How do You Define a Vegan?

What does being vegan entail, in your understanding of this ‘ism’? Are you vegan if you simply do not eat meat and animalistic products? Or does it extend further, to entail the clothes you wear, the skincare products you apply and the cigarettes you smoke? And who decides this?

If the essence of the lifestyle is non-harm, should it not include the fair treatment of human beings and the planet as a whole, too? Is it part of the ‘duties’ as a vegan to look down the production-line of each thing or service you engage with, to ensure it has been fully ethically and sustainably produced? And if you don’t, does that make you a non-vegan?

image credit: Aine Donnellan

Are there different levels to being a “good” vs. a “bad” vegan? And if so, who is in charge of making such distinctions? If you, as a vegan, accidentally eat non-vegan food, or buy a non-vegan product, are you then banned from the world of veganism? What if it was intentional? 

With definitions, comes questions. And with questions, comes confusion. Especially when the question in question is related to ethics and morals, since these parameters vary greatly depending on the individual and their culture. Your way of defining vegan may fundamentally vary from mine. That is perfectly reasonable and unavoidably confuddling. 

And that conflict is but a speck of dust in the vast universe of vegan communities online. Debates regarding the definition of veganism are plenty and often heated amongst the activists. And if a group cannot even understand amongst themselves who they are as a collective, and what they’re trying to achieve, how can the rest of the world even begin to grasp it? 

For any coexistence to work, definitions are a necessity. Without them, we are lost. However, in the act of defining, we naturally set limits – which can have a detrimental effect on that which is being limited. 

If a collective decision was made amongst vegans, that “slipping up” (itself an act very much up to interpretation) made you a “bad”-vegan, wouldn’t that push people away from even attempting to live this ethically, sustainably and peacefully focused lifestyle? And could it not give rise to harmful and restrictive thoughts regarding ‘good’ and ‘bad’? 

But if you consistently “slipped up”, what would make your lifestyle any different than a non-vegan? And how should people relate to you when preparing your foods and purchasing gifts with you in mind? It is a very tricky line to walk, the oh-so-well-trodden trekk, between freedom and boundaries. Both are necessary and interdependent in all scenarios of life. So what is a healthy, balanced definition of being vegan then? 

It comes down to the motifs behind it. And even those are difficult to pin down, as this phenomenon grows with an increasing velocity. It is difficult to know what is at its core. Is it moving in a positive direction, as fast-food giants and mainstream supermarkets are stocking up on vegan alternatives? Or is the invention of flashy, artificial substitutes for the arguably more natural originals actually a negative? There are more than 50 shades of grey covering this penumbra. 

Essentially, just like with everything else in life, it is about communication and compensation. With yourself, those around you and the world as a whole. Find what works on an individual level, what is sustainable, feels good and makes you happy. Once that process is complete (which is not to say it will, or should, be fixed) you can step into the bigger picture. Find common and uncommon grounds with others regarding veganism, accept differences and be ready to learn. 

My definition of being vegan, is a conscious choice to want to help the planet and its inhabitants live together in a sustainable, cruelty-free and loving way. What is yours?

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