a blog by J.M. Cottle
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Capitalism, activism, and impure vegan eating

My new year’s resolution to become vegan was not “stop using all animal products”. That would have been simple and straightforward. And impossible. Different vegans have different ways of dealing with the animal products that surround us in our daily lives and sneak in where we least expect them. While complete abolition is a goal for some, it can’t be a reality at the moment.

My new year’s resolution was actually “stop consciously spending money to support the mistreatment of animals”. Practical application of this maxim in my daily life leads to me doing some very non-vegan-appearing things, mostly when it comes to the way I eat.

1. At the grocery store

It all begins here. I live in a capitalist economy, and in this type of economy, spending money is like voting. When I buy something, I am telling the merchant, “This is a good product, so have more in stock.” I am telling the creator, “This is a good product, so make more like it.” I try to vote on products that I think are good for me and for everyone else who lives on this planet. Often I don’t have enough money to vote on the best products, and sometimes all I can afford to vote on is the very worst product, but I do what I can. I no longer use my money to tell merchants and creators to continue mistreating animals.

I’m not a purist, though. I read the label, and if I don’t see any ingredients that come from animals, I consider the item safe to buy. I’m not the kind of vegan who calls companies to make sure that their products are animal-free. Sometimes things that appear to be vegan (like sugar) are made using animal products (some sugar is made using bone char) and there’s no way to tell from the label. If I can buy something that I know is pure vegan, I will, but if I can’t – or the purer option is more expensive – then I won’t stress. I’m not allergic to animal products. A tiny amount isn’t going to hurt me.

If I had more money I would buy all the best vegan things all the time, but I’m a child care worker and a writer; I’m not sure I will ever have enough money for that.

2. At work

I work at a home for foster youth, and part of my job is to clean out the kids’ refrigerator and throw away any leftovers that have been in there for three days, whether they have gone bad or not. Another part of my job is that I have to stay inside the house all night without any breaks, so I’m allowed to eat food from their kitchen for my middle-of-the-night lunch.

Out of respect for my clients, I try not to eat the really good food that I know is popular with teenagers. Most of the time, I try to eat food that’s more than three days old but hasn’t gone bad yet, since I’m going to have to throw it out anyway and I would rather not let it go to waste. Often this includes meat, and usually it includes dairy. Very rarely do I find vegan leftovers. Do I eat it anyway, rather than throw it out? Yes I do. (Though usually I don’t eat the meat. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s hard to avoid thinking about exactly what I’m eating and feeling sick when I eat meat.)

See, at this point, choosing whether or not to eat this food is not going to make any difference whatsoever in whether or not animals are harmed again in the future. I’m not aiming for a pure, animal-free body; again, I’m not allergic to animal products. No omnivores are around to keep the food from going to waste. And I’m hungry. So I eat it, and I think about the animals that were hurt or killed to provide me sustenance. Sometimes I feel guilty. Sometimes I enjoy the taste. Does this make me a bad vegan? Honestly, I couldn’t care less. I’m not trying to mold myself to fit the label.

3. At restaurants

It’s hard to find something vegan on most restaurant menus, but even if you do find something, there will often be a surprise when it gets to your table – some cheese, some dressing, a sauce you didn’t expect. The most frequent example I run into is the yogurt they give you at Indian and Greek restaurants. Even when you say “no yogurt please” they often send it along. It’s probably a habit that’s hard to break.

At this point, I could send it back and waste it, or I could leave it and let it be thrown away and wasted, or I could just eat it and be clearer next time. If I was braver I would remind the waiter that I asked for no yogurt/dressing/whatever, hoping to avoid the situation in the future, but I’m not quite that brave right now. If the only reason I wouldn’t eat it is that I’m vegan, I usually eat it anyway so that it doesn’t go to waste.

One way to avoid this problem is to eat at vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants. If you’re looking for such a restaurant near you, try searching with Happy Cow.

4. Other people’s cooking

People love to give me food. I love to accept food. It’s a win-win situation, until people start giving me food that comes from animals. Then I start getting all morally conflicted.

Sometimes people who don’t know I’m vegan give me food, and then all I have to do is tell them that I’m vegan. At that point I usually have to refuse the food to avoid looking like a hypocrite. If I’m hungry enough and there’s nothing vegan to eat, I will often keep quiet and just eat it. I am only human.

When people who do know that I’m vegan give me animal-based food, again I base my response on my hunger and the availability of vegan food. They usually do this because they simply have forgotten. They will offer me salad and forget that they put cheese on it, for example – it often seems that people forget that cheese is an animal product. If there is something else I can eat, I will politely refuse. If there is nothing else, I will probably eat it. If they made this food especially for me, I will usually eat it as long as it doesn’t contain actual meat, and I will remind them about the animal products they forgot so that they might be better informed the next time they cook for a vegan.

