What is veganism?

Thanks to my vegan agent, Lynn Pauly, the co-director of Alliance for Animals, I’ve given two talks on veganism over the past month. Of course, I talk about veganism non-stop, so it wasn’t hard to find material for the talks. It is great practice for my future advocacy to give these formal presentations, but the most valuable part was that organizing this information into a powerpoint and speech gave me an opportunity to clarify and question my understanding of veganism.

Until the first talk, I had never looked up a definition of veganism. I’d never really felt the need. And given how much we (advocates) talk about veganism, I’m amazed that so many of the vegan advocates I read have just created an individual definition based on their own views, or a generic definition based on dietary restrictions. Has it occurred the vegan world that we may not all be selling the same thing?

Of course it has, in (seemingly minor) matters like whether veganism excludes honey. And there are many people concerned with, the divorce of “dietary veganism” (eating plant foods) from the philosophical ideals underlying “veganism.” But aside from that, the vegan world was not as concerned as I was.

So, in preparation for my first presentation, I went to (where else?) the wikipedia page on veganism to find a definition. The definitive sources cited were the Vegan Society and American Vegan Society. This is from the Vegan Society articles of association:

In this Memorandum the word "veganism" denotes a philosophy and 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; and
by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for
the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.
In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived
wholly or partly from animals.

The American Vegan Society definition is here. It is significantly longer, but I suppose it can be summed up with this sentence:

Veganism is compassion in action. It is a philosophy, diet, and lifestyle.

Beautiful. I have no problem with that. I fully endorse that. But I find both definitions of veganism (the full AVS version, not just that snippet) unsatisfactory. Before I explain why, let me detail the research with my other talk.

So, with my other talk, I was supposed to talk about the vegan movement objectively – especially sharing any issues I saw. The class for which I was a guest speaker was called “Contemporary Food Movements,” and looked at slow food (local and organic, esp.) and sustainable agriculture from a sociological perspective. One of the articles the students read viewed the vegetarian movement in terms of the unity or disunity of three things: its accepted beliefs (e.g. animal suffering should be prevented), specific aims (e.g. promote a plant based diet), and organizational methods (e.g. pamphleting). Using this model, I drew a picture that I was super proud of – The Tree of Veganism. (If I remember, I’ll upload it so you can marvel at my fabulous drawing skills, but the content is kind of moot, as you will see.) My issue with the sociological model is that there was no mention given to the origin of the movement – the roots in my tree. At that point, I thought veganism started as an animal rights movement. But, since I was giving this information to a formal audience, I figured I should do some research. So I read the full transcript of the famous Donald Watson interview, since who could tell me more about the roots of veganism than the “father of veganism” himself?

What I found was not what I expected. I think what best sums up my findings is Watson’s extraordinarily simple quote:

“And, quite early in life, I came to the conclusion that, if I was to report on Man’s progress, I had to settle for the comment beloved of schoolteachers: ‘Could do better.’ And from that, The Vegan Society was formed.”

Side note: Donald Watson is an extraordinary individual, and the full transcript is well worth reading. (How many nonagenarians have you met who have NEVER used medicine and commuted everywhere on a bike until the age of 50? He’s a mensch.) However, I realize that not everyone has the luxury of devoting 90% of their day to learning about veganism the way I do right now, so I’d be happy to post my favorite bits in another post. Also, if you’re a vegan history geek like me, you should read the first issue of The Vegan News

Here is what I concluded from that interview: Watson’s v eganism was not obviously founded in the idea of animal rights, or even in the idea of animal welfare. It was founded in the idea that the way we were living was fundamentally flawed and could, and should, be improved. Throughout the interview, Watson mentions health, animal suffering, moral right, the scientific evidence for a vegan diet, and notions of “natural” and “pure” – all ideas connected with modern vegan advocacy. There are notable absences in his interview: animal exploitation in any realm other than food, environment, human welfare, the taste of vegan food, et al. But the range of what he says is so broad that it’s hard to conclude that veganism was an idea born solely out of preventing animal cruelty.

So let me combine these two discoveries for you. 1. Veganism does not have a definitive definition. 2. Veganism is not definitively associated with any ideology or philosophical movement; it is an ambiguous call to a morally evolved way of life.

Okay, so I had just discovered I didn’t actually know what veganism meant, now, or when it first started, and I was slated to give two talks on veganism. Excellent timing. I just used the vegan society definition for the first talk, and for the second talk, the kids already knew quite a bit about veganism. But the issue has continued to bug me. As a vegan advocate, I’d kind of like to know what I’m advocating for. And though I found a number of definitions of veganism, ranging from practical to poetic, there is just not a consensus on exactly what is included.

So, following in the footprints of my vegan idols, here is my personal definition of veganism. A visual representation is available at the top fo the teach humane website: the interconnection of animal protection, environmental ethics, and human rights. The actual language used (protection, rights, etc.) is debatable, but the core concept is that my veganism cares about non-human AND human animals AND the environment. It makes perfect sense: humans are animals as well, and protecting the environment is in the best interests of human and non human animals.

The rammifications of that are important. I believe that feminism is a vegan issue; I believe that racial and class equality movements, prison reform, LGBTQ rights, human trafficking, and human health are vegan issues. Similarly, habitat destruction, water and air pollution, deforestation, and overuse of pesticides are vegan issues. In my limited research, this intersectionality has never been renounced, but it has never been overtly accepted as part of the vegan manifesto. The closest thing I’ve seen is ecofeminism (see, my name!), but I find the term problematic because it privileges feminism over any other human injustice.

