Each time there’s a new vegan version of an old favorite, we should flip the ethical question to the non-vegans. Now there’s an ethical choice, what are they going to do? 

Reframe it: there’s the KitKat and the dairy-free KitKat V. Put aside for the moment it is Nestlé. Ask your non-vegan friends why they’re going to continue to eat the dairy one.

The ethical solution

Don’t be just a consumer. If all you do is boycott or buy products, in the hope of sending a message via the market, that is not enough.

I’m not suggesting it’s a guilty trade-off—that if you do some activism you can have a vegan KitKat as a reward. What I’m saying is: vegan spending power within established consumer-capitalist systems is not enough to end animal exploitation. 

Be a citizen who takes action to change unfair systems. Take your food citizenship seriously. Advocate in citizen food assemblies. Join groups that bring individual voices together in a collective chorus to demand change. 

Will I try the KitKat?

So will I try the vegan KitKat? After writing this article: no.

But if you do, be realistic about it. Yes, it continues this journey we are on to normalize plant-based foods. As Nestlé’s von Maillot added: “There is a quiet food revolution underway that is changing how we eat. We want to be at the forefront of that.”

“The more demand for plant-based foods, the more these companies will supply them. But that will never end animal exploitation.”

Dr. Alex Lockwood

But don’t be quiet. Our power is not in our pockets but our voices. Each new product gives us the chance to discuss the ethics behind food. Loudly.

The more demand for plant-based foods, the more these companies will supply them. But that will never end animal exploitation. Have a KitKat, but also have a commitment to break the animal-based food system.

So, should vegans support Nestlé? Email your response to press@plantbasednews.org for a chance to be featured.

Dr. Alex Lockwood

Alex Lockwood is a writer and senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of The Pig in Thin Air (Lantern Books), a vegan memoir about the relationship between climate change and the food we eat. His debut novel The Chernobyl Privileges (Roundfire) was shortlisted for the Rubery International Book Award 2019. He has written journalism, fiction and nonfiction for The Guardian, Earthlines, Zoomorphic, Like the Wind, SWAMP, The Dodo, The Millions and more. He is a regular speaker at events and various vegan festivals. Connect at http://www.twitter.com/alexlockwood.