What Does ‘Vegan’ Really Mean?
“In a vegan world the creatures would be reintegrated within the balance and sanity of nature. A great and historic wrong, whose effect upon the course of evolution must have been stupendous, would be righted. The idea that his fellow creatures might be used by man for self-interested purposes would be so alien to human thought as to be almost unthinkable. In this light, veganism is not so much welfare as liberation, for the creatures and for the mind and heart of man; not so much an effort to make the present relationship bearable, as an uncompromising recognition that because it is one of master and slave, it has to be abolished before something better and finer can be built.”
~ Leslie Cross, “Veganism Defined”
In recent years, the word “vegan” has come a long way from the relative obscurity in which it once dwelled. As a concept now associated with people as well known as Oprah, Bill Clinton and James Cameron, the word itself has become fairly widely known. But is it really understood?
Believe it or not, the word was actually coined in 1944. This was long before extreme athletes and body-conscious celebrities embraced plant-based diets for their purely physical benefits; before doctors linked the consumption of animal products with diseases of all kinds; before environmentalists made the connection between animal farming and global warming; and even before exposés of the animal industry’s concentration camps began to show the public the real face of “factory farming.”
Yes, before anyone had any idea that a vegan lifestyle could reverse heart disease or cure cancer, there existed a small group of people who were unknowingly giving birth to a new social movement and through a collective effort to be more consistent with regard to their own principles. Their moral stand, which later came to be known as veganism, was characterized by abstinence from the use of all animal products for ethical reasons.
Donald Watson and his associates, who formed the UK Vegan Society, were once members of the Vegetarian Society of the UK, a group that advocated for a meat-free diet. Some vegetarians were health-motivated, and others abstained for spiritual or philosophical reasons. But when a handful of individuals attempted to draw the group’s attention to the moral concerns associated with the production of milk and eggs, it became clear that the Society as a whole was reluctant to embrace a purer definition of the word “vegetarian.”
When Watson and Co. created The Vegan Society they launched their new endeavor with the publication of the very first vegan leaflet: The Vegan News. Before long, these pioneers had extended their definition to include abstinence not only from meat, dairy and eggs, but also from leather, wool, silk, honey, bone, ivory and all other products of animal origin.
As explained by Leslie Cross in 1951, the Society pledges itself to (emphasis mine) “seek to end the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection and all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.”
In other words, contrary to popular belief, vegans do not just subscribe to a plant-based diet or abstain from animal products as a reaction to the treatment of animals in large-scale, industrialized conditions. Vegans object to our use of animals as ‘resources’ in and of itself, whether the individuals in question are being housed in factories, or in small, backyard, family-farm situations.
This includes (but is not limited to) the use of animals for food, clothing, cosmetics, experimentation and entertainment. It also extends to any situation where animals are being used for labor such as in the case of oxen tilling fields, and any situation where animals are treated as commodities such as in the pet industry, which treats “companion animals” as living merchandise to be bought and sold. (Note: Vegans, as a whole, do not object to the practice of sharing one’s home with animals. Many of us take tremendous joy in being able to offer sanctuary to the unwanted refugees of the pet trade.)
Vegans do not use or wear leather, wool, silk, down, fur, or any other fabric that comes from animals. Nor do we ingest milk, honey, eggs, flesh, or any other ingredients of animal origin, including ‘by-products’, such as gelatin and casein. We also abstain from using cosmetics, toiletries and (as far as is practical) pharmaceutical products that are made using animal ingredients or animal testing. We also do not support or condone any form of “entertainment” that involves the use of animals, including (but not limited to) circuses, rodeos, marine parks, zoos/safaris, animal racing, and hunting.
With the world the way it is, it simply isn’t possible to avoid the use of all animal products, since they are hidden in everything from car tires to buttons. Hence, The Vegan Society’s addition of the phrase “as far as is possible or practical.” Although we may not be able to reach perfection, we are able to strive for perfection as we each make our way in a world that is so far from the peaceful vision we share.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.