I see an awful lot of blog posts and Facebook and Tumblr comments that say something along the lines of "Vegans are stupid because they do X" or "if vegans really cared about X then they'd Y".
It's frustrating and insulting.
For starters it makes assumptions that all people who are vegan think as a hive mind. Secondly, it assumes that veganism is completely black and white, that once a person has decided to be vegan a switch is flipped in their brain that has toggled all decisions to a single "vegan" answer and that there is absolutely no variation or wiggle room at all.
OK some vegans act like that I won't lie. But the truth is most vegans wish it were as simple as flipping a switch. The reality is never black and white, and vegans are making a huge number of considered choices in many aspects of their life.
That's what this post is all about. It's for other vegans as well as non vegans to break down the reasons people may be vegan and how that is going to affect the decisions they make. Hopefully by the end of it you will agree that statements that argue about "vegan choices" don't make a lot of sense and can be confusing and frustrating for people to encounter.
So we need to consider two different things:
- The reason why somebody may be vegan
- The circumstances and environment they live in
The first group may be obvious - the reasons people have for going vegan will influence how they approach being vegan. The second group, their circumstances, is less obvious so that's where I am going to start.
Our circumstances are always going to have a huge impact on how we do anything at all. Consider the country you live in and what is considered normal or not there. that will influence you. Consider what goods are easily available and how the economy and retail work for the majority of people. That will influence you. Consider your upbringing, your health, your time allowances, your financial security and so on. All of these things will impact on how you live your life and will alter some of the decisions you make being a vegan.
Can you afford to buy certain products? Do you have the time to cook from scratch? Do you live in a country whose infrastructure relies heavily on certain processes?
All these things often mean that a person can not act in absolutes and will often have to make compromises. Ideally they would never use anything that contains an animal product but can they really ascertain if the glue used in the upholstery of the buses they rely on is animal free? What about in the books they read and so on. That's an extreme but it is an example of how absolutely can be hard to attain for most people living in a western society. A vegan has to make compromises and allowances somewhere.
Generally they are doing the best they can to meet their personal values within the confines and restrictions of their circumstances.
The first point is something more of you may be familiar with, and that is that there are numerous reasons a person may decide to be vegan. Some of them are intimately related to circumstances and some exist in spite of. So let's look them in more detail.
The Healthy Lifestyle Vegan
These vegans are primarily focused on living what they define as a “healthy life” and believe that a diet free of animal products is a part of that. Outside of specific medical concerns (which I'll cover later) a Healthy Lifestyle Vegan is concerned with the possible health benefits of a vegan diet. For this reason they usually lean heavily toward cooking everything from scratch, using raw ingredients and having a very nutritionally balanced diet. You may find Healthy Lifestyle Vegans also explore and adopt concepts like raw diets, clean eating, paleo diets, non-celiac gluten free and other novel food concepts. They may also be keen on other things perceived to be more "natural" such as not using "chemical"* cleaning products, using essential oils or herbal remedies and even in some cases homeopathy and anti-vaxx.
There is nothing inherently wrong with believing that a vegan diet can be good for you and a properly balanced nutritionally sound vegan diet can be as good if not better than an omnivore diet. This is often down to the care taken in choosing ingredients and the attention paid to the nutritional balance, which of course can be a part of an omni diet.
It is also worth keeping in mind that other health beliefs are not inherently vegan in themselves even if for the Healthy Lifestyle Vegan they are closely associated.
A HVL may be happy using animal products in other places such as leathers, lactose found in body products, and even beeswax and honey, especially if they value any health benefits of honey.
The Medical Needs Vegan
Though these people are vegan for health reasons they aren't to be confused with HLVs. This group is people who came to a vegan diet out of necessity due to specific health concerns and issues. For some that may be allergies or intolerance to ingredients such as dairy and eggs. Where it is a dairy protein allergy the individual may also have reactions to meat as well.
The severity and number of allergies and intolerances may mean that eating a vegan diet is essential to avoid sickness, allergic reaction or even anaphylaxis. For others it is more about convenience. It can be difficult to tell if the concentration of the allergen in any one item (for example butter in a baked good, or whey in pre-packaged potato crisps) is enough to trigger a reaction and so it is more convenient and safer for them to choose to avoid all instances of the offending item.
