A cynic might say that fashion mavens, food sellers, cosmetics makers and entertainment purveyors are just trying to save face and give themselves a feel-good marketing hook by changing the way they treat and use animals in their businesses.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, might agree. But their motivation takes a back seat to their recent actions, he says, which have been unprecedented:
SeaWorld Entertainment, in the face of falling attendance and public protests, abruptly changed course this spring and promised to end its breeding program for killer whales. The Florida-based company also brought in a new reform-minded CEO and laid plans to drop its infamous tricks-and-stunts shows and potentially become exhibit-centric, more like an aquarium.
Fast-food chains such as Wendy's, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, Denny's and Taco Bell have vowed to use only cage-free eggs, with the transition starting as early as next year, and Disney will switch to cage-free eggs served at its U.S. theme parks and cruise lines within months. Major grocers have announced a similar move, led by Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Trader Joe's and others.
The Armani Group is going fur-free, beginning this fall after years of activist criticism; Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is set to phase out elephant performances after 144 years of the practice; and Hollywood studios are populating films with computer-generated animals instead of casting live ones, à la the recent blockbuster The Jungle Book.
"If a company is making decisions grounded in self-defense and strict bottom-line calculations, that's fine," Pacelle said. "Whatever their reasons, there's a real transformation happening in American business."
Much of the impetus for change has come from the buying public, especially millennials, who hold corporations to a higher standard now on environmental issues, sustainability and animal welfare.
"Consumers are taking these factors into consideration when they make brand choices," said George Belch, professor and chair of the marketing department at San Diego State University. "Labor practices, product sourcing, transparency—it all influences spending."
Particularly since the Great Recession and the surge of mistrust it engendered in this country, there's been closer scrutiny of corporations, Belch said. And animal rights activism, fueled and amplified by social media, may be at an all-time high, as is pressure on offenders from groups like PETA, the Humane Society of the United States, and state and federal legislators, who continue to push for more reform.
Blackfish, an award-winning 2013 documentary that accused SeaWorld of neglecting and abusing its orcas, was certainly a galvanizing moment. The company's stock price has been falling ever since, as has traffic at its parks in Orlando, Fla., and San Diego.
Separately, the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe caused an international furor, after which more than 40 airlines made it policy to refuse shipping wildlife trophies. That's an example of corporate responsibility that "provides a halo effect" and buffs a brand, Pacelle said.
Those who haven't yet caught the wave could be in trouble. "Every business grounded on animal exploitation is ripe for disruption," Pacelle writes in his new book, The Humane Economy, which argues that companies can win the hearts and dollars of socially conscious consumers by treating animals with more care and respect.
Belch agreed, saying, "Companies can continue to fight, but they're starting to realize it's a losing proposition. And they're learning that they can be responsible and still make a profit."
This story first appeared in the June 20, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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