How Much Does It Cost to Buy a Vegetarian?

I start with the claim that it’s good for people to eat less meat, whether they become vegetarian – or, better yet, vegan – because this means less nonhuman animals are being painfully factory farmed. I’ve defended this claim previously in “Why Eat Less Meat?”.

The second idea is that it shouldn’t matter who is eating less meat. As long as less meat is being eaten, less animals will be farmed, and this is a good thing. Therefore, we should try to get other people to also try and eat less meat.

The third idea is that it also doesn’t matter who is doing the convincing. Therefore, instead of convincing our own friends and family, we can pay other people to convince people to eat less meat. And this is exactly what organizations like Vegan Outreach and The Humane League are doing. With a certain amount of money, one can hire someone to distribute pamphlets to other people or put advertisements on the internet, and some percentage of people who receive the pamphlets or see the ads will go on to eat less meat.

But the fourth idea is the complication. I want my philanthropic dollars to go as far as possible, so as to help as much as possible. Therefore, it becomes very important to try and figure out how much money it takes to get people to eat less meat, so I can compare this to other estimations and see what gets me the best “bang for my buck”.

Other Estimations

I have seen other estimates floating around the internet that try to estimate the cost of distributing pamphlets, how many conversions each pamphlet produces, and how much less meat is ate via each conversion. Brian Tomasik calculates $0.02 to $3.65 [PDF] per year of nonhuman animal suffering prevented, later $2.97 per year, and then later $0.55 to $3.65 per year.

Jess Whittlestone provides statistics that reveal an estimate of less than a penny per year(1).

Effective Animal Activism, a non-profit evaluator for animal welfare charities, came up with an estimate [Excel Document] of $0.04 to $16.60 per year of suffering averted, that also takes into account a variety of additional variables, like product elasticity.

Jeff Kaufman uses a different line of reasoning, by estimating how many vegetarians there are and guessing how many of them came via pamphlets, estimates it would take $4.29 to $536 to make someone vegetarian for one year. Extrapolating from that using at a rate of 255 animals saved per year and a weighted average of 329.6 days lived per animal (see below for justification of both assumptions), would give $0.02 to $1.90 per year of suffering averted(2).

A third line of reasoning, also by Jeff Kaufman, was to measure the amount of comments on the pro-vegetarian websites advertised in these campaigns and found that 2-22% of them were about an intended behavior change (eating less meat, going vegetarian, or going vegan), depending on the website. I don’t think we can draw any conclusions from this, but it’s interesting.

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To make my calculations, I decided to make a calculator. Unfortunately, Wordpress doesn’t allow it to be put here, so you’d have to open it in a new tab as a companion piece.

I’m going to start by using the following formula: Years of Suffering Averted per Dollar = (Pamphlets / dollar) * (Conversions / pamphlet) * (Veg years / conversion) * (Animals saved / veg year) * (Days lived / animal)

Now, to get estimations for these variables.

Pamphlets Per Dollar

How much does it cost to place the advertisement, whether it be the paper pamphlet or a Facebook advertisement? Nick Cooney, head of the Humane League, says the cost-per-click of Facebook ads is 20 cents.

But what about the cost per pamphlet? This is more of a guess, but I’m going to go with Vegan Outreach’s suggested donation of $0.13 per “Compassionate choices” booklet.

However, it’s important to note that this cost must also include opportunity cost – leafleters must forego the ability to use that time to work a job. This means I must include an opportunity cost of say $8/hr on top of that, making the actual cost $0.27 assuming a pamphlet is given out each minute of volunteer time, meaning 3.7 people are reached per dollar from pamphlets. For Facebook advertisements, the opportunity cost is trivial.

Conversions Per Pamphlet

This is the estimate with the biggest target on it’s head, so to speak. How many people do we get to actually change their behavior with a simple pamphlet or Facebook advertisement? Right now, we have three lines of evidence:

Facebook Study

Humane League did A $5000 Facebook advertisement campaign. They bought ads that look like this…

…and sent people to websites (like this one or this one) with auto-playing videos that start playing and show the horrors of factory farming.

Afterward, there was another advertisement run to people who “liked” the video page, offering a 1 in 10 chance of winning a free movie ticket in order to take a survey. Everyone who emailed in asking for a free vegetarian starter kit were also emailed a survey. 104 people took the survey and there were 32 reported vegetarians(3) and 45 people reported, for example, that their chicken consumption decreased “slightly” or “significantly”.

7% of visitors liked the page and 1.5% of visitors ordered a starter kit. Assuming all the other people went away from the video not changing their consumption, this survey would lead us to (very tenuously) think about 2.6% of people seeing the video will become a vegetarian(4).

