For many vegans, this might seem like a fairly obvious statement. The definition of veganism, wherever you may find it, is pretty clear-cut: one who avoids animal cruelty in all aspects of their life. Easy, right? Well, yes and no.

On an immediate level, it’s a walk in the park; we don’t eat meat or eggs or dairy, we don’t wear or use leather and we avoid animal exploitation, such as rodeos and circuses. But when we begin to investigate these simple parameters, we begin to feel like Alice, teetering on the brink of the metaphoric rabbit hole.

Exploitation comes in many guises. Most obvious are the meat and dairy industries, and we don’t need to illuminate you on the myriad ways they exploit animals. We have also seen more than enough images to know that cosmetics can also be a big vegan no-no due to the utterly pointless practice of animal testing. But where do we draw the line?

Oreos, for example, have recently ignited conversation on our and many vegan feeds. The delicious little cookies contain no animal products and, so long as you’re dunking them in plant milk, they are vegan. Yet while the ingredients themselves might be plant-based, the sources of those ingredients bring our veganism, if not our ethics into question – and this marks the muddy banks of our little ethical quagmire.

Mondelez International, the company that creates those little discs of malty goodness, does so with Indonesian palm oil. Responsible for massive deforestation, habitat destruction, dwindling numbers of orangutans and the unintentional deaths of hundreds of thousands of animals, palm oil is, like Oreos, 100 percent vegan in and of itself, but ethically it is impossible to suggest that it “exclude(s) all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty.”

Commercial sunscreen is another product that is inadvertently non-vegan. As long as we select a brand that doesn’t test on animals, surely we can stay both morally and sun safe? Afraid not. As we have explored in a previous blog post [link], chemical sunscreen contains potentially highly toxic chemicals. Even if we don’t go in the ocean, these chemicals wash from our skin and can even enter waterways through our pee just two hours after applying sunscreen. These accumulated chemicals kill coral reefs, poison fish and make their steady way through the entire oceanic food chain.

We can use these products and still call ourselves vegan, but the more expansive effects have a profoundly detrimental effect on creatures and the environment, which could easily be called ‘animal cruelty’.

So where do we draw the line – plain old water? Even with that seemingly benign product, the industry has many a skeleton in its closet. Single-use plastic is destroying the ocean at an alarmingly rapid rate. Some reports say that there will be more plastic than wildlife in the ocean by 2030, that over 95 percent of fish contain plastic, and that hundreds of thousands of animals slowly starve or suffocate every year from plastic ingestion. Oh, but we can recycle the bottles, right? Wrong. While it is possible and plastic return banks are popping up around the country and world, Australia actually recycles only 9 percent of its plastic. The rest goes to landfill, if it even makes it that far, to break down into microparticles and end up goodness knows where. Even when recycled, there is no telling what it will then become or its repurposed plastic husk might end up.

Service animals have recently come under fire too from vegan extremists. Honestly, lifesaving animals, loved, protected, respected and cherished. And, by definition, the critics are correct – there is nothing vegan about exploiting animals to search for drugs, lead the blind or help us overcome crippling anxiety or PTSD.

In these examples, it is easy to see that very little we do, when taking into account the manufacture, effects and disposal of our products, can be ultimately construed as ‘vegan’. Even humble potatoes are grown with plenty of pesticides and overturn ground when harvested, killing worms and bugs.

If this all seems to be getting a little ridiculous, you’re absolutely right! Unless we build a cabin in the woods, having carefully cleared the ground of all insects, never light a fire, drink straight from a stream, eat only fallen fruit and nuts and never take another footstep for fear of squashing an ant, we will always do some harm through our actions.

So what can we do? If you just can’t give up your cookies, then search for an alternative to Oreos – perhaps organic, maybe simply without palm oil. They might contain sugar, an industry which is also questionable, but you have made a positive decision to lessen your impact.

When you next buy sunscreen, check our blog for some great, natural alternatives. Some contain cocoa, which again isn’t the most ethical of industries, but it’s better than all those chemicals washing into the environment.

If you’re thirsty, ideally you will have your own refillable bottle or can request a glass of water, but if not, opt for glass over plastic. Glass recycling uses a lot of energy, but it avoids more plastic on a struggling planet.

To be vegan is to make immediate decisions to avoid animal exploitation. We avoid the obvious and continue to strive to be better, educating ourselves further. What being vegan is not is being perfect. Sometimes what may be vegan is simply not ethical and it is up to us to weigh up whether we can accept the responsibility of this.

With veganism, ethics tend to develop subsequently, so vegans become environmentalists, human rights campaigners and so on. Being vegan doesn’t require this, it merely inspires it.

We can still be card-carrying members of the vegan society without taking ethics into account, and that, dear readers, is entirely up to you. You are already doing so much good by deciding to avoid animal products, so don’t beat yourself up if you find out your next bag of chips is wrapped in plastic and cooked in palm oil – just choose not to buy that brand again if you feel your ethical senses tingling. We can’t be perfect, but we can be aware of ways to improve.

So what is the answer? What can we do to be a better vegan?

We can simply do our best.


Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

About the Author


Thomas grew up in the UK in an artistic family, though one also with an agricultural, pro-hunting background. He became vegetarian at the age of 16 without knowing a single other vegetarian in his school or personal life.

Studying graphic design, photography and art, he grew creatively throughout his education. 2002 was a landmark year for Thomas. He became vegan shortly before the birth of his son, Noah, and embarked on his career in journalism. This spanned continents and the pages of myriad magazines and websites, as well as introducing him to blogging, website copy work and eventually, social media.

Since that time, he has worked around the world freelance, in graphic design, writing and social media management, vowing in 2013 to commit to only working with ethical companies.

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