Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

Battery farming and free-pitching

Posted in: Articles, Design, Ethics

Battery cages for hens were first introduced in America in the early 19th century and were widespread in the world egg laying industry by the 1970s. In farming, especially with chickens, a cage is called a cell. By definition a battery is a collection of cells and in egg laying production, chicken cells are arranged and stacked closely together to maximise production space, hence the phrase battery cage.

Despite the terrible welfare consequences for the birds (and later other animals), the casualties were outweighed by the efficient egg production.

A battery cage is typically 50 x 55cm and houses five birds. EU legislation states a minimum of only 550cm² per bird – less than the size of an A4 sheet. In America the legal requirement is even less than this and cages often hold five to 10 birds. Before guidelines and legislation were introduced to limit numbers it was up to farmers how many they put into a single cage. If one farmer put four birds in a cage, others had to do the same to keep pace. If someone else thought they could squeeze five in, others had to follow. In a price-driven commodity like eggs it is obvious that farmers would have to follow other farmers into battery production to prevent being out-priced.

In the 1980s advertising companies who had feasted on a glut during the yuppie boom years had over-expanded. In times of economic slowdown they faced the predictable problem of restricted income and many decided to produce speculative work for free to try and get new projects. This became know as ‘free-pitching’ and spread like wildfire in the industry as other agencies struggled to compete against this new way of sourcing work. Free-pitching spread to other creative industries and become common practice for larger firms which then filtered down to all levels. Designers had to follow other designers into free-pitching to ensure they were considered for new work.

Battery farming is clearly unethical in the appalling and unnatural conditions it creates for animals. It is soon to be outlawed in the EU, albeit to be replaced by only an incrementally better system – the enriched cage. Sales of eggs produced in more animal-welfare-friendly systems such as free-range and organic have increased dramatically in the UK.

Designers do not face the same fate as chickens but they do face the same pressures farmers have. If one designer produces free creative work for a pitch or speculatively for a client, the pressure is there for other designers to do the same. It soon becomes difficult for designers to say no, and the whole system spirals upwards to create a horrible norm in the industry.

Free-pitching is bad for clients (although they can’t always see it) and it is bad for designers. So do yourself a favour: eat free-range eggs and say no to free-pitching.