I’ve been known to buy expensive sneakers because they were made of recycled plastic and claimed to be closed loop. Is the business women-owned? Well, I do consider myself a woman who supports other women. Add to cart. And I’m a sucker for organic, natural, recyclable, fairtrade, sustainably-caught, free-range, cruelty-free, non-GMO, smiling, happy cow labels.
Bjorn from my environmental science class would tell me that these purchases are just an attempt to assuage my guilt of contributing to the destruction machine that is our immoral capitalist society. I would tell him no, my purchases are *actually* saving the planet. I’m using my power as a consumer to support the good and push the market toward more equitable and ethical practices.
Despite my attempt at being a conscious consumer, I have a few weaknesses. I order my textbooks from Amazon because the thought of waiting in line to pick up my textbooks at Mac is ulcer-inducing. I still sometimes shop at Forever 21 or Zaful because I’m a poor college student and that $12 shirt is such a great deal. And when my sister asks if I want to go Chick-fil-a after an adventure to Target, my response is, “Should we split fries or do you want your own?”
For most of my childhood, the only problem I had with Chick-fil-a was that it wasn’t open on Sundays. It wasn’t until I came to college that I had to face its much more problematic element. One day, my fellow midwestern-raised friend and I were talking about food we missed from home: custard concretes, gooey butter cake, puppy chow—and Chick-fil-a.
“Wait, you guys actually go to Chick-fil-a? Don’t they hate gay people?” one of our Northeast born and bred friends asked.
It’s tough to “well, but…” that one. It’s also, I might add, easy to judge when you’ve never had those waffle fries. It’s not that I hadn’t questioned it before, but it’s much easier to quell the critic inside your head than actually having to cogitate the ethical dilemma of eating a chicken sandwich.
The particular appeal of fast food is in the name. We pull into the drive-thru for the ease and the speed. Deep thinking usually isn’t factored into that time table. Besides, considering the ethical implications of your choice of dinner is about as unappetizing as listening to your friend talk about the implications of the 13 shots they took the night before.
But hey, there’s nothing like the onset of a global pandemic-induced quarantine to free up that time you’d been setting aside to question the world around you.
First, let’s consider the aesthetic and gastronomic value of Chick-fil-a: the waffle fries with their hot, crispy outsides and pillowy, fluffy insides; the steam that wafts off of the fries and billows out of the aluminum sandwich bags; the excitement of realizing your eight piece nugget order actually has a bonus ninth nugget; the Canadian-level niceness of the red polo-clad employees; and last, but not least, the amber glow of the Chick-Fil-A sauce that I may or may not be known to steal packets of as I’m walking out the door.
Now to the moral values: Is it “right” to support a corporation that actively works against a cause you support? Can we really justify spending our money somewhere if we know that a portion of that money works to suppress the rights of others?
When we start to ask those questions, Chick-fil-a’s sickly sweet lemonade starts to taste a little bitter.
Chick-fil-a has a long history of donating to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations. The Cathys, the founding family of the company, have been accused of homophobia and voicing their support for a definition of marriage matching that in the Bible. Franchises have been boycotted by LGBTQ+ organizations and their allies. Despite recent commitments to focus their philanthropy toward education, homelessness, and hunger—Chick-fil-a has struggled to shed this anti-gay image. However, it remains, reportedly, the most profitable fast-food chain.
While C-suites have placed a growing emphasis on corporate social responsibility and the threat of “cancel culture” looms, Chick-fil-a seems to be largely unaffected. In fact, there appears to be a puzzling contradiction: In the same decade that support for LGBTQ+ rights has rapidly expanded, so have the number of Chick-fil-a franchises. Most of the fast food industry has experienced a decrease in demand, but not Chick-fil-a. In 2018, sales grew by almost 17%, making the company the third largest restaurant chain in the country. As rivals court the coveted millennial dollar through campaigns like the introduction of vegan burgers (Burger King), ingredient sourcing transparency (Chipotle), or sassy Twitter personalities (Wendy’s), Chick-fil-a’s marketing remains focused on cows telling us to “eat mor chikin.” Chick-fil-a doesn’t even participate in what is perhaps the epitome of virtue signaling: the rainbowfication of company logos that occurs every June.
