Do you own a pet? Do you visit aquariums or safari parks occasionally? Do you have a feather pillow? Do you sometimes use cosmetics or skin creams from your local supermarket?
Well then my friend, you’re just not a vegan.
…or so some people might tell you.
Contrary too what you might think, the question of whether you are a vegan is not as straight forward as it first appears. So, just what or who is a vegan?
Well first let’s explain what veganism is. The UK Vegan Society (who coined the term ‘vegan’) define veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. So veganism, under this definition, is a lifestyle choice, and one can deduce by extension that a vegan is someone that practices this lifestyle. I term this the philosophical approach to veganism.
So what or how then, must a person conduct their life in order to be a vegan?
In order to avoid animal exploitation, a vegan should not consume, use or support any of the following products or practices:
* Foods that contain products of animal origin: meat, fish, dairy, eggs, cheese, honey, gelatine, etc.
• Clothes or personal wear made from origin products leather, wool, silk, down, fur, animal skins
* Cosmetics/personal care items/toiletries/home care products that contain animal ingredients and/or are tested on animals
* Keeping pets, pet shops, puppy mills, breeding, buying or selling animals, confining animals in cages or fish in bowls
• Fishing, hunting, rodeos, cockfights, and other forms of animal ‘sports’
* Circuses, zoos, aqua parks; safari parks, oceanariums and aquariums
* Dog racing, horse racing, dog shows, horse-drawn carriages, horse riding
• Using animals as beasts of burden
This non-exhaustive list is already quite substantial and many would say onerous. The likelihood probably is that we are all (nearly all) guilty of breaching one or more of these edicts. But how many breaches does it take before someone will say “you’re not a vegan” anymore? When does one change from being a vegan to not being a vegan? Or is being vegan just a meaningless article of faith, a badge or label that anyone can carry around … just like, for example, a ‘Christian’ that has affairs outside his marriage, doesn’t keep in touch with his parents, works on Sundays, doesn’t believe in the Old Testament, is an overt racist, cheats on his tax returns and swears like a trouper?
In reality, the truth is that no such scorecard exists. Anyone can claim to be a vegan, saying that they live their lives in order to avoid animal exploitation, but this approach leaves a big black hole … The hole of FAILURE. Often people’s lives are markedly different in reality from their lofty ideals. And so this definition of being a vegan fails due to its non-verifiable and unquantifiable nature. In this sense it is just a rather unsatisfactory and vague term that may or may not mean something specific about the way a person conducts their life.
Note importantly, people who have a vegan diet for health reasons, religious purposes, or as a means of combating global warming, are excluded from this idealistic version of being a vegan. This is because they do it for the “wrong reasons” as they aren’t eating vegan in order to avoid animal exploitation. This reasoning smacks of bigotry and echoes faith-based illogic that says, for example, under Catholicism that most of the world’s leading humanists such as Ghandi would be banished to hell for believing in the wrong god. This rationale has strong negative consequences for the vegan movement as I believe it leads us down a cul-de-sac.
I believe that a different approach to finding a meaningful definition of being a vegan is required. The most obvious tenet to being a vegan is the consumer element, and it is also readily verifiable. So this is how I define a vegan:
“A person that does not consume animal products” … (‘consumption’ here meaning use, wear, buy, eat …)
That’s it, the practical definition of a vegan – short, simple, and modest. And easily tested.
I’m not suggesting that the other forms of animal exploitation are insignificant; far from it. They are equally as important and therefore deserve their own movements to halt these horrors. So animal-testing and pet breeding can be tackled by anti-vivisection and animal rights activism, and so forth. This simple approach allows us to pitch resources and expertise at each issue individually, instead of trying to fruitlessly tackle all the issues as if they are one. This is not watering down the ideals of veganism. It is merely reclassifying issues under more appropriate labels – animal welfare and rights issues are handled under those identifiable banners.
Note also that the Vegan Society implicitly accept this in their definition of vegan food. They make no attempt to verify if foods were brought to market by oxen or ploughed in fields by buffaloes. This is because they realise it’s impractical and self-defeating to ask these questions.
An additional and ultimately overriding benefit of the practical definition of vegan is that it is an inclusive approach. People that choose a vegan diet for health, environmental reasons, or religion, will be warmly greeted inside the vegan movement, instead of being rejected as they are under the philosophical and elitist alternative approach. This can only be a good thing for advocacy and growing veganism into a more powerful association for social change.
Written by Sheldon Hey