Should Saving the World Be All or Nothing?
Veganism or environmentalism? Finding the delicate balance between the patience and assertiveness required to make an impact.
A weight of responsibility on my shoulders to reduce my participation in destroying the planet and everything in it drew me to both the vegan and zero-waste/environmentalist movements. Before spending time in online spaces for reducing waste and others for cutting out animal products, I assumed the two concepts went hand in hand. At the very least, they would compliment each other, united by a shared goal of being kinder to the earth. In this scenario, I saw both movements as two sides of the same coin, veganism focusing on improving the well-being animals, environmentalism focusing on the reducing of pollution and unsustainable production methods. Plenty of room for overlap, right?
A definition of veganism:
“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 Vegan Society
A definition of environmentalism:
“[…] this fragile earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs action. Some people look at a forest, and all they see is lumber. But there are millions more who see a home, a heritage, a future. Around the globe, we are standing up for our communities, and we are holding governments and corporations accountable. Whether on the streets or at the ballot box, we hold the real power when we work together.” — Greenpeace
Although it is near impossible to live in modern society without indirectly contributing to pollution or the harm of animals, there’s nothing wrong with trying your best.
Some conscious ethical/sustainable lifestyle changes I made for the good of the ocean included removing fish from my diet and cutting down on single use plastics. My justification for these changes were interlinked: no more supporting the killing of sea life from the finishing industry and no more contributing to the pollution of the habitats.
However, with a glance into the overall philosophies and opinions of vegans and zero-wasters, there is a significant diversion in both sets of values. On a whole, although they share the same goal of conscious living, their means of getting there differ. The approaches of veganism can conflict with environmentalism and vice versa. Despite this, I still believe that they can unite in their shared common ground and have a greater impact together
Environmental and Ethical Pros and Cons
Let’s do a brief rundown of what each movement has and lacks.
Veganism puts the animals first and sustainability second. zero-waste puts sustainability first, which animals are a part of. Reducing pollution and animal agriculture go hand in hand which explains why so many vegans adapt low waste lifestyles and why zero-waste advocates go vegan. They are both empathetically driven movements so it makes sense.
What perplexes me is those who follow one movement while disregarding the other. This does not include those who are still adapting to low-waste lifestyles and/or plant based diets. Some may be initially drawn to one before discovering the other. For example, I am completely vegan but, although I’ve cut down, some of the products I buy are packaged in single use plastic. No one is perfect. This applies to holier-than-thou vegans and environmentalists who claim to be perfect at abiding by one of these ethical lifestyles while implying the other side is unnecessary. These include:
- Environmentalists who buy locally sourced meat and dairy, buying into the “free range” lies.
- Environmentalists who hunt.
- Environmentalists who advocate for the welfare of wildlife, pets, and endangered animals while consuming farm animals.
- Vegans who dismiss human rights issues because “animals have it worse”.
- Vegans who are dismissive of unfair labour conditions and production methods of popular vegan staples.
- Vegans who push polluting, synthetic fibres as alternatives to animal-based materials.
In a nutshell, veganism takes a stand against the exploitation and commodification of animals and instead, respecting them as individuals. As a vegan, the fact that factory farming has a heavy carbon footprint is a bonus reason for why I no longer support it. Even if it was the most “sustainable solution” it would still be unethical. Environmentalists who still support the demand for animal products are still commodifying and harming animals. Whatever eco justification they use for this, it cannot be argued that using animal products benefits the greater good of the planet. A greener planet for no species but humans is not a green planet at all. Not only is it unethical, but it is never a sustainable option, especially not on a mass scale.
Environmental vs Vegan
Despite their shared aim, there are some solutions environmentalists push as “green” solutions that vegans would not stand for.
For example, many environmentalists would argue that wool, leather, and silk are better alternatives to polyester and toxic chemicals used in fast fashion. From this perspective, it is better to purchase these animal based materials because “they’re natural” while synthetic fibres in fast fashion are not. As an afterthought for the ethical and environmental concerns of unnatural factory farming, low-waste advocacy includes getting your clothes from charity shops, second-hand, recycled, and deadstock sources, or making use of what you already have.
This creates a moral grey area when combined with the vegan perspective. From a vegan perspective, it is wrong to wear the skin or by-products of an animal, regardless of how you obtain the product.
Here’s where I am going to disappoint a lot of vegans. I’ve been criticised for labelling myself as a vegan because I own (and regularly wear) a decade old pair of Doc Martens. I was given them as a gift a year before I went vegetarian, let alone vegan. When I went vegetarian nine years ago, I decided to keep them until they wore out as it would be wasteful to bin them and selling them would not bring back the animal. When they wear out (if ever), their replacements will not be made of animal skin. There’s so many sturdy vegan leather alternatives today than there was ten years ago. The demand for plant based alternatives is rising.
