Vegan Magazine Founder Summer Burton Talks Reason and Queso
Former Buzzfeed exec and Texas native is obsessed with animals
Over a midweek lunch at Mother's Cafe, Hyde Park's vegan-friendly institution, we sat down with Summer Burton to chat about her hometown return after a seven-year stint at Buzzfeed, her new online vegan magazine Tenderly, ethical philosophies stemming from an insatiable obsession with animals, and queso.
Raised in Austin since the age of 6, Summer Burton has been adhering to a plant-based diet most of her life, but like many, veganism has been a journey. "As a kid, there were no vegetarians in my family. I was born in the early Eighties and vegetarianism was not as well known as it is now. I was home-schooled by hippies so I did have some familiarity with it," she laughed. "But my parents were far from vegetarian – we lived here and went to barbecue places all the time.
"The thing that defined my childhood far and above anything else was that I was obsessed with animals. Starting at age 2, I was begging for pets, plastering my walls with dolphin posters. I had 200 stuffed animals that all had names, and when I started reading, it was nonfiction books by zookeepers and people that trained Seeing Eye dogs. Just fully obsessed. I was sure I'd be an animal caretaker or trainer, or a marine biologist – that's a common one – so I started to be uncomfortable eating meat. And I just decided I didn't want to do it anymore. I was 12."
Burton remained vegetarian until her early 20s, in part due to her intense affinity for cheese. "I was like, 'Oh, it's totally separated, so it's fine. I just don't want to eat dead animals, but we can still milk cows.' I started to realize that the meat industry and dairy industry are intermingled and really, if you're going for an ethical framework, it's pretty hard to justify not eating one but eating the other. You could probably argue that the dairy industry is the worst offender for various reasons, but it took me a long time to switch. It was a lot harder to go vegan after being vegetarian than it was to stop eating meat."
A pivotal move to New York City changed not only her work, but her life. "I started at Buzzfeed in 2012, and it was a huge turning point in my career. I was working at Alamo Drafthouse as a waitress, and also freelancing for baseball websites, and then I got an entry-level job [at Buzzfeed] and got promoted very quickly." Burton fully embraced veganism right after she moved to New York where, she said, it is easier due the wider diversity of restaurants, but she still hiccuped on visits to Texas. "I spent about three years in a little bit of limbo where I would eat vegan 99% of the time and then come home and get Blue Bell ice cream and get sick."
The proud Texan returned to her family and close friends five years later after helping upper management strategize and execute the plan to open a small Buzzfeed office in Austin in 2016. Then, Burton explained, "About a year in, it started to become clear that Buzzfeed was probably going to do layoffs."
Much to do with profitability issues, in February 2019 Buzzfeed laid off over 10% of their employees, and a big chunk was closing smaller offices like Burton's. "I was an executive, so I was pretty in the loop [and] the company did provide a generous enough severance that it wasn't immediate panic, so I had some time to kind of think about what I wanted to do next. Which is how I got to where I am now, which is nice."
For years before the layoffs, Burton had pondered how to incorporate her growing skill sets including executive expertise, editorial writing, and journalism with her burgeoning interest in entrepreneurial endeavors and, mostly, her veganism, which she hoped would be involved with whatever she did next. "It was like getting pushed into the deep end with the layoffs, for better or worse," Burton said. "I even thought I would open a restaurant here for a while."
Fortuitously around this time Medium put out a call for partner publications – whether existing or new ideas – that would be part of their overall subscriptions service in exchange for a guaranteed monthly funding amount. Though the partnership mutually benefits both by garnering new subscribers, the advertising-free platform does not influence the magazine's content. Burton applied and several months later, Tenderly – Burton's new online magazine predominantly about veganism – was born. She said, "No matter what kind of job I've had in the past, I've never felt like I was working toward something that was truly my thing – like if it succeeds, it's my success, if it fails, it's my failure. It feels good."
"Part of the idea was always that it would exist in the balance between being informational and entertaining for vegans, and also be a resource and satiate the curiosity and interest of non-vegans, whether that's total omnivores or people who have dipped a toe in. Just being honest and smart and thoughtful about it. Because it feels like a lot of what is out there right now is explicitly trying to convert people – like nonprofits that are all about trying to get people to be vegan. Our approach is more like, we're vegan, we have our reasons for it, and we're gonna talk about those. I think there's room for a whole spectrum, and Tenderly is trying to be a positive place, but also a realistic place to talk about those things and what is hard and what is easy and what tastes good."