In some cases a person may already by vegetarian or have a low meat diet and the necessity of cutting out dairy and eggs, for example, may mean that eating vegan is again, simpler.
As well as allergens there are people with specific gastrointestinal conditions which mean that certain food items need to be avoided or a low meat or low dairy diet is needed. Often this may take the form of low residue food, low fat and low protein. Similarly their are low-inflammatory diets, and high energy, or symptom management diets recommended to people with chronic conditions such as rheumatism, fibromyalgia and ME. A vegan diet can be a good way of achieving this for some people, and even then there may be additional modifications they need to make such as avoiding onions.**
This becomes especially true if you need to buy a lot of pre-packaged food, i.e. you can't cook everything from scratch, or if you are eating out or relying on others to cook for you. Having to check every label or explain all the things that need to be avoided can be difficult and even upsetting.
Unlike HLVs, vegans in this group have some very specific concerns and needs. However as with the first group they may not avoid animal products in other areas such as body care and home cleaning products.
These two groups often get called 'dietary vegans' as their veganism is confined to their diets and may not extend to other areas of their life. Some may argue that this means they are not "true" vegans but as you'll see it's very difficult to define what a "true" vegan is and for most everyday needs these people are vegan.
* Don't worry I know that everything is chemicals. I also know that natural chemical does not necessarily mean safer or better than synthetic chemicals. Hence the quotation marks.
** I also recognise that the very opposite can be true. There are some people whose health conditions mean that they can not be vegan as they have difficulty digesting or are allergic or sensitive to a lot of common vegan ingredients. If somebody can not be vegan due to health reasons you should never give them a hard time about it. But then you shouldn't be giving people a hard time about what they eat or don't eat anyway.
The next three categories are possibly best described as "lifestyle vegans" those for whom their veganism extends past the kitchen and their food and in to other areas of their life.
The Animal Ethics Vegan
This is the vegan that most people are familiar with and think of when somebody says they are vegan. For the most part they share two common principals:
- There is no need for humans to eat meat
- The keeping of animals for the production of things for human benefit is wrong
The strength and specific interpretation of these principals may vary by individual but they are usually present to some extent. They do not consume any product that has come from an animal. Mostly. Because there are some who think products from animals that died naturally are ok, and there are some who don't. There are some who think products from wild hunted animals are ok and there are some who don't. There are some who agree with feral and wild animal culls and there are some who don't.
Most agree that commercial farming is unethical or not good for animals. A majority agree that even small holdings or personal farming of animals is unethical and not good for animals.
Most but not all, extend this to insects. Generally this extends to all by-products such as leather and gelatin. Most, but not all, extend this to non-dietry products such as clothing, body care, cleaning products and other items.
Despite the lack of consensus (and why should there be, these are individuals making their own decisions) the focus is primarily on the rights of animals.
The Religiously Motivated Vegan
There are number of religions which espouse or encourage a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are also a number which have other dietary restrictions. Jainism mandates that its followers are vegetarian and some may extend this to being vegan. Mainstream Hinduism doesn't mandate vegetarianism but it is an integral part of their scripture and is thus common practice, again with some people interpreting it as veganism
Similarly Vegetarianism is encouraged in the texts of Sikhism though it is not a central part of the religion and people freely interpret this, some eating animal products and some turning to a vegan diet.
In Buddhism there are a number of branches which encourage vegetarian or vegan diets, though it is not uniform across all practitioners.
Whilst other mainstream religions do not have vegetarianism as a central theme, in fact may have common practices and interpretations which encourage the eating of animal products, there are some people who interpret their scripture to advocate a vegan lifestyle or diet and so practice accordingly.
Often these beliefs and writings are closely linked to the idea of animal ethics and ethics of killing animals or consuming flesh. However as they are deeply linked to a person's religion and beliefs and may be thought of first in terms of faith or spirituality with the ethics taking second place, the individuals may be considered vegan for religious reasons.
You may of course find somebody of a traditionally non-vegetarian/vegan religion who is vegan, but this may not be strictly tied to their religion.
The Ethical/Eco Vegan
This group of people have come to the conclusion that being vegan is a sensible and logical step in living an ecologically sound life. They may be very concerned with methods of food production, food miles, intensive farming practices, local and national economics, global warming and emissions, GMOs and so on. Often their primary concern is eating food and consuming products that meet there ethical concerns as well as possible and have found that a vegan diet is one of the easier ways to do this consistently. Part of their personal ethics may well include animal welfare but it is just one part of their own ethical guidelines.
