A few weeks ago, someone I work with asked me if there were any grey areas in veganism. It’s perhaps the most thoughtful and interesting question I’ve been asked about veganism, and thought it was well worth a blog post.
I know that veganism can seem very black and white sometimes. The reality for most vegans is that there are a lot of grey areas. Before we start, I want to share the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism as a reminder or in case you're just learning about veganism:
Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. There are many ways to embrace vegan living. Yet one thing all vegans have in common is a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey - as well as products like leather and any tested on animals.
Second hand and hand-me-downs
Many vegans are comfortable wearing or owning things made with animal products if they’re a hand-me-down from a friend or relative. The same may also go for buying something secondhand from a charity shop, eBay, Depop, etc.
There are a couple of reasons why some people are comfortable with this:
- They aren’t making the initial purchase of that item; they aren’t walking into a shoe store and buying leather shoes and directly supporting a company profiting from animal products.
- The item is being resold or given away, and if it’s in good nick it’s better to use it than let it go to waste. It's estimated that we send £140 billion worth of clothes to landfill each year in the UK alone. One of the many reasons someone may be vegan is because they want to reduce their environmental impact, so preventing clothes going to landfill is a good way to do that.
On the other hand, not everyone is comfortable wearing animal products, which is entirely understandable - it's kinda weird to think you're wearing skin.
Eggs & honey
Some vegans keep rescue hens as pets, and decide to eat the eggs the hen lays. Since the hen is now being well-looked after and loved, some people are happy eating these eggs that may otherwise go to waste. For others, it can feel like a slippery slope into viewing an animal product as food, and others simply do not want to consume any animal products whatsoever.
Honey is a product that seems to throw a lot of people off. I'm not entirely sure why that is; I think one of the reasons may be that some people find it harder to relate or empathise with an insect being used rather than a cow, for example. Some vegans are comfortable buying honey from local beekeepers if they feel the bees are being well looked after. The reality is that honey is a resource bees need.
While eating any kind of animal product flies in the face of the Vegan Society’s definition, some people will eat animal products if it would otherwise go to waste. For example, if you’re at an event and there’s a cheese sandwich that will be thrown away at the end of the day, some vegans might be fine with eating that.
Food waste is a major issue. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates one third of food produced for human use (i.e, not for feeding to livestock) is wasted each year. That's completely unacceptable, so from that point of view I can understand why some vegans are fine with eating non-vegan products occasionally if they may otherwise go to waste.
Zoos & animal attractions
Zoos are a really muddy area that non-vegans also struggle with. Under the definition of veganism, zoos do exploit animals - but can they also do some good?
There are studies that have shown animals kept in captivity live shorter lives, suffer with depression or abnormal behaviour called zoochosis, and some zoos do not have the welfare of their animals at heart. Some argue that studies have found some species live longer in zoos because they don't face some of the issues they would in the wild. A study by the University of Zurich found 84% of mammalian species they studied lived longer lives in zoos than they would in the wild. However, as we mentioned above it doesn't necessarily mean they are happier lives.
The arguments for zoos are that they can be a fantastic educational or inspirational tool. Some zoos support research and conservation efforts to protect animals in the wild - money which presumably comes from ticket sales and fundraising from guests. Arguably, we could stop messing up the planet to prevent conservation from being necessary but that seems too tough an ask.
This is such a tough area. As a child, I loved visiting the Safari Park and learning about lions, hyenas, rhinos - that I have still never had the opportunity to see in the wild. And even if I go to the wild, wildlife tourism can do a lot of damage to an ecosystem and to the species you’re going to see. So even that isn’t without issues.
It feels really hard to figure this one out. When you see photos of your friends visiting 'sanctuaries' in Thailand, posing with drugged up tigers, you know that is not good or ok - that feels very black and white. But what about a zoo that supports conservation efforts and acts as a great educational tool? Is that ok? What about when you visit a wildlife attraction where you ride animals? Last year, I went to Morocco and we rode camels in the desert - that sounds like exploitation when I look back on it.
For some, zoos are black and white and they flat out do not support them, and that's ok. Others acknowledge that they have the power to do some good. I feel like the majority of people (vegan and non-vegan alike) are very conflicted and confused about zoos.
Pet ownership brings the possibility of many grey areas. The first is that some people do not feel comfortable owning an animal, and view that as exploitation. Others are happy to have pets as long as they are adopted because they are giving a pet the opportunity to have a happy life.
If you're owed by a cat, there are issues regarding the environmental damage cats can have by killing birds - there's an interesting article on the Smithsonian about the moral cost of cats that's worth a read. I've had my cat 11 years and he has always been an outdoor cat - for me to ask him to stay indoors now would be cruel, and I know he would be unhappy. If I ever get another cat, I would choose to keep them indoor and leash train them.
And then we get to your furry friends' diet. If your pet requires meat as part of their diet (Sidebar: you absolutely should not feed your cat a vegan diet.) you have to support the meat industry, which you choose not to support in your own diet. If you aren't happy about supporting the meat industry but want a fuzzy friend, research rescuing a species that can survive on a vegan diet.
Oh boy. Follow enough vegan pages, or even see a couple of news stories on social media about a vegan topic, and you’ll see this gem of a comment; “I bet they’re still driving around in cars with leather in them.”
Yeah, we are. I’ve not seen a car manufacturer or retailer advertising vegan-friendly cars.
Just like everyone else, sometimes we need to own a car.
In most areas of our lives we can find vegan-friendly alternatives; not so much with medication, which undergoes animal testing and a lot of medications contain animal products, such as lactose. So, what do we do when we need medication?
Charlotte Willis recently wrote a thoughtful piece about this topic for Vegan Food and Living, where she shares her experience, thoughts and advice. For some people, medication is a part of their daily life and that can be incredibly frustrating when you know it isn’t vegan. As Charlotte mentions, your health is your priority - that said, it’s completely understandable that this can be hard to make peace with when the rest of your lifestyle is devoted to eliminating and reducing animal suffering. Remember the definition from the start of the blog post, “as far as is possible and practicable”; it’s far better to live the rest of your life vegan than to not take medication you need.
If you have questions about medication or treatment it’s speak to your doctor - in some cases, there may be vegan-friendly alternatives.
A couple of years ago, the UK government began changing notes from paper to polymer notes. (They're not the only country with non-vegan notes. Tallow is found in notes in; my beloved Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, Romania, Singapore, and Australia to name a few places.) The plastic coating contains animal fat, which caused outrage amongst vegans, veggies, hindus, and sikhs. There were petitions but ultimately, the UK government decided to continue using tallow as they felt is was the best option economically and because they said they felt they couldn’t source enough sustainable palm oil.
While vegans are not comfortable using notes containing tallow, would we be any happier using notes that contained unsustainable palm oil which may have contributed to the exploitation of animals? No. I'm sure if government put their minds to it, they could do it without using animal products but they're kind of preoccupied screwing the country up at the minute so...I don't hold any hope for that changing any time soon.
As I was writing this post, Rose from the Cheap Lazy Vegan posted a two-part video about the same topic which is worth a watch if you want to find out more.
People live vegan lifestyles for a number of reasons and draw their own red lines in different places to others. Some vegans are happy eating eggs from their rescue hens (high fives for rescuing hens!) while others (like myself) really do not like eggs.
As I mentioned at the start, this is one of the best questions I've ever been asked about veganism. I'm sure there are areas I've missed, so please weigh in in the comments and let me know how you feel about these grey areas.