Many people ponder the question about what a vegan is and whether there is a set regime, diet or set of beliefs that should be followed to classify yourself as a “vegan”. If you delve into the various definitions of veganism and the viewpoints held by individual vegans or vegan advocacy groups about what it means to be vegan you are likely to discover that veganism is far from a one-size-fits-all notion.
There is a wide spectrum of answers to the question What Is a Vegan?, but quite often they fall into two camps:
- In one camp, are those who believe people who simply follow a plant-based diet are vegan.
- On the other side, are those who believe veganism should encompass much more than diet and is more of a way of life or a full-on belief system.
In broad terms, the latter group would be classified as “ethical vegans” and the former group as “dietary vegans”.
In this article, we’ll look at the two groups in more detail and explain how they differ and in what ways they overlap. We will also examine whether veganism should be viewed more as a spectrum than a set of rigid rules and whether doing so might actually encourage more people to reduce and perhaps eventually give up animal products.
What Does It Mean to Be Vegan?
Although covered in more detail elsewhere on our site, it makes sense to briefly explain the concept and definition of veganism so that we can explore ethical and dietary vegans within a contextual framework. There are various definitions floating around the Internet about what a vegan is and what veganism means, but the most widely accepted definition comes from The Vegan Society, whose roots go back to 1944 when Donal Watson instigated a meeting to talk about non-dairy vegetarian diets.
It was at that meeting that the term “vegan” was coined (which, we have to say, is a little catchier than some of the other options they muted including “vitan” and “benevore”). In case you didn’t know, it was chosen simply on the basis of being the first three and last two letters of the word “vegetarian”. The Vegan Society definition of veganism (which was formalised in 1988) states that veganism is:
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.
What Is a Dietary Vegan?
A dietary vegan is quite simply someone who follows a plant-based diet – that is, they do not knowingly consume food or drink that contains animal products or (usually) which have used animal products during their production. Dietary vegans may not necessarily forego other non-food items or services that have used animals/animal products, which exploit animals or which have been tested on animals.
In short, dietary vegans commit to the last sentence of the above definition: “In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” But they don’t necessarily embrace the rest of it (at least to begin with).
A dietary vegan would therefore not eat meat, fish, dairy products, honey, or indeed anything that includes even insects (such as food colouring E120, also known as cochineal or carmine which is made from crushed scale insects). A dietary vegan would not necessarily stop wearing leather or wool, or only purchase cosmetics or household items that haven’t been tested on animals. They may see no problem with visiting zoos, circuses that feature animals or sports and events, such as horse racing, greyhound racing or dog shows.
It is often the case that dietary vegans arrive at their decision to undertake a plant-based diet for health reasons. This is something we delve into in some detail in our Health Reasons for Veganism article. In such a scenario, it is probable that given someone is coming at veganism from a health perspective, they might not necessarily be as concerned about, or indeed aware of, the ethical issues relating to animal products in general, and specifically those beyond the food and drink industry.
Some staunch ethical vegans might criticise dietary vegans and start labelling them as “fake vegans”, “veganish” or something else that in essence belittles them as not quite as good as the “real” vegans out there. As we discuss a little later, this could prove somewhat detrimental to the vegan cause.
What Is an Ethical Vegan?
An ethical vegan is someone who essentially follows the aforementioned definition of veganism, so they “exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. This means that as well as not consuming food or drink that contains any animal products or which has used any during their manufacture, ethical vegans would also avoid other products of animal origin (such as leather, silk and wool) and would also attempt to avoid all products that have been tested on animals.
There are some notable exceptions, such as medicines and vaccines, which fall under the “as far as is possible and practicable” section of the definition of veganism as far as almost all vegans are concerned. In other words, it is okay, in fact strongly advisable, for vegans to take any prescribed medicines and vaccines even though they have been tested on animals, which is a requirement in the UK, on the basis that it is not practicable (or at all sensible!) to not do so.
We go into a lot more detail about the Ethical Reasons for Veganism in our dedicated article on the subject, considering such things as the nature of suffering and the ethics of personhood, so we will not rehash that information here. Suffice it to say, even if someone is vegan for ethical reasons, it does not necessary mean that one person’s individual ethical stance in relation to veganism is the same as every other ethical vegan, or indeed that is it the same as any other ethical vegan.
Suffering of Animals
Some vegans’ ethical motivations for eschewing all animal products might be specifically in relation to the suffering experienced by animals they see (with good justification from a scientific perspective) as sentient beings that are likely to be able to feel pain and in many cases even anticipate pain.
For other vegans, they might have an ethical stance relating to the environment and the perceived (again very justified) environmental damage caused by deforestation for beef ranching and indeed cattle farming in general. These are both ethical stances that lead people to embrace veganism, but the fact they are different (if related in many ways) shows there is no defined ethical path someone must follow to arrive at the destination of becoming an ethical vegan.