You may find that they are very concerned about which brands they consume as some companies or parent companies may not be sufficiently ethical for their comfort zone. Again, this can mean that eating vegan is often a simpler choice for them as it limits the number of decisions they have to make or cuts out an entire area of ethical concern.
These vegans are likely to extend their veganism from their diet in to the rest of their life but it might look inconsistent to the outsider as there are always other ethical concerns guiding their decisions. This means that they may have decided that they won't wear leather or things using animal glues but are ok with wool or silk.
These are the five main groups of Vegans I can think of and you can see that that leads to a lot of variation as to what a vegan is. Even people within these groups may approach things differently. Further more it is likely that people will fall in to more than one category and may prioritise things differently. You may find that somebody is primarily an Animal Ethics Vegan but that they are also a Healthy Lifestyle Vegan and are pleased that their ethics allows them to have a "healthier" life.
Or somebody who is vegan for religious reasons may also have strong ethical and ecological drives too which further enhances their religious choice, or even helps strengthen their faith.
Remember though that we need to consider a person's circumstances too. I'm going to use myself as a brief case study here to show how complex it can get when you have different motivations and different circumstances in play.
I went vegan two years ago. Previous to that I was vegetarian and lactose intolerant, and previous to that I was merely lactose intolerant. I started out giving up all dairy, literally all of it because I was very sensitive to it. Then for reasons of Animal Ethics I went vegetarian. At that time I had ME and was fairly poor living on a small fixed income. I also started to develop my ideas about ethical and ecological living. I realised that with my energy and health issues as well as budget it was actually becoming very difficult to be a vegetarian and maintain my code of ethics - being vegan would make it easier.
Personally I am OK with eating eggs but only if it is from a rescue hen who is kept by a person who does not keep chickens for profit, looks after them well in a little chicken heaven in a back garden and is essentially selling the eggs that their now happy chicken lays around their garden which would otherwise go to waste. But explaining that to people every time I go out to dinner or ask in a supermarket when somebody says "do you eat eggs" is unreasonable, especially when you are fatigued. Instead, I just decided I would not eat eggs. It was important for me to have constancy.
Same goes for honey. Are honey bees essential for pollination and general world flora and fauna health? Yes they are and I support that. Is most honey produced from ethically managed conscientious apiaries who look after the long term welfare of bee colonies and the bee population? No it's not. So will I eat honey? No. Yes the honey from the small co-operative in your local town might be great, and the honey from your Aunt Sue's back garden might be lovely. But that doesn't represent all the honey on supermarket shelves or used as a sweetener in confectionery and pre-made items. The likelihood is that that honey comes from poorly managed commercial operations and I simply can't check the source of it all so that means no honey at all to save being a hypocrite or getting horrendously confused.
Some people may say it's therefore hypocritical of me to eat fruit or drink almond milk and so on because bees are used for pollination, often on a large commercial scale. This is true and is something that has to be thought about. It means I choose my products carefully.
This is were we come back to what the post started with:
There aren't absolutes and there is no need for things to be black and white.
We are limited by our circumstances.
In the world we live in it is virtually impossible to rid yourself of every last thing you find unethical or unjust. From cars to public transport to politics and entertainment. There are things, physical products going in to them that we can't control and that we may not agree with. But this is where we make reasoned choices as to what we think is reasonable, practical and harmonious with our beliefs and situation.
As a vegan do I think commercial beekeeping is ok? No I don't.
Can I avoid honey and beeswax and will that have an impact on bee colonies? Yes and I need more data.
Am I aware that it is necessary for pollination of many plants I eat? Yes, but I live in the UK a lot of food is imported from the EU which has slightly different practices and laws to the US so the concerns are different (not absent just different) than you may think.
Can I reasonably cut out all products of bee pollination from my diet? No it would be dangerously unhealthy, but where possible I can support brands that support sustainable bee colonies.
It's a series of choices and a balancing act between ideals and reality.
Accusing or berating a vegan for not adhering to a black and white ideal is to ignore that not only are there a huge number of reasons for somebody to be vegan but that we live in the real world. Being vegan does not overrule other considerations of having to navigate our own unique circumstances within our environment and culture.
Expecting that of people, of any people vegan or not, is ridiculous.