What is a vegan?

7-min read • Veganism goes beyond a diet; it’s an entire lifestyle.

vegan leather shoes by peta

This article is part of the Vegan Beacon, a series detailing the what, why and how of being a vegan.

We’re in the year 2020—I’d say there’s a near-zero chance that you haven’t heard of the term vegan. But hearing it is one thing, and understanding it is quite another. Since you’ve found yourself on this page, you must be interested to find out exactly what veganism means.

Coined by the founders of the Vegan Society, the term vegan is formed as “the beginning and end of vegetarian“, because “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion”.

The definition of vegan

From Terra Environment Dictionary, vegan is defined as:

relating to the practice or lifestyle of abstaining, as much as practically possible, from all forms of use and exploitation of other animals.

Now let’s break this definition down and analyse each element.

“Practice or lifestyle of abstaining”

It is a commonly held, and not entirely wrong, perception that veganism refers to a form of diet—one that is “stricter” than vegetarianism. Now, herein comes the next question:

What is the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian?

a dairy cow with an ear tag
Cows marked with ear tags grazing behind steel bars.

A vegetarian is someone who subsists on a vegetarian diet (typically abstinence from meat, poultry and seafood, not including eggs and dairy—also known as an ovo-lacto-vegetarian); while a vegan subsists on a vegan diet (abstinence from all animal-sourced foods). The key difference, however, is that veganism extends beyond food and diet—it is an entire lifestyle of not consuming or supporting animal products in any form.

Besides including eggs and dairy, a vegetarian diet also typically does not abstain from other fringe animal food products, such as honey and bird’s nest. It primarily comes from an ethical standpoint to avoid the taking of animal life in the process of acquiring food, so produce from other animals are not deemed as a violation of that principle.

Vegans, on the other hand, believe that other animals have the right and ownership over their own lives and produce, and are not for humans’ taking and consumption.

Especially in light of industrial farming practices to meet the demands of burgeoning human populations, even the production of animal produce do not spare the well-being and lives of animals.

As such, vegans avoid all animal products.

“All forms of use and exploitation of other animals”

The term “other animals” is used to acknowledge that humans are animals too, and should not be held superior over other species. Vegans avoid and condemn all human “use” of non-human animals, which in modern society extend across the following areas:

Food

meat and seafood grill
Meat and seafood grilled and torched at a street food stall.

Vegans subsist on an entirely plant-based diet, and abstain from animal-sourced foods, including but not limited to:

  • meat (beef, pork, mutton, venison),
  • poultry and eggs (chicken, duck, goose, turkey),
  • dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, cream),
  • seafood, and
    • fish (salmon, tuna, pollock, cod, barramundi),
    • crustaceans (shrimp, crab, lobster, crayfish),
    • cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish, squid), and
    • bivalves (oyster, scallop, clam, mussel)
  • honey.

Clothing and other products

leather products
Leather products are a part of everyday clothing and accessories.

Vegans reject all forms of clothing and accessories sourced from animals, including but not limited to: leather, wool, fur, snake skin, crocodile skin, pearls, down or feathers, and shells.

Animals are also used in other products, such as:

  • animal fat in soap, shampoo, lubricants and other household products,
  • insects in dyestuffs,
  • fish bones in shimmer and glitter,
  • catgut (material made from intestines of sheep, goats or horses) in strings of musical instruments, and
  • horsehair (also yaks, rabbits, squirrels sometimes) in brushes and wigs.

Entertainment

equestrian riding a horse
An equestrian riding a horse.

Vegans stand against forms of entertainment and recreation that involve animals as performers, commodities or prizes, including but not limited to:

  • recreational fishing,
  • hunting,
  • animal circus acts,
  • horseback riding,
  • dog sledding,
  • horse racing (and all other kinds of animal racing),
  • bullfighting (and all other kinds of animal fighting),
  • rodeos, and
  • animal acting (use of live animals in TV or film production).

Not only do such acts strip animals of their free will and natural behaviours, some of them involve intensive, cruel training that “breaks” the animals so as to exert dominance over them.

Research and testing

white mice in a lab
White mice kept in small, bare enclosures.