A Philosophical Belief
Ethical veganism is also classified as a “philosophical belief” and so is protected in law in the UK, as we discuss in our article, Is Veganism A Religion?; this is not the case with either vegetarianism or dietary veganism, which are seen as dietary choices rather than full-blown philosophies.
There are some vegans who read the “and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment” section of the vegan definition as a call to them to become active advocates for veganism. This is personal choice based on the individual circumstances each person finds him or herself in.
One reading of that part of the definition would suggest that simply by excluding (almost) all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose ethical vegans are already promoting veganism (by example) and promoting the development of animal-free alternatives (through the medium of supply and demand). Others though feel it is their duty to do more than that, but neither path is technically right or wrong from an ethical standpoint in our view.
How Do Ethical & Dietary Vegans Differ or Overlap?
As detailed above, there are plenty of areas of overlap and also of difference between people who identify as ethical vegans and those who would better be described as dietary vegans (or those who follow a plant-based diet).
Here we’ll put some of the main areas of agreements/disagreement in a handy table. Note that this information is based on general cases and that individual ethical and dietary vegans are likely to differ significantly in their individual choices and rules about what they consume.
What Ethical & Dietary Vegans Consume/Use/Support
|Product/Service||Ethical Vegan||Dietary Vegan||Notes|
|Meat||No||No||Neither would consume meat|
|Fish||No||No||Neither would consume fish|
|Honey||No||No (usually)||Some people who identify as vegan choose to consume honey.|
|Animal-derived ingredients (such as gelatine and other additives)||No||No (usually)||Often dietary vegans who consume animal-derived additives do so not through choice but because they had not realised their origins (which is true of some ethical vegans too on occasion).
Check out our E Numbers article for more information about the main ones to watch out for.
|Dairy products (milk, cheese, cream etc)||No||No||Neither would consume dairy products|
|Leather, wool, silk, fur and other clothing made from animals||No||Yes||Many dietary vegans are likely to at least avoid fur because of the better established link between that and animal cruelty, but someone can still be a dietary vegan whilst wearing a fur coat, as counterintuitive as that might appear to some.|
|Cosmetics and toiletries that either include animal products (e.g. honey) or have been tested on animals||No||Yes||Again, there are likely to be a reasonable proportion of dietary vegan who would avoid such products that they knew had been tested on animals, but it would not be a requirement of following a plant-based diet.|
|Household products, such as cleaning agents, paints and glues||No||Yes||Nobody can be a level five vegan and avoiding products that may contain non-vegan glues, for example, is very hard even for ethical vegans but there are vegan options for paint, polish, glue, etc.|
|Zoos & circuses (that include animals)||No||Yes||Ethical vegans might instead choose to visit animal sanctuaries rather than zoos|
|Keeping pets||Varies||Yes||Some ethical vegans think it is not okay to keep animals as pets, while others would deem it okay to allow “companion animals” to live in their home, often when such animals have come from rescue centres or sanctuaries as opposed to pet shops or those who breed them for profit.|
|Horse racing/greyhound racing||No||Yes||Animal sport or entertainment that is seen to exploit animals would be avoided by most ethical vegans.|
|Medicines & vaccines that have been tested on animals||Yes||Yes||As mentioned earlier, when it comes to a person’s health, taking the correct, most effective medication and all the recommended vaccines fits into the ethical framework of veganism as it fits under the “possible and practicable” clause in the definition.|
|Promotion of veganism||Varies||No||Some ethical vegans see it as their moral duty to promote veganism, in the same way that followers of certain religions feel compelled to spread the word of their religion of choice. This is not technically a requirement of being an ethical vegan, however, as mentioned earlier.|
|Companies who test on animals but who sell vegan-friendly products||Varies||Yes||Some companies, most obviously the giant conglomerates that incorporate many brands, will sell products that are vegan friendly and cruelty free whilst also selling those that are still tested on animals or that are made from animals.
Some ethical vegans will avoid such companies and aim to buy all their products from companies that only produce goods that are vegan friendly and cruelty free.
|Companies who invest in meat/dairy industry||Varies||Yes||Whether pension funds, bank accounts, stocks and shares or life insurance, there are many large financial companies that have plenty of investments in the meat and dairy industry (and indeed other industries that could harm animals). Some ethical vegans will try to avoid these as much as is possible.|
It is apparent that there are areas which overlap between ethical vegans and those who simply follow a plant-based diet and other areas where the two are discrete. In addition, as a generalisation, ethical vegans are likely to adhere more strictly and stringently to the food-based element of veganism.
For example, an ethical vegan is likely to be concerned about Champagne or Cava that might have been filtered with an animal derivative called isinglass. In contrast, a dietary vegan is more likely to feel that if the ingredients are vegan then they are ok. This is a generalisation though and things are not black and white, and veganism, like many things in life, really exists in a wide spectrum.
The Spectrum of Veganism
People who describe themselves as vegan span a wide range of different stances. At one end are those who could be seen to be “veganish”, “seagans” (who are basically vegan but will eat fish and other seafood, typically if it is sustainable) or vegetarians who are edging closer towards full veganism (“vegan curious”?). At the other end, would be the aforementioned level 5 Vegans, and the rather restrictive “fruitarians” (who only consume food that has been harvested without causing harm to the plant in question).