The future of veganism is accepting these issues as part of our cause and working with environment and human rights groups on their issues and on issues that intersect with animal rights. Let’s work with environmental groups to plant community gardens! Let’s work with human rights groups to fix worker conditions at slaughterhouses, factory farms, and other areas of industrial agriculture. Let’s work with both environmental and human rights groups to come up with a vegan alternative to leather, the producing of which endangers the health of numerous employees in poor countries and releases harmful chemicals into the environment.

There are two motivations behind the incorporation of human rights and environmental action into the name of veganism. The first, as I mentioned, is that if you care about animals, you care about human animals and the environment. It’s logical. The second is best expressed by Mercy For Animals’ banner that they carry in the Chicago Gay Pride Parade “No one is free when others are oppressed.” Their cause is our cause, and our cause is theirs.

So what is this new veganism? It means partnering with other social justice groups, expanding our message, and including human health (individual health and wellbeing) and exploitation of consumers as ethical motivations. This does not mean that animal rights groups have to spend their limited funds on human rights initiatives, or the other way around. It just means that veganism is our meeting place, our common ground. It’s less a clarification for special interest groups than it is for vegans and and vegan advocates. For those advocates who came to veganism through a different social justice issue (as I did, with child slavery), it is a beautiful relief that human and environmental issues are vegan issues too. (What this really means is that I can post feminist articles on my vegan twitter and not feel guilty about them having nothing to do with veganism!)

I spent quite a long time this morning working on a new, comprehensive definition of veganism. I did not succeed. Did not get even close. But, just as the research for my talks made me start to refine my beliefs of what veganism does and should stand for, maybe my attempt will help you with yours. So here is my clumsily worded new definition of the principle of veganism – drawing on the main parts of the VS and AVS definitions, my own opinion (veganism=love!), and my limited experience with vegans and the vegan literature.

Veganism is: an individual commitment to conscious consumption within one’s abilities and means with the intent of one’s money going towards practices in accordance with one’s principles, rather than blindly subsidizing exploitation of, and violence towards, sentient creatures and the environment. This commitment is often paired with a reverence for life, a belief that a world of non-violence, non-oppression, compassion, and ahimsa is achievable, that one person can make a difference, and an understanding that, to create that world, we must seek to become aware of the exploitation and violence in our way of life and way of thinking, share our ideals and knowledge, and strive to be an example to others of the beauty and ease of compassionate living.

Dietary veganism – the consumption of plant based foods, especially those fairly traded, locally grown, and sustainably produced – is a main focus of veganism, and is often confused with veganism itself in the mainstream media.

As you can see, at no point did I say “not buying anything containing animal ingredients or tested on animals.” This could never really be a definition of veganism without clarification of specifics. But it’s a different definition than I’ve seen before, and it covers a couple of things that (again, in my limited research) have been lacking: 1. Equal and overt inclusion of animal, human, and environmental issues; 2. Reconciliation of veganism as an individual choice and the desire for a vegan world; 3. The inclusion of a reverence for life; 4. Recognition that living an admirable life while being vegan is a form of activism; 5. Acknowledgement that our primary power in changing the world is in changing our spending habits and trying to get others to change theirs.

Problems with the definition: 1. Lack of specifics due to inclusion of all social justice issues. To what degree can you mandate not buying products that exploit humans, or that damage the environment? And if you say that veganism is absolutely no animal products, but that you can still be vegan and buy vegetables picked by migrant workers (as I almost certainly do, during the winter when there are no farmers’ markets), then isn’t that privileging one cause over another? Perhaps we can consider all social justice issues vegan issues, but not all part of veganism? Or that animal rights is primary and other causes are secondary? I don’t know, and it’s a serious problem that must be worked out if my new form of veganism can exist. 2. Not a clear philosophical or moral motivation. In the VS definition, veganism is a philosophy fundamentally opposed to exploitation and cruelty. That doesn’t come across as well here. 3. Language choices. Why “violence” over “cruelty” or “compassion” over “kindness?” No good reason, just because they were the words that best describe my personal philosophy.

Anyways, something for the three or four (mostly vegan) people who read this blog to consider. Keep in mind that I did not comprehensively search for a definition of veganism before crafting mine, I really just looked at the most obvious and official definitions. Please post any other definitions that speak to you, suggest ways to improve mine, and let me know what you think of my new paradigm of veganism.

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3 Responses to What is veganism?

  1. Gina says:

    I really like your all-encompassing definition! Going vegan has definitely made me think more about everything I buy – thinking about what packaging its in, and what the process was that brought it to me. I’m working on buying more things in bulk, but I could be doing a lot better.

    I wanted to note that buying locally is often thought of as better for the environment (less pollution from transportation), but in reality it doesn’t necessarily mean that. In areas of the world / times of the year when plants don’t thrive naturally, to grow them locally might mean using more pesticides or energy-consuming artificial lighting, and these things could add up to more harm done than good. I think you made that clear when you said that veganism is about conscious consumption. I’m just afraid that some people get caught up in buying anything with the word “local” on it, when it could be meat from a factory farm in the next county.

  2. Gina says:

    Here‘s an article by Peter Singer about locavorism.

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