Although leather alternatives get a thumbs up by the vegan standard, synthetic leather can be a sore spot for environmentalists. “Think of the polluting chemicals in PVC! At least real leather is natural!” But is it?
Neither option is ideal, but animal leather is by far the most damaging. Think of it like fox fur versus synthetic fur. Both take years to biodegrade. Once costs the life of an animal and the carbon footprint that requires to boot. The appeal to nature fallacy does not cut the mustard as an argument for or against any lifestyle choice. We are animals who’ve industrialised the planet. Where do you draw the line between natural and unnatural behaviours? As for synthetic chemicals, animal leather does not resolve this environmental concern as it must be treated and processed synthetically before it is wearable.
Both side voice valid concerns. If only they could work together to establish an alternative made of materials that are both plant based and sustainable. I would be the first to sign up.
Militancy vs Imperfection
Both ideologies are broad and diverse. No two vegans think the same or have the same specific set of values and priorities. The same can be said for environmentalists.
But is it possible to subscribe to one lifestyle and not the other without being a hypocrite? If you cannot abide by both perfectly, are you a hypocrite or are you still making a difference?
Different answers to these questions are at the heart of the tensions between veganism and environmentalism. There is the stance that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism so trying your best will make a significant difference. There is also the sterner stance that argues the bar has been set too low and there’s no excuse for exploiting animals/the planet anymore.
It is not my aim to decipher which stance is the most reasonable because they both ring true to me. What is worth considering is which mentality is more productive to its cause.
As a whole, vegans lean towards militancy while environmentalists tend to be more patient and forgiving to those newly embarking on an ethical lifestyle change.
For many aspiring vegans, my past self included, the take-no-prisoners, all-or-nothing standard can be off putting. No matter how good the cause is, any major lifestyle change that challenges your old normal is a big deal. You do not adapt overnight. This can be a daunting process which may need to be gradual to be successful in the long term. It takes time to replace old habits with new ones.
But our inevitable imperfections when we try something new clash with the immaculate standard that veteran vegans uphold for anyone who dares label themselves as vegan. This often leaves aspiring vegans feeling hopeless when they are unable to meet this standard instantly. If it’s all or nothing, those who give up tend to condemn veganism as unreasonable. This makes veganism seem less accessible than it is.
That’s not to say that meat and dairy consumers should be coddled into doing the bare minimum. In fact, the zero-tolerance for animal abuse stance from existing vegans motivated me to do everything I could to stop contributing towards it. This pushed me to think beyond my uncertainties and selfish habits and look at the real problems my current lifestyle was funding. From this point onwards, I could not justify willingly buying animal-based products.
After some research on the realities of factory farming, something clicked in my brain so that I could no longer register meat and dairy as food. When I pass a butcher’s and see cuts of meat displayed on the counter, I see only dismembered body parts of a being that was once alive. The smell of fresh meat grows sickly as it mixes with aromatic seasonings that cannot sugar-coat it as appetising anymore.
Once, several weeks after I’d cut out dairy, I poured cow’s milk into a coffee for someone else. I sniffed the dregs in the bottle and gagged at the once comforting beverage. I am not a bovine juvenile, I thought. My own mother is not a cow (literally or figuratively), so whose milk have I been drinking?
Looking back at before I transitioned from vegetarian to vegan, I realised that those “preachy vegans” so many people grumble about actually had a damn point; such an extreme scale of abuse and murder warrants an extreme reaction. There is no room for complacency.
While the delusional acceptance of the meat industry is shattered for vegans, meat-eaters remain in blissful cognitive dissonance. The reality is that you are not an animal lover if you eat animals. You’re not an environmentalist if that doesn’t include the welfare of nonhuman animals. If that’s a bitter pill to swallow, do something about it.
On the other hand, although animal exploitation is by no means trivial, I cannot stand behind the analogy that meat-eaters are comparable to rapists and murderers. Both outcomes are horrific but the moral comparison is redundant in terms of the depravity required. How does this work? Indoctrination; ignorance due to conditioning versus deliberate cruelty.
But if human rape/murder and consuming animals both result in devastating harm, neither are excusable nor justified. There is no use pandering so that the ignorant feel better about their ignorance.
If conscious sadism is not the driving force behind wide scale meat-consumption, we need to consider and remedy what is. As easy as it would be to vilify all meat-eaters for contributing to animal abuse, it is not going to turn more people vegan alone. Education might, as will guidance on how to make the change so it’s less daunting.