As we discuss in our How to Go Vegan article, people tend to come to veganism in stages. It is unlikely someone is going to wake up one day and suddenly stop eating all animal products, avoid all non-food animal products and start picketing racecourses with banners about vegan ethics and animal cruelty. It’s not impossible, of course. But generally people might start off with a curiosity for vegetarianism and then when researching nutrition or recipes they might come across information about how dairy is basically as bad as meat in many ways (as shown in the brief but powerful Dairy Is Scary YouTube video… five minutes that is sure to make you think twice about milk and other dairy products!).
Does It Matter What Type of Vegan You Are?
“What’s in a name?” asked a young girl from Verona called Juliet once upon a time. And to paraphrase Shakespeare, “That which we call a vegan, by any other name would still save the lives of a load of animals”. A “dietary vegan” might not be quite as “good”, in some people’s eyes, as someone who avoids all animal products in all areas of their life.
But, logically speaking, it is still much better for animals if people stop eating meat altogether, even if they continue to use leather furniture, for example. Or even if they just reduce the amount of meat they consume (not to mention the benefits of this to the environment and probably their health too, albeit they are different points which we explore elsewhere on the site).
If someone still chooses to wear wool or buy cosmetics that might have been tested on animals at some point… well, it’s far from ideal when viewed through the prism of an ethical vegan standpoint. But, on the other hand, it is a step in the right direction, and it is a step that could lead to other steps that eventually align with ethical vegan principles.
If people in such a situation – who have taken the rather significant dietary step to stop consuming animal products – are then labelled as “fake vegans” or told they are not “real vegans”, it is hardly going to help them feel included in the vegan movement. Indeed, it could well make them less likely to embrace some of the other vegan lifestyle choices that fit under the “ethical” tag.
Everyone Takes a Different Stance & That’s Okay!
There is far too much shaming, hating and bullying in life generally and especially on the Internet and social media, even in vegan groups that profess to be inclusive and friendly. It is a shame that the rather objectionable online behaviour of some vegans sometimes give others an excuse to hate vegans.
It is unrealistic to expect everyone to get on all the time but offering an understanding and compassionate ear and gentle words of advice and encouragement to dietary vegans or people who are just curious about veganism is far more likely to edge them towards “full” ethical veganism than getting on a high horse and labelling them fake.
It can seem somewhat hypocritical for a person who calls themselves a vegan because they eat only plant-based food to wear leather or go to a horse racing meeting, but giving them hassle for their personal choices on their vegan journey is just not that useful in the greater scheme of things.
Is It Actually Possible & Practicable to Be a “Real” Vegan?
Sometimes people can come across as a little self-righteous or preachy when it comes to espousing what a vegan is. But the reality is that if you delve deep enough, it is almost impossible to be a “real” vegan without regularly relying on the “possible and practicable” clause of the definition. Here are just a few examples of vegan foods that could be deemed by some to contravene true vegan ideals:
Almonds, Avocados & Mass-Farmed Foods
Many foods that are classed as vegan staples could actually not be truly vegan at all. For instance, the cultivation of both avocados and almonds relies on something called “managed pollination” where lorries full of bees in crates are driven between farms covering vast areas to ensure the crops are pollinated efficiently.
This is undoubtedly an example of exploitation of bees (which are animals) and any vegans who avoid honey or beeswax but are happy to chomp into crushed avocado on toast might be putting themselves in something of an ethical quandary.
Whilst it is true that the majority of soya grown in deforested areas is destined to be fed to cattle, there is also some that is used for human food directly. As such, is it right to criticise the meat industry for deforestation for ranching while at the same time happily buying soy-based products that might have been grown in a deforested area?
Surely organic food is vegan? Well, not necessarily. It is quite often the case that the fertilisers used to grow organic food include either animal manure or droppings or even animal remains (such as ground fish bones or animal blood) from abattoirs. Unless your food is also veganic (that is, grown using only plant-based fertilisers/pesticides rather than either chemical or animal-based options), then there is a very real chance some animal products have been used to grow it.
These are just a few examples of things that people presume are vegan but which could be contested. The point is, there is little point being holier than thou when it comes to veganism (or anything really) as there is always likely to be something that cast its shadow of hypocrisy upon you.
When we look at the fullest picture possible, it is all-but impossible to be 100% vegan unless you are a self-sufficient hermit on a smallholding and you never leave your land and produce your own power. If you move on any method of transport, are the tyres vegan? Are the fabrics and glues used on a bus vegan? Is all the electricity you use vegan? And, these are just some of the quandaries potential level five vegans would face.
Rather than fret too much about the minutiae, for the vast majority of people, it would be best to focus on the basics. Make your choices about where you draw your own line in the vegan sand, encourage others to make their own based on good information and, ideally, scientific research, and then we can all live in harmony, whether humans or non-human animals.