Interestingly, despite this (mostly deserved) stigma, Chick-fil-a is also known to be one of “the most socially advanced companies in terms of treatment of employees” and plays an active role in the communities it serves. The Chick-fil-a in my hometown held plenty of fundraisers for my high school and donated quite a few sandwiches and nuggets to school functions. Still, the troubling debate between right or wrong remains. How much right can correct a wrong, if it’s even possible at all?
My first thought was maybe it’s just another example of the divide between red and blue America. The crowds that gather for Pride parades are diametrically opposed to the crowds gathering to win a free year of chicken sandwiches whenever a new Chick-fil-a opens. It’s true that Chick-fil-a restaurants are more concentrated in the South and Midwest, but in the last few years, franchises have been cropping in liberal bubbles like New York, Massachusetts, and California. In fact, my freshman year, Boston College’s campus activity board organized a “field trip” to the Chick-fil-a in Dedham, Mass; it was swarmed by liberal arts students (and maybe a few nurses and finance majors) eager to cram onto a sweaty yellow school bus to drive 25 minutes just to eat some chicken.
So maybe this is a bipartisan issue. Could it be that the last remaining universal American experience is our collective guilt over eating a certain chicken sandwich?
Or is it more likely that our knack for pushing away the nagging feeling of guilt is simply a reflection of our privilege that allows us to ignore the guilt in the first place? Of course it’s easy to ignore the negative ramifications when we aren’t on the receiving end. It’s even easier when doing so becomes convenient. It is ultimately the same reason we buy all the other fast fashion, fast food, and other “fast” consumer goods.
I had a professor tell me once that whenever she went to Chick-fil-a, she would look at the receipt and donate that same amount to the Human Rights Campaign. It’s not a perfect solution; maybe it even allows us to buy off our guilt even more. But it also might force me to confront the “is it worth it” question. Thinking about being a perfectly ethical consumer is a long, deep, philosophical rabbit hole—one that has me thinking it’s most likely a futile exercise. But I do think we all—myself included—can be more conscious about our purchases. And if we do succumb to the craving of a particular chicken sandwich with a large side of waffle fries, is there room to balance the cosmic scale? I’m not quite sure.
After all, is my one loop through the drive-thru going to set the LGBTQ+ movement back a decade? Of course not. However, if I applied that same logic to my other purchases—what’s the point of buying closed-loop sneakers or thrifted clothes if my single purchases doesn’t make a difference?—then I’ve caught myself in a bit of a moral maze. If I believe my individual actions can make a difference in those situations, why should it be any different when it comes to fast food?
It all circles back to that pesky collective action problem, that little thought we all have: If others are saving the world, surely I can get by with a little deviant behavior. Or perhaps worse, if I’m the only one trying to save the world—what’s the point?
Of course it’s that “what’s the point?” question that has been plaguing philosophers and psychologists and political moderates since, well, ever. Going through life asking “what’s the point?” might make for an examined life, but probably neither a fulfilling nor happy one. At some point, we will all have to justify our decisions to ourselves, to others, or maybe to the same higher power that Chick-fil-a believes in so strongly—so why not begin now? I’m sure it seems a trivial contemplation of the naval-gazing variety to examine the ethics of a fast food order. On the other hand, if we can’t even consider the inconsequential, what’s the hope for our muses of the momentous in life?
I’m not trying to grandstand or argue that everyone should boycott Chick-fil-a. Morality is, of course, objective. This whole dialogue may actually even be a selfish endeavor—a quest to absolve my own self. In doing so, however, I’ll argue for a particular type of hedonism. If biting into that warm, crisp, pickle-blanketed chicken sammy brings you true joy, then order it. Order 100 of them. You have my blessing. But if, when all that is left is the wrapper, you feel that tinge of guilt, that ick in your psyche, maybe it’s not such a joyful endeavor after all.
What my “friend” Bjorn failed to appreciate about the “immoral capitalist society” is perhaps the hallmark of capitalism itself: choice. First, we can choose to ignore or accept these whispers of our conscience (remembering that sometimes, it is in our best interest to ignore our persnickety conscience). But if we choose to listen, we have the choice to go to one of the thousands of other establishments that offer a warm, happy, meal.
There’s probably not a perfectly moral chicken sandwich (we could, after all, debate the ethics of eating meat in the first place) but is there, perhaps, a “moral-er” chicken sandwich? I’m optimistic there is. Instead of eating mor chikin, I think I’ll focus on finding mor (moral) chikin.