It’s sometimes difficult to refuse food without hurting people’s feelings. Food is a highly emotional thing. I’ve found that the best way to refuse food is to smile, say “no, thank you,” offer no excuses or caveats, and keep right on smiling to make sure that they know you mean them no ill will. If you say “it looks good, but…” or “I shouldn’t…” you are inviting them to persuade you that a moment of pleasure is more important than your principles. People love to try to persuade you of this, as anyone who’s ever changed their diet knows first hand. The best way to avoid it is a simple “no, thank you”, repeated as often as necessary, accompanied with a smile.

5. Sending messages

Part of my veganism – a relatively small part, but there nonetheless – is activism. A world where no one mistreats animals is the goal. I’d like to show other people that veganism doesn’t have to be as difficult as it sounds, and that it’s actually enjoyable. Being judgmental or preachy is rarely a good way to get people to change their habits. Leading by example, however, is very effective.

With this in mind, I’m always conscious of what message I am sending with my choices. When I’m at work, for instance, I’m all by myself all night. No one is around to look at what I’m eating and assume I’m an omnivore. My focus, then, is on what is the least harmful and the least wasteful way to feed myself, not on being the purest vegan I can be. But if any of my clients are awake, I eat strictly vegan food in order to send my “come on in, the water’s fine!” message.

It’s always a balancing act. I’m walking a fine line between idealism and pragmatism, bravery and courtesy, and all I can do is my best.

5 Responses to Capitalism, activism, and impure vegan eating

  1. I think this is a good approach! As you say, wasting food is not very vegan either, even (especially?) if it contains animal products. Kudos to you for doing your best and being sensible about things :)

  2. #2 is probably what irks me most about vegans/vegetarians, because they WILL waste food on pure principle alone (with an attitude of superiority, to boot). As you point out, their actions at that point are not going to make a difference, or worse, they are wasteful, and there are other ways of sending a message. I rather like your attitude of “above all, don’t be wasteful.”

    As for #4, people who try to persuade you are idiots. Saying “I am vegan / vegetarian / don’t eat meat” should be enough of a reason to refuse food without further hassling. I honor anybody’s choice and I always ask for dietary restrictions and/or preferences when a friend is coming over.

    What I am most conflicted over in this subject is my own nihilism/cynicism. I have changed some of my habits (trying to buy organic, or local, even if it is more expensive) but it’s not enough to get me to personally overhaul everything. Deep down I just don’t think I can make a difference. I know, that’s perhaps part of the problem, but the larger issue is that the vast majority of people don’t even care enough to give this a second thought.

    • It’s true that the vast majority of people don’t care, but for me, changing my habits is about my own integrity rather than an attempt to make a difference on a large scale. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t make some changes to go along with the things I believe, and I wouldn’t be happy with myself. My leading by example has already caused my partner to think about the issue. Now we’re vegan together. Planting little seeds of caring and getting people to think for a moment may be the only difference I can personally make in others, but making a difference is only a pleasant side effect of my main goal of doing what I think is right.

  3. Good to see an honest assessment of veganism! I’ve been vegan since 1993 (and the purists drive me nuts. It’s impossible to live a “pure” life completely free from animal products. Like you, my veganism is a financial boycott. The way I think of it is that I follow the 2% rule. If there is an animal product in the “2% or less” section of the ingredients – for example, whey or milk or egg whites – I’ll buy it anyway (if there isn’t a good truly vegan or equally cheap alternative) as I don’t think it is important enough to be relevant financially. If everyone in the US stopped eating cookies made with whey powder (that garbage product is in a LOT of cookies!), nothing would change for animals. Very diffferent story if everyone in the US stopped drinking milk or eating beef, so I never buy these items. (I actually don’t buy something if the 2%-or-less item is beef lard or actual meat. After 21 years of no meat I’m kind of squeamish and grossed out at the thought of digesting it…Oh my. I’m 42. I just realized I’ve been vegan for half my life!)

    And no, I don’t run around phoning companies to check on the source of their sugar. I’m paying them money to give me a product that doesn’t have animal products in it and they are delivering. The bone char filtration process simply wouldn’t exist, wouldn’t be profitable if there was no longer the animal abuse industry to support it. So my buying a vegan chocolate bar with regular sugar isn’t helping that industry at all – it’s supporting a vegan product.

    Grrr, those purists rankle me! I once had a guy ask me (rather condescendingly) if my Nike running shoes were vegan. “Of course!” I exclaimed. “They are nylon and mesh and synthetic leather – just like most Nike running shoes are.” He smiled smugly. “Yes, but did you call the manufacturer to check and see if they use non-animal-based glue?” Aaaaarrrrgggghhhhh!!! (I’m pretty sure he didn’t ask the manufacturer about his Payless loafers, but I think part of his point was his superiority for not caving to the big corporations and buying their products…though Payless isn’t exactly a Mom and Pop operation.)

    Anyway, I applaud your financial boycott. If only more vegans looked at it that way instead of striving irritatingly for purism!

    • The view that most people have of vegans (and maybe vegetarians, to a lesser extent) is of annoying, condescending purists, and that has harmed the rest of us so much. Who would want to join such an obnoxious movement? One of the best things we can do to help change the tide is put a more positive face on veganism.

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