Is it “ethically vegan”?

The interior of a T & T store

I went vegan for a very simple ethical reason. I knew that it was wrong to cause suffering for pleasure so I stopped doing it. I don’t abuse my power to take slaves, steal, rape, murder and now eat the flesh and products of other animals. So far, so simple. I decided when I went vegan to take my time and just start removing obvious animal products. I was already vegetarian so this really meant eliminating dairy. We already had 3 chickens roaming free in our back garden and I assumed that I would just continue eating their eggs whilst they lay them. I didn’t intend to study the backs of packets or worry too much about where my clothes came from… but then…

Once you start eliminating dairy and talking to other people about dairy you soon realise how despicable this industry really is and soon you don’t want the salt and vinegar crisps with their inexplicable coating in skimmed milk powder. Once you start avoiding eggs in other products you don’t want to eat them for breakfast quite as much. Once you start thinking about it you realise that buying clothes made with wool is keeping a cruel industry going. So with my belief that it is wrong to cause suffering for pleasure – I stopped.

I don’t knowingly use or consume animal products. That makes me vegan right? But am I “ethically vegan”?

The questions “but is it ethically vegan?” is only one that I have ever encountered in discussions between vegans and seems to be based on a certain vegan one-upmanship crossed with an admittedly admirable desire to minimise suffering. But do these choices make sense? Let us consider some of the most common:

Living in the house of my enemy: As a vegan drinking soy milk and using soy yogurt seems like a pretty safe bet doesn’t it? But be careful. Tell some vegans about a new and delicious soy product and be prepared for some serious scrutiny. Many branded soy products are manufactured by the same dairy industry we are avoiding. Your hard-earned money ends up in their grubby mitts. So – is it ethically vegan? My thinking runs thus. Evil multinational corporations are only interested in making money. If we can show them that they can make more money from their non-evil-dairy businesses then they will put more investment into that and less into killing baby cows. Not only that but it means that these products are in evil supermarkets where non-vegans shop. They will see these products as normal, available and hopefully an easy alternative. If we keep the soy products in the health food shops we are only ever preaching to the choir.

Think of the monkeys!: Have a look at the back of processed food and there is a very good chance it will contain palm oil. Palm oil does not contain any bits of animals but still – is it ethically vegan? Well, palm is grown in tropical countries. The same place as those rainforests we used to have. Rainforests are cleared to make room to grow the palm trees and bye-bye animal habitats. So animals are killed to make way for this crop. Not very vegan and certainly worth avoiding if at all possible. However… don’t forget that wheat crops and rapeseed (used for canola oil) creates green deserts – even the organic varieties to a great extent. Most of our farming industry is not very ethically vegan. Some crops must be better than others and this is something that we should probably look into in more detail.

All in the small print: You know those E numbers they scribble on the bottom of the ingredient list? Where do they come from? What are they tested on? Nope. I don’t know either and that is a concern. Are these additives always vegan? Keeping in mind Michael Pollan‘s edict to avoid foods that contain more than 5 ingredients they are probably worth missing anyway and we need to campaign for better labelling of the things we eat.

Using tofu to crush spiders: Is Coke vegan? You would think so wouldn’t you? Water, some crap, a bit of fizz. However I have heard from vegans who wont drink it because some farmers use it as an insecticide… I believe they were being serious. Now this sounds unlikely but their point is even weirder. if someone uses a block of tofu to crush a spider that doesn’t make my tofu any less vegan – just a bit more unappealing.

May contain chaos: I love dark chocolate. A little piece of it with a strong cup of (Rainforest Alliance approved) coffee is heaven. I always check that the ingredient list doesn’t list milk and away I go. Much to the horror of some other vegans. Didn’t I see the allergy advice? May contain milk! Well yes. It was made in a factory that uses milk so they give a warning about cross contamination. This says more about the industrialisation of our food chain than it does about ethical decisions. Any food may contain milk. Sadly. Of course it is better to support small vegan producers but that comes at a real premium price and again, it keeps vegan products in the ghetto.

Sausage fingers: Supermarkets now all seem to have a fresh pizza counter. Vegan base, toppings of your choice. Lovely and the closest I am likely to come to a ready meal. But then you watch them make one for the person before you. The gloved hand goes into the sausage, then it goes into the onions… then I walk away. Those onions may still be vegan but… yuck.

Licked by an omnivore: Living close to Brighton I am lucky to have a range of vegan and vegetarian restaurants on my doorstep. However I have met people who wont use them because they employ people who are not vegan. What are they worried about? What do they think these omnivores are going to do to their food? It seems unlikely that there is a single business out there that employs only vegans all the way down its food chain. If we want more people to become vegan we need these places to be plentiful and accessible. That may mean being served by someone who had bacon for breakfast.

Conclusion: I care about food and I care about ethics and some of these issues are useful for making you think more carefully about food issues. However it is all too easy to make being a “proper” vegan so difficult and off-putting that it will prevent anyone from trying to make the change. Most vegans I have met and talked to are wonderful and supportive people who will always try to make new vegans and those interested in reducing their meat consumption feel welcome in their fold but there is a vocal minority who I worry are doing more harm than good.

A final thought: Think of money as a vote. Whenever you buy something you are saying “I support this product”. Vote mindfully and enjoy your dinner.


7 thoughts on “Is it “ethically vegan”?

  1. thanks for this! I have been an almost-vegan for years (I eat eggs and honey, but no dairy/meat) and I have often found vegan acquaintances unbearably precious about what they will/won’t eat and use, including one person who tried to return vegan body cream to Lush because it was in a recycled plastic pot “which might have contained meat in its previous form”… it is alienating to present this kind of irrational and hostile attitude to others, and in the end it becomes about a massive race for purity and who can live the most exclusive, pure life and not about ethics at all.
    I see myself as a common-sense vegetarian/vegan – I do my best to live ethically but I am not going to lie awake at night worrying if the person who served my food was vegan (seriously?!) or if the plastic pot my hummus came in once had meat in it before it was recycled.

    • I haven’t come across the recycled plastic problem before – it takes a certain kind of mind to worry about that kind of thing. I worry about that kind of mind…

  2. I’ve never heard of Coke being used as an insecticide, or people avoiding it because of that. As far as I know the ingredients are vegan and I’d drink it if there was no other option on a hot day. I have read that Coke has done some pretty bad stuff regarding human rights though. I know wikipedia isn’t the most credible source, but still, there is an awfully long list of stuff on the criticisms of coke page..

    • That is true up to a point. Animal abuse makes me very angry and I can understand why people end up sounding extreme but anger rarely leads to people making changes. Leading a happy positive life as a vegan is more likely to convince others that our way is the right way.

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