This website is devoted to discussion of vegan diets which means that regardless of why you eat a diet devoid of animal foods, you will hopefully find useful information here. But often the discussion delves into a larger discussion of veganism, which encompasses more than food, so it’s worth defining the concept as I use it here.
A Definition of Veganism
Here is how The Vegan Society, founded in 1944 in England, defines veganism:
Veganism is 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 animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
In its simplest terms, veganism rejects the commodity status of animals. Vegans avoid animal derived foods, but it doesn’t end there. We also shun leather and wool; avoid zoos, circuses, and aquariums; and aim to use personal care and household products that aren’t tested on animals. It’s about compassion, certainly, but it’s more than that. Veganism is a stance for justice and fairness for non-human animals.
Putting vegan beliefs into practice can be challenging and the Vegan Society was wise to insert that “possible and practicable” clause into the definition. In a complex world, 100% elimination of products of animal exploitation is not possible. Medications and vaccines are tested on animals. Ingredients derived from animals can be found in everything from tires to electronics to plastic bags. Furthermore, not everyone has the same resources or access to vegan products and choices. It is, after all, a privilege to be able to choose what you will and won’t consume.
But, when we define veganism as the adoption of a set of beliefs about animal use and a best effort to put those beliefs into practice, it becomes something that is widely available. Veganism is about belief, intention and effort, not about elusive perfection. It encourages a commitment to a particular view about the place of animals in our world. But it also acknowledges barriers to putting those views into practice.
Veganism is Not a Diet
Vegan as an adjective defines anything that is not a product of animal use – whether it’s a diet, or a wallet, or a shampoo. Plenty of people choose a vegan diet for reasons that have nothing to do with animals – often for health or to shrink their carbon footprint. It’s good when people eat fewer animals for any reason. But a vegan ethic is crucial to ending the exploitation of animals. Eating a vegan diet for health doesn’t help dogs in puppy mills or lions in circuses or foxes on fur farms. Furthermore, when we define veganism as a diet aimed at improving human health, it reinforces what most people already believe about food choices – which is that these choices should reflect our own needs and desires. It’s a belief that lies at the root of how we use and treat non-human animals.
And importantly, veganism as an ethical principle stands on a solid foundation. In contrast, the idea that a vegan diet is the only healthy way to eat moves us into shaky territory that can be difficult to defend.
Does it matter how we define these words? I think it does if we want to center animals in our advocacy for their rights and welfare and if we want people to understand that veganism is not about human needs and preferences. I don’t get bogged down in arguments about who is and isn’t really a vegan. But if we believe that animals are here on this planet with us, not for us, it’s helpful to have words to describe that principle and its supporting practices.