For such a simple concept, the question, “what is a vegan?” provokes surprising levels of controversy. Some confusion is inevitable since the meaning of vegan shifts depending on its context. Sometimes the word refers exclusively to food. Other times it specifies a consumer product made without animal ingredients. And in still other cases it references people who abstain from animal products.
So it’s possible to use the word vegan to identify a sandwich, a shampoo, or a person. Given its flexibility, seeking an accurate and uncontested vegan definition inevitably produces disagreement. You’re always going to have bickering over exactly how the word should be applied.
To me, the core virtue of the vegan concept is that it enables, through the tiniest efforts, the prevention of vast amounts of animal suffering and environmental degradation. My intention here is to define vegan in a way that maximizes its power to encourage people to embrace plant-based lifestyles.
Unpacking the Meaning of Vegan
To begin our consideration of this topic, let’s start by looking at how the word vegan differs from vegetarian.
Vegetarian diets eschew meat and fish, but commonly allow eggs and dairy products. Veganism takes this idea to the next level, cutting out every item of animal origin.
Vegan choices deliver three big advantages over their vegetarian counterparts:
- additional avoidance of animal mistreatment and slaughter
- reduction of certain health risks
- decrease of environmental footprint
With those benefits in mind, let’s now take a step back and look at the first time the word vegan appeared in print.
The Original Definition of Vegan
Donald Watson coined the term vegan in 1944 in the United Kingdom. Here’s Watson from that year, in the first issue of The Vegan News, introducing the word and defining its meaning:
We should all consider carefully what our Group, and our magazine, and ourselves, shall be called. ‘Non-dairy’ has become established as a generally understood colloquialism, but like ‘non-lacto’ it is too negative. Moreover it does not imply that we are opposed to the use of eggs as food. We need a name that suggests what we do eat, and if possible one that conveys the idea that even with all animal foods taboo, Nature still offers us a bewildering assortment from which to choose. ‘Vegetarian’ and ‘Fruitarian’ are already associated with societies that allow the ‘fruits’ (!) of cows and fowls, therefore it seems we must make a new and appropriate word. As this first issue of our periodical had to be named, I have used the title “The Vegan News”. Should we adopt this, our diet will soon become known as a VEGAN diet, and we should aspire to the rank of VEGANS. Members’ suggestions will be welcomed. The virtue of having a short title is best known to those of us who, as secretaries of vegetarian societies have to type or write the word vegetarian thousands of times a year!
Watson did an admirable job of formulating the vegan concept in clear and inspiring terms. You’ll notice that he defined the word solely in terms of diet.
Is Any Food Ever Truly Vegan?
Of the various senses of the word vegan, the easiest one to address relates to food. Here, things may seem cut-and-dried. If a food contains no animal ingredients, it’s vegan.
In regard to applying the word vegan to food, I think it’s sensible to err on the side of being strict. A chocolate bar that contains one percent milk powder is absolutely not vegan.
But now I must throw you a curve ball. Some chocolate bars made exclusively with vegan ingredients may nevertheless contain traces of milk, since they’re produced on the same manufacturing line as milk chocolate bars. Ditto for other foods like vegan ice cream.
In such cases, I think it’s sensible to call these foods vegan. Because these foods aren’t formulated with non-vegan ingredients, they don’t fund animal exploitation. To whatever extent you’re eating a few molecules of milk because your vegan product shares a manufacturing line, an omnivore is consuming a few extra vegan molecules that came from your product.
Oftentimes these products bear a seal stating something like, “may contain traces of milk.” These statements exist to warn consumers who have dangerous allergies. To assert these foods aren’t vegan runs a real risk of giving the public the impression that a vegan diet is absurdly strict. And this in turn may discourage people from shifting their diets in a vegan direction.
Is Palm Oil Vegan?
Palm oil is frequently sourced from plantations that have cleared vast tracts of jungle. Clearing such land commonly entails the extermination of orangutans and other endangered species. Vegans commonly (and rightfully) refuse to purchase palm oil sourced in this manner. Some claim this oil is not vegan because of the exploitation involved.
Killing endangered apes to clear land for agriculture is certainly outrageous. But the fact is that whenever land is used for any sort of monoculture, animals die—usually horrifically. And this issue goes deeper than most people realize. The farmer growing your delicious local organic lettuce may be poisoning gophers or shooting deer who dare to threaten his crop. The bread you eat, organic or not, undoubtedly came from grains harvested with combine threshers that eviscerate any number of snakes and rodents.