Most vegans were born and raised on an omnivore diet. So, by the rapist-murderer comparison, we are no better than reformed criminals ourselves. It would do veganism good (and animal agriculture bad) if we could get off our high horses and consider why we have these regrettable skeletons in our closets (or fridges?). The answer is the same reason why so many people still eat meat; it is normalised through advertising, tradition, and so on.
We need to break the cycle of ignorance that enables mass torture by spreading the truth. This truth is grotesque enough and does not need to be seasoned with shaming and melodrama. Spread it and let it speak for itself.
Every Little Helps…?
Does the same necessary harshness apply for those advocating for environmental lifestyle changes? Not to the same extent. Some advocates have the knowledge and discipline to reduce their waste output almost to the “zero” benchmark. A notable example of this achievement is Lauren Singer.
As a whole, advocates and influencers of low-waste, environmentalists lifestyles do not hold individuals who wish to follow in their low-carbon footsteps to such a rigid standard as vegans. Instead, they encourage the average consumer to try their best to cut down on single use plastics, toxic ingredients, and products from unethical brands. Ultimately, they hold cooperate giants accountable for widespread environmental damage.
Is this an inherent difference between veganism and environmentalism? To answer, I must be more specific. Let’s compare animal consumption to overuse of plastic packaging. A key difference in a both issues is history. Meat and dairy consumption itself has existed for millennia. Plastic packaging, like factory farming, is a fairly modern solution to widespread distribution of products. Despite being recent concepts, the damage done to the planet by factory farming and plastic packaging is immense in a short space of time. This explains why many non-vegan environmentalists still take a stand against factory farming and the fishing industry.
Factory farming and non-biodegradable packaging are just the methods of production and distribution. To your average ignorant consumer, this is not a big deal. The product itself is a priority.
That’s what meat, dairy, and animal skins are obtained for – to be sold as products. There is a conscious demand for animal products. If consumers are led to believe that the production methods are the root of the problem, they are unlikely to have a problem with this changing, so long as they still get the product they want. Although they can be problematic in their own right, production methods are a means to an end. But when you tell consumers that their beloved product is an ethical nightmare in itself, that’s when wilful ignorance comes into play. A demand for a product will ensure it remains in production.
The Art of Whataboutism
It is easy to argue that “environmentalists are either vegans or hypocrites”, or that “veganism isn’t [always] as environmentally friendly as you might think”. These are legitimate concerns on both sides. But, what is the point of using these concerns as to argue: “gotcha’, you may as well dig into a steak or invest in the fracking industry since your ethical lifestyle doesn’t solve all the worlds problems”?
These concerns actually compliment each other: factory farming pollutes the planet and the production methods of some plant based products are not ethical nor sustainable. Imagine what we could achieve if both sides worked together.
On various occasions, when someone who is neither an environmentalist nor a vegan discovers I’m a vegan, they have interrogated me with questions like:
“You may not eat meat, but do you buy fast fashion made in a sweatshop?”
“You may not eat meat, but do you ever use plastic straws that pollute the ocean?”
“You may not eat meat, but you’re reading a book which is made out of paper which was once a tree that was cut down. What’s the point?”
As I am vegan before environmentalist, I would not have had a problem with these kind of questions if the aim of whoever was asking them was to give me some advice on greener alternatives. Self-improvement is a lifelong journey. However, this is yet to be the motive. When asked the same set of questions, it becomes apparent that they never gave a shit about the issues they mentioned in the first place. The aim is to trip me up, as if they want me to say: “You win. Veganism was just my superiority complex disguised as an ethical moral code. It’s useless, so there’s no need to question your own choices.”
Therefore, when it comes to two movements I support, I refuse to pick a side despite the mutual criticisms. Pettiness doesn’t save anything except egos.
Whether you’re an environmentalist or a vegan or both, you are simultaneously doing well and need to do more. Needing to do more is not a personal attack, for we all need to, and protecting animals and the planet has little to do with our egos. At the same time, being brought up in a consumerist culture where eating factory farmed animals is the norm desensitises us. Acknowledging this and making changes is a gradual process. No matter how perfect you think you are at ethical/sustainable living, there is always more to be done.
Therefore, it is unproductive and wrong to shame or bully anyone who is making an effort. Instead, we should be kinder to each other in solidarity and point others in the right direction. The choices we make as consumers are hugely influential. If we need to point the finger at anyone, it’s mass companies and industries causing problems on such a wide scale. As for individuals who are willing to do their best, advice must be constructive, not hostile.
Living a kinder life is achievable, and once you establish some sustainable habits, it gets easier. If it vegans and environmentalists prioritised being helpful (as in educational, not making excuses) rather than pushing an unwelcoming, “all or nothing” mentality, perhaps more people would be open to making ethical choices.