Tenderly – "a friendly + radical vegan magazine dedicated to living well with kindness towards animals, care for the planet, and justice for all" – features a range of content including recipes, beauty products, shelter animal spotlights, and heavier philosophical articles. Burton, founder and editor-in-chief, has her own weekly advice column in which she "answer[s] questions about any topic that you could use a nice vegan's advice on, be it food, animals, etiquette, philosophy, gifts, dating, family, weddings, parties, or friendships." The "Ask a Nice Vegan" column recently featured a piece titled "I Feel Guilty About How I Feed My Cat: Is it possible [to] reconcile anti-speciesism with feeding dead chickens to my feline companion?"
It's intended as a platform for peaceful dialogue. Burton said, "It's just not simple to say, 'OK, I'm vegan so that I means I never consume animal products.' Anything from how produce is grown using fertilizers with byproducts of the animal industry to whether you feed your cat meat, which they need to eat – they are carnivores – anything in the world of making decisions. It's complicated. Are we really saying bugs are on the same level as cows and chickens? And if so, then what about spraying pesticides in your yard?" Burton laughed, "Or like, driving ... ever?"
"We have a story coming out by an animal rights activist who has struggled with eating disorders. She has come to the conclusion that for her, veganism is a way to justify eating in, basically, a disordered way. Her takeaway is, 'Here's how I try to work for animals and for the cause I believe in without actually forcing myself to follow a vegan diet because that's unhealthy for me.' That's a valuable perspective, you know?"
Tenderly's mission is to be intersectional, exploring the many communities and cultures around the world practicing veganism for many different reasons, whether it's climate change, animals, or workers in slaughterhouses. It is also intent on proving that veganism isn't just a fad. "But also acknowledge that food isn't equally accessible to all people," she added. "A lot [of the misunderstanding of veganism] comes from the idea that people are doing it only because it's healthier to eat salads and smoothies so they'll lose weight. That is a big industry and Tenderly doesn't want to be a part of it. In my introduction, I say something like, 'We aren't going to make claims that a vegan diet is healthier than another diet because while I think that reducing meat consumption is probably healthier for everyone, there is a lot of BS out there about the health benefits of veganism. And a lot of those folks are often buying and wearing leather.'"
Burton acknowledges that while there are "healthy ways to talk about health," with veganism rising in popularity, there's a lot of corporate interest and many, often in trying to convert others, fail to question motives, considering every small victory an unchallenged positive. She said, "Something like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger coming to a fast food chain is an unquestioned win [for some]. There should be room within vegan culture for criticism of those companies. And for thoughts about food justice that are broader than just justice for animals, and more about corporations and capitalism, and who grows your food and how they are treated, and the environment. Obviously I think that beef in particular is a huge problem for the environment, but it's also making sure that the replacements really are a big improvement."
Burton said, "We should care! The honey question should [ask] whether bees feel pain. It sounds silly but it matters, you know? Some beekeepers remove bees' wings to keep them in place, and some artificially inseminate the queen which is probably not a very pleasant process. And from an environmental perspective, the way that we are propagating bees across the country, mostly for produce growing, is causing some of the bee depletion. If you're eating nonorganic produce, which presumably had pesticides used to make it, it's kind of hard to argue that honey is separate because so much of the produce grown in the U.S. is pollinated by bees that are kept by people. If you're drinking almond milk, it was probably pollinated by bees. So for me, honey is not a separate category, but I would put it into the big category of stuff that, for me, is less a priority than, say, what is going on in the chicken and beef industries."
The lack of simple answers is, in part, what ultimately drives Summer Burton and her new online magazine to parse through the piles of information and opinions. She said, "Veganism is actually, definitively, about doing the best that you can. These things – like glue has animal products in it, and then there's rubber – would be so impossible to avoid for a reasonable person. We should focus on the big things, and if we're ever in a world where people give a shit about this stuff then we can talk about all these other little things. And frankly, they probably wouldn't be as likely to be used if they weren't just byproducts of the meat industry. Like, 'What do we do with the hooves?' or whatever. It's about a more efficient farming system, so if we tackle the meat first, we'll likely reduce all the other stuff in the process."
"Really all veganism is, as a lifestyle, is, 'I'm trying to reduce the amount of suffering.' And anybody can do that and they don't have to call themselves a vegan or be dedicated to it 100% of the time. No one is actually 100% so removed from society that they are not causing any harm."
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