So if we are going to argue that palm oil is not vegan, pretty much every other plant-based food deserves lose its vegan status as well. The word vegan then breaks down and becomes useless.
Palm Oil is Totally Objectionable, but Totally Vegan
As you can see, the vegan concept collapses when loaded with needless weight. The fact that vegan means, “nothing produced or derived from animals” is sufficient to convey a hugely important point, and this is where our definition should therefore begin and end. Designating a food vegan does not and should not mean it’s karma-free, or produced in morally acceptable ways.
While many vegans refuse to consume palm oil that lacks some sort of ethical certification—and I’m in total agreement with this refusal, by the way—it’s counterproductive to assert that palm oil is not vegan.
That said, it would be laughable to assert that, simply because it’s vegan, uncertified palm oil is a choice that resonates with compassionate values. Veganism cannot be the only standard by which we evaluate the ethical status of a given food. Other important issues require consideration. Let me now offer some additional examples.
What About Coffee and Chocolate?
Just as palm oil is invariably vegan—no matter how objectionable its production methods—the same goes for coffee and cacao beans. All these foods are vegan since they come entirely from plants.
Many coffee orchards and cacao plantations treat their workers abominably. Some cacao plantations even engage in slavery. But that doesn’t render these foods non-vegan. A food can involve deplorable treatment of people, and crimes against the environment, and still be vegan.
Naturally, people who become vegan for ethical reasons usually recognize there are other ethical issues at stake beyond whether their food comes from plants. They therefore typically go out of their way to choose fair-trade coffee and chocolate. There are plenty of brands that are fair-trade certified, so finding one poses little inconvenience.
Vegan is just one component of ethical eating. It’s absolutely possible to be a strict vegan but to source many of your foods from farms that engage in unethical or environmentally destructive practices. This is true for several crops besides palm oil, coffee, and chocolate. Other prominent examples include tomatoes, cashews, and berries.
If you want to eat food that’s produced in the least harmful ways, going vegan must surely enter into your thinking. And if you intend to eat as ethically as possible, it’s crucial to go beyond the vegan concept when appropriate in order to make the most compassionate and sustainable choices.
Vegan as an Identity
Can you call yourself a vegan purely because you eat a vegan diet, but go no further in regard to other lifestyle choices? Different people have different opinions, but I can’t see any reason to object.
That said, this question does bring up edge cases like a person who eats a vegan diet but wears fur. But I think we’re all capable of using language to deal a situation like this. I’d call that person a vegan who has made a deeply problematic choice that directly funds extraordinary animal cruelty.
Being vegan, after all, does not mean you are a person exhibiting consistently moral behavior. There are vegans who cheat on their husbands, are abusive to their friends, who dishonor debts, and so forth. Some of the most despicable people I’ve ever encountered are vegan. Vegan is a limited concept that is absolutely not the be-all-and-end-all of human decency. It’s just one more approach that can help you to be a better person, like telling the truth, being kind in your speech, and refusing to steal.
When it comes to deciding whether or not somebody is vegan, my answer is usually, “who cares?” I want to spend my limited time protecting animals—not getting into endless arguments over who gets to call themselves a vegan. If someone eats nothing but plants but wears a leather belt, I think you and I have more important things to do than to protest that he’s not a real vegan.
Flexible Definitions Save Animals
If you’re not careful, it’s possible to make vegan diets sound excruciatingly restrictive to newcomers. We must therefore always strive to use the word vegan in ways that inspire change rather than inhibit it.
I’m therefore a big fan of the foot-in-the-door technique when discussing vegan topics. I often seek to convince people to make a small change in a vegan direction today, since I know that once they see how satisfying it is they’ll be open to making bigger changes tomorrow. If we manage to present the vegan concept in appealing terms, we’ll be much more able to stick our foot in the door before it closes.
I suspect the reason some people define veganism in strictest possible terms is that they think doing so will inspire more perfect lifestyle choices and thus prevent more animal suffering. But that sort of approach may be counterproductive. Most of the incidental uses of animal byproducts will automatically disappear as slaughterhouses shut down because we’ve stopped raising animals for food. For that to happen, we must talk about veganism in ways that motivate people to shift their diets towards plants.