Vegans object to scientific tests, procedures and experimentation conducted on live animals (typically mice, rats, fish, rabbits, guinea pigs, and monkeys) in order to test the effectiveness and potential complications of chemicals, food, drugs and cosmetics.

Most animals used in research and testing are subjected to cruelty, including but not limited to:

  • chemical or biological exposure (oral force-feeding, forced inhalation, skin exposure or injection),
  • genetic manipulation,
  • physical restraint,
  • deprivation of living conditions (food, water, air, sleep or space),
  • surgical procedures, and
  • infliction of pain, distress and injury.

Most are euthanised after the tests.

Animal testing has shown to have remarkably poor human relevance. Nine out of 10 candidate medicines that appear safe and effective in animal testing fail when given to humans. For example, at least 85 different HIV/AIDS vaccines have been successful in nonhuman primates, with none of them even coming close to being an actual solution for humans.

Grey areas and ambiguity

an outdoor dog and an indoor cat
A dog and a cat, the two most popular types of companion animals.

As with any complicated topics that are (somewhat) open to interpretation, there are areas of debate and dispute to where the boundaries of veganism lie:

Secondhand goods or food leftovers

Some vegans can accept animal products, so long as they didn’t make the initial purchase, which would’ve had contributed to the consumer demand of, and directly supporting the company profiteering from, the animal product. This also makes sense especially if the item would otherwise go to waste; by acquiring it, they are in fact extending the useful life of the item.

Zoos

Zoos came from a dark history of originating as private collections of exotic animals, also known as menageries, that belonged to the wealthy. While modern zoos have long since moved towards education, research and conservation as primary objectives, as well as developing enclosures and practices that allow the animals to live more closely to how they would in nature, the fact remains that they are kept in captivity and subjected to human interference.

Companion animals

(We’ll avoid the term ‘pets’, as it implies ownership—a clear violation of veganism.)

Arguably the greatest area of contention among vegans—because they are the worst-reasoned among the ambiguous cases (companion animals are very much at odds with veganism. There, I said it.) yet the hardest to give up for many vegans—there are several layers to the question mark that is companion animals.

First, the most clear-cut is that if you have to take one home, you should definitely adopt, not shop. Buying fuels the demand for breeding, whereas adopting or rescuing is giving a new life to one that has been abandoned. Due to the nature of how companion animals have been bred and domesticated over millennia, many of them are unable to live without human care and survive in the wild (or the city).

Next comes its diet. While dogs can subsist on a vegan diet and stay healthy, cats cannot and should not be forced to do so. So by keeping cats, you have to either 1) let them be an ecological and public health threat (outdoor cats), or 2) support the meat industry by feeding your cat (indoor cats).

Finally, the biggest question lies in the quality of life. If you spay or neuter your companion animal, you are depriving it/him/her of the biological, natural life—including the ability to mate and reproduce—regardless of the benefits to health and lifespan. (Let’s face it, there’s no chance you’d ever consider “sterilising” your human children.) If you don’t, you’d either have to prevent them from mating, or let them have babies that would add to the overpopulation problem of companion animal species.

Incredibly sad to say, but these animals are pretty much resigned to an unnatural life (or death) once they are bred and born. It’s more a matter of choosing—a decision by a human, not the animal—the lesser of two evils.

“As much as practically possible”

The grey areas are, however, subjective and do not exercise the full extent and intent of true veganism.

But even if one wanted to, veganism is not without its limits, in terms of fully abiding by its principles in the practical sense. It may not be possible for any individual to be an absolute vegan for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • having incomplete information as to how certain products were created or produced,
  • the inability to functionally avoid products that involved animals (e.g. all medicines have been tested on animals, in accordance with regulations), and
  • the inevitability of accidentally harming some species.

Vegans should, however, maintain absolute intention in accordance with the principles. That is to say, if they are aware of and able to avoid any exploitation of animals, they should make every effort to do so.

Now that you understand exactly what vegan means, you may naturally be wondering next: why do people choose to be vegan?

Reasons to go vegan

There are many reasons why people choose to be vegan, chiefly divided into three categories:

  • Ethical
  • Environmental
  • Health

As the justifications for veganism are rather extensive, we will cover the reasons in greater detail in the second part of the Vegan Beacon series, along with whether you should or should not go vegan. Stay tuned.