Is Some Veg*nism More Veg*n Than Others?
Although the discussion on whether veganism is really becoming more popular is ongoing, its strong presence in the media cannot be denied. Yet, despite the wide use of terms such as “the unstoppable rise of veganism,” there is little to raise our confidence that there has been a tangible reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy products. In fact, future trends seem to suggest that the demand for animal products will continue to rise.
In this essay, a researcher from the U.K., proposes a critical “Yes” we should welcome people engaging with veganism, “But!” we need to revert to the original definition of the term vegan, one which promises to advance inter-species justice and environmental sustainability.
In his text, the author argues that the often-used vegan = cruelty-free rhetoric is highly problematic, reminding us of human rights’ violations in agricultural sectors, where workers involved in the fruit and vegetable industries are exploited. The author argues that there are two types of veganism, one coined as ‘activist’ veganism (based on the original definition), and new-age ‘lifestyle’ or ‘corporate’ veganism, (which is tangled up in today’s media and public’s perceptions). Whereas the former stands for a critical, emancipatory and visionary spirit of the movement and intersectionality, i.e. “for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment,” the latter relies on eliminating animal product consumption as less of a profound social justice statement packaged as one choice among many (vegan-as-consumer).
According to the author, the toxic combination of a speciesist culture and negative portrayal in the media have rendered Western vegans marginalized and vilified by mainstream society. Vegans in the past were often described as weird, irrational, extreme in their attitudes, misanthropic and likely to pursue violent forms of direct action. Nowadays, the re-branding and selling of ‘veganism’ is still often dropped in favor of euphemisms like ‘plant-based’ or ’animal-free’, paying tribute to the negative connotations of the past. In doing so, the author argues that the removal of any semblance of activism through veganism is completed.
In fact, the author notes, the driving force behind the recent “green light for veganism” initiatives and products may well be capitalism: the growth of “the western vegan consumer” presents huge financial opportunities. The author holds strongly to the position that corporate-endorsed veganism can never challenge the powerful interlocking systems of exploitation that both human and non-human animals are exposed to through the production of vegan goods. The basis is that it very well might be impossible to eradicate each and every form of exploitation, especially given that many businesses trying to ride the vegan wave also invest in animal-based agriculture.
However, all is not doom and gloom. Some new and upcoming animal-free companies have been successful in establishing themselves in the modern market. What’s more, there are many individuals and communities already engaged in forms of direct action to grow their own food. This is particularly evident through self-provisioning (think pots of herbs and vegetables in the garden), or through more community-based gardening initiatives.
There is also an increasing interest around veganic agriculture. These methods of growing food do not rely on the traditionally wide-spread practice of fertilizing the soil with manure from industrially farmed animals, animal remains from slaughterhouses, or fishmeal. A great example from North America is the San Francisco based group Seed the Commons, a grassroots organization seeking to create sustainable and just food systems without the use of animals.
In the essay, the author juxtaposes ‘lifestyle’ veganism against the more critical ‘activist’ forms of veganism, proposing that it is the latter which carries forward the radical praxis that ‘being vegan’ promises. However, it seems that ‘lifestyle’ veganism is firmly ascending in popularity at this moment, driven at least partially by corporate interests and supported more and more by established agri-systems. The critique is mainly argued through describing how ‘lifestyle’ veganism fails to make a discernible difference to the violence and suffering inherent in capitalist agricultural systems. The paper is intended to be a starting point for even greater levels of critical self-reflection among vegans and animal advocates alike.
The essay, however, does come with some shortcomings in terms of its rigor and scientific basis. There is no evidence presented for the proposed null cumulative effects that increased plant-based product demand has on animal suffering, be it human or nonhuman. Furthermore, little respect is shown for the ‘as far as practicable’ part of veganism’s definition, while an abolitionist approach is proposed equally without providing evidence for its efficacy in reducing suffering. In either case, the essay is thought-provoking, and could prompt reflection among animal advocates as many of us entertain purist ideas of veganism and sometimes struggle to place efficacy over ideology in our day-to-day activism.