A shorter version of the interview was published in Estonian magazine Vegan (no. 7) in April 2018.
The roots of compassion (hereinafter referred to as “roc”) is a well-known component of the German animal rights and animal liberation movement that was founded in 2001. Their online shop, where one can find fairly and organically produced clothing and vegan products (e.g. shoes and food) was launched in 2003. Their publishing house compassion media was formed in 2008. Since May 2009 it is a registered cooperative. Today the roc is a collective of eight members.
The roc is in harmony with the original goal to promote veganism and criticise exploitative social and economic relations and all forms of oppression. Also, the collective regularly supports campaigns, projects and other groups that are in need of funding via donations or fundraising items.
The protagonist Tyler Durden of a cult film Fight Club says that we buy things we don’t like, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like. In the ideal world we would buy and consume only what is really needed, and we would impress only ourselves.
Alex, the representative of roots of compassion invites us to see the concurrence and crossroads of different categories of inequality and power relations, raise awareness about the society and existence in it, and meditate upon and start a discussion about the things in life that really matter.
Alex, what does running the online shop and publishing house mean to you and the others?
We regard the online shop and publishing house as powerful tools to spread awareness but also to provide people with vegan, organic and fair-trade alternatives to the stuff made under horrible conditions they would probably buy otherwise. Many of the things you can get from us are produced by other collectives that operate without formal hierarchies and in a solidary way as well, because we also want to advance different forms of work and of distributing resources.
Photo: roots of compassion’s private collection
What does being vegan mean to you and the others?
For us veganism is not a sufficient but a necessary condition for animal liberation, social justice (for example to end world hunger) and the conservation of the environment.
The most inspiring to me is meeting people who are not willing to accept the status quo. Who openly say “no” to oppression and dare to be viewed as outsiders, as naive and hopeless romantics by others while they fight for equity.
Photo: roots of compassion’s private collection
What has inspired you the most?
Every now and then people from different movements tell us about how inspiring we are to them or that they went vegan because of something we published or felt a sense of solidarity. That is definitely a huge motivation for us. Also the friendships that have developed over the years, within the collective but also with other groups that are close to us. Last but not least every animal that’s being exploited in this very moment, every woman, trans- or inter person, person of color, black or queer person, who’s being discriminated against because of seeming deviations from the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchal norm, is a huge driving force. As well as every individual that can live an emancipated life free from harm and demonstrates the possibility of a world with less violence just by existing.
How has veganism changed your life?
Going vegan is the best decision I’ve made in my life so far but over the years I realised that it’s only a very small part of what I can do to make this world a better place and that I have to bear in mind the connection between different forms of oppression and exploitation (usually called intersectionality). For example it’s not a coincidence that a lot of advertisements for meat have sexual connotations and are tailored to men (or society’s idea of what a “man” is) and, vice versa, a lot of words that are used for describing having sex with a woman come from the word fields of hunting an consuming animal flesh (see the works of Carol J. Adams, especially Sexual Politics of Meat). The exploitation of animals and the oppression of what is considered female originate in similar mechanisms of othering and social exclusion, so for me it doesn’t make sense to be a feminist but eat meat or drink milk, or to be vegan but not a feminist. The same holds true for other forms of discrimination.
Photo: roots of compassion’s private collection
Activism can have different forms. Many think that art should not be used for criticizing and art should not contain any social messages. How do you see symbiosis between art and activism?
I kindly disagree with those people. I don’t see a valid reason why it shouldn’t be used to criticise social injustice and personally I find it a bit patronizing for them to try and limit what art should or can be. Who are they to make those claims? Maybe they’re just to content with how society is arranged because they were dealt the better cards and don’t suffer from discrimination (or, even more likely, don’t recognize it).
In my opinion art does have an influence on how we perceive the world, whether it’s intentional or not. It can be assertive or critical towards the status quo and because this status quo means suffering for so many, most of our shirt designs have a critical dimension or are downright confrontational. One could also argue, as my friend, vegan artist Hartmut Kiwert, does, that art doesn’t have a high applicatory or practical value and that this absence of concrete usefulness denies the capitalist logic that everything has to have a specific value. Accordingly, all art is an expression of a kind of freedom we still have to fight for on a social level.
As much as design can be a tool for oppression, it can also be an effective agent for social change. How do you implement sustainable viewpoint on your activities?
For social change to happen it needs people, events and messages (one could also say cultures) who break from certain norms, or, even better, break those norms. A blog entry or book we write or publish can do so as well as a clever line on a shirt, sticker or patch. Moreover we try to support other projects in their fight for a less violent world.
The aforementioned alternative ways of working and cooperating with others also undermine capitalist norms that are usually regarded as universal. For example people are often surprised when they realize that our main goal is not profit but to live according to our ideals.
From time to time we also receive calls from people who want to sell us something or offer other kinds of service. Usually those people would like to talk “to our boss”, so when we tell them “we don’t have a boss” or “we’re all the boss” the reactions range from appreciative nodding to utter shock. I hope that it’s not only what we do but also how we do it that can inspire people to question norms and seek alternatives.
We recycle packaging (which is why many of our parcels are quite ugly) and use green energy. Neither of us owns a car. Of course our very existence is a burden on the environment, as is the case with every living human being, but we try to keep that burden light.
Taking into account that sustainability can also refer to us as individuals, another important aspect is that no one is forced to do anything around here. We have a weekly plenary meeting during which we decide on various topics based on the consensus-principle, so everyone is heard and has the right to veto. To me most of the time it feels like a bunch of friends doing cool stuff together, which keeps my mind and body intact.
At the moment we’re going through a phase of financial hardship, so I wouldn’t say we’re a successful business. We hardly generate enough money to exist as a firm. We’re successful in other ways: We have helped promoting veganism and animal rights in Germany, have published a few cool things, have supported other great projects and more importantly, we still exist as a collective, love each other and haven’t betrayed our ideals too much.
One of the biggest victories is in my opinion the foundation of compassion media as the first vegan publishing house in Germany and the publication of the first illustrated German vegan cook book in 2009.
How has the vegan landscape changed over the years in Germany?
When the roc started out, veganism seemed a bit more radical, more of a political approach. Over the years it grew much bigger, recent surveys claim that there are 1,3 million vegans living in Germany at the moment.
And a lot of companies have discovered vegans as a target group and now produce meat alternatives as well, of course without stopping to torture and kill animals by the billion.
On a more individual level, I just hope that people who nowadays discover veganism don’t stop at that but go on challenging other forms of oppression.
What vegans, activists, social entrepreneurs, etc would you say have influenced you the most?
The roc is the sum of what its members bring to the table. We all have different backgrounds ranging from animal rights activism and living in an anarchist permaculture community to antiracist work to promoting ethical tourism to queer activism.
Concerning influences from others there are so many amazing animal sanctuaries, animal liberators, artists, vegan chefs, activists and so on who do great work and can be an inspiration. I’d love to thank all of them personally but I would not want to disregard certain people by mentioning the names of others.