The Plumber’s Snake
While most people would regard me as a strict vegan based on my diet and lifestyle choices, I don’t consider this word to be a big part of my identity. I rarely feel the urging to tell people I’m vegan, even during long conversations involving food politics. And I refuse to take the word too seriously, especially as a marker for who I am as a person. I see veganism much the same way I regard a plumber’s snake. It’s merely a tool to get a job done.
I use the word vegan in whatever sense I can to inspire change. Just like a plumber’s snake does its job by bending this way and that in order to clear obstructions, I bend the word vegan in whichever way serves my purpose at the moment.
Can You be “Mostly Vegan”?
Here are some phrases I frequently use in order to nudge people toward plant-based lifestyles:
- 80 percent vegan
- vegan at home
- mostly vegan
- vegan until 6:00
Phrases like these really piss off the vegan fundamentalists. They’ll proclaim you can’t be a little bit vegan any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. Sometimes they’ll even feign an inability to understand what “mostly vegan” or “80 percent vegan” is supposed to mean.
But I presume a functioning level of intelligence on the part of my listener, and if you can’t figure out that 80 percent vegan means eating vegan around 80 percent of the time, you’ve got much bigger problems than how I define the word vegan.
A Delicate But Useful Comparison
Time now for a quick detour bound to antagonize a few readers. But the comparison I’m about to offer makes a vital point that I don’t know how else to convey.
If you want to spread Christianity, you don’t need more guys walking around with giant crucifixes hanging from their necks. What spreads Christianity are people who humbly follow Christ’s deepest teachings of forgiveness and charity. This is truly leading by example, and it’s the sort of behavior that inspires others to upgrade their own conduct and character. If you want to make more Christians, the best way is to act more Christian—in the deepest sense of the word.
Some people seem to base their entire identity around being vegan. Their way of framing the ethics of eating is often strikingly similar to religious fundamentalists. They’re invariably inflexible about definitions, since they want to keep the meaning of vegan as exclusionary as possible. Veganism becomes all about reinforcing their personal sense of identity.
No fundamentalist sect will ever take over the world. Invariably the requirements to become part of their sect are so restrictive that it will always rule out 99 percent of the population. If vegan diets are to become the norm, we need to use this word with the intention of inviting and including rather than excluding.
When to Cut Short a Conversation
There are certainly occasions that warrant using the word vegan in the strictest possible sense. But the people who insist on exclusively defining vegan to convey absolute moral purity have fallen into fundamentalist thinking. When you encounter these people, you’ll probably discover there’s no way to have a good faith give-and-take conversation.
In time, your spidey-sense kicks in whenever you find yourself talking to one of these people. In these cases, I’ve learned it’s best to politely end the conversation and let them have the last word. They’re going to get the last word anyway. And since they rarely make a sincere effort to listen, every moment of dialog is generally a waste of breath.
I’d rather devote my limited time to having conversations with the millions of omnivores who are open to thinking more carefully about their food choices.
The Case for a Vegan Diet
We will never converge on a meaning of vegan that pleases everybody. But now that we have a working definition it’s time to move on to more important things. Specifically, it’s time to move past what vegan means, to why people embrace this concept.
The best place to get up to speed on that is to read my essay titled, “Why Go Vegan?” You can finish it in under an hour, and it’ll acquaint you with the main reasons that people choose a vegan lifestyle. If you find the arguments persuasive, you’ll also want to check out my “How to Go Vegan” guide. It’s much easier than you may realize to rid your life of animal products. In fact, as you progress down the vegan road, you’re certain to enjoy eating more than ever before. That’s primarily because vegan food is incredible.
Stepping Toward a Vegan Lifestyle
Whether we’re talking about food or clothing or cosmetics, cutting out animal products is generally easy. But sometimes, it’s not obvious whether a particular item comes from animals. In these cases, you can check our animal ingredients list for the most common animal-derived foods, materials, and substances.
No matter how far down the vegan road you travel, it makes sense to start by emphasizing dietary choices. After all, the overwhelming majority of animal exploitation in this world arises from food production.
I expect that this essay has made it apparent why large numbers of people are deciding to go vegan. Avoiding animal products makes sense on so many levels.
Vegan is a uniquely powerful word. In fact, it’s probably the most important term ever coined in the service of animal protection. Unfortunately, the word can be misused in ways that give it as much potential to repel as to attract. I’ve therefore sought to define vegan in a context that unlocks its full power, without ever coming off as rigid, preachy, or uptight. I hope you’ll make use of the vegan concept in whichever ways best enable you to remove animal products from your life, and to inspire others to do the same.