(Here’s the results of the survey in PDF.)

Pamphlet Study

A second study discussed in “The Powerful Impact of College Leafleting (Part 1)” and “The Powerful Impact of College Leafleting: Additional Findings and Details (Part 2)” looked specifically at pamphlets.

Here, Humane League staff visited two large East Coast state schools and distributed leaflets. They then returned two months later and surveyed people walking by. Those who remember receiving a leaflet earlier were counted. They found about 2% of those receiving a pamphlet went vegetarian.

Vegetarian Years Per Conversion

But once a pamphlet or Facebook advertisement captures someone, how long will they stay vegetarian? One survey showed vegetarians refrain from eating meat for an average of 6 years or more. Another study I found says 93% of vegetarians stay vegetarian for at least three years.

Animals Saved Per Vegetarian Year

And once you have a vegetarian, how many animals do they save per year? CountingAnimals says 406 animals saved per year.

The Humane League suggests 28 chickens, 2 egg industry hens, 1/8 beef cow, 1/2 pig, 1 turkey, and 1/30 dairy cow per year (total = 31.66 animals), and does not provide statistics on fish. This agrees with CountingAnimals on non-fish totals.

Days Lived Per Animal

One problem, however, is that saving a cow that could suffer for years is different from saving a chicken that suffers for only about a month. Using data from Farm Sanctuary plus World Society for the Protection of Animals data on fish [PDF], I get this table:

Animal Number Days Alive
Chicken (Meat) 28 42
Chicken (Egg) 2 365
Cow (Beef) 0.125 365
Cow (Milk) 0.033 1460
Fish 225 365

This makes the weighted average 329.6 days(5).

Putting It All Together

As I said before, our formula was Years of Suffering Averted = (Pamphlets / dollar) * (Conversions / pamphlet) * (Veg years / conversion) * (Animals saved / veg year) * (Days lived / animal)

Let’s plug these values in…

Years of Suffering Averted per Dollar = 5 * 0.02 * 3 * 255.16 * 329.6/365 = 69.12

Or, assuming all this is right (and that’s a big assumption), it would cost less than 2 cents to prevent a year of suffering on a factory farm by buying vegetarians.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m beholden to this cost estimate or that this estimate is the “end all, be all” of vegan outreach. Indeed, I share many of the skepticisms that have been expressed by others. Soon, I’ll follow up this essay with another essay that accounts for various complications like reaching additional people, accounting for biases, and product elasticity, among other things.

The reason I made a calculator, though, is so you can plug in your own values and be as pessimistic or optimistic as you think reasonable.

In a third and final essay, I’ll also discuss methodological criticism to this approach.

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Continued in Buying Vegetarians: Handling Complications.

Followed up in Just How Cost Effective Does Vegetarian Advocacy Need to Be?.

This entire three-part blog series is also cross-posted on LessWrong.

Edited 18 June to update footnote #2.

Footnotes

(1): Cost effectiveness in years of suffering prevented per dollar = (Pamphlets / dollar) * (Conversions / pamphlet) * (Veg years / conversion) * (Animals saved / veg year) * (Years lived / animal)

Plugging in 80K’s values… Cost effectiveness = (Pamphlets / dollar) * 0.01 to 0.03 * 25 * 100 * (Years lived / animal)

Filling in the gaps with my best guesses… Cost effectiveness = 5 * 0.01 to 0.03 * 25 * 100 * 0.90 = 112.5 to 337.5 years of suffering averted per dollar

I personally think 25 veg-years per conversion on average is possible but too high; I personally err from 4 to 7.

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(2): I feel like there’s an error in this calculation or that Kaufman might disagree with my assumptions of number of animals or days per animal, because I’ve been told before that these estimates with this method are supposed to be about an order of magnitude higher than other estimates. However, I emailed Kaufman and he seemed to not find any fault with the calculation, though he does think the methodology is bad and the calculation should not be taken at face value.

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(3): I calculated the number of vegetarians by eyeballing about how many people said they no longer eat fish, which I’d guess only a vegetarian would be willing to give up.

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(4): 32 vegetarians / 104 people = 30.7%. That population is 8.5% (7% for likes + 1.5% for the starter kit) of the overall population, leading to 2.61% (30.7% * 8.5%).

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(5): Formula is [(Number Meat Chickens)(Days Alive) + (Number Egg Chickens)(Days Alive) + (Number Beef Cows)(Days Alive) + (Number Milk Cows)(Days Alive) + (Number Fish)(Days Alive)] / (Total Number Animals). …Plugging things in: [(28)(42) + (2)(365) + (0.125)(365) + (0.033)(1460) + (225)(365)] / 255.16] = 329.6 days