extending the definition of veganism

I never thought I’d be writing an article about the definition of veganism—but recently I’ve felt compelled to reconnect and clarify what it means to be vegan.

My transition into veganism happened overnight, and I haven’t looked back since. However, the longer I’m vegan, the more I see how the philosophy is being compromised.

Before I go on, I should make it clear that I’ve long been a supporter of “any progress is good progress”—if that means eating plant-based a couple of times a week, then sure, more animals are saved, and I’m all for that!

However, if we claim to be vegan, and our actions don’t match our values, that’s where I take some issue. It’s not to put people down. No, that’s not compassionate at all. It’s about the confusion it creates to others about what it means to be vegan.

Examples of confusing actions include consuming backyard eggs, alcohol made using animal products, honey with their oats, buying leather shoes, supporting animal-based entertainment etc. This is not to mention the recent flurry of online influencers who abandoned veganism for health reasons.

All of these actions, combined with the title of “I’m vegan” is incredibly confusing for the non-vegan community.

The impact of confusing the definition of veganism

I had an interaction recently when ordering food at a cafe where the assistant had to clarify whether I don’t want eggs or honey, despite me saying I’m vegan.

The poor girl was genuinely confused—as she’s served people that claim to be vegan and then proceed order animal products. Her definition of veganism is based on these interactions, which gives her the wrong perception of what it means to commit to the practice of compassion.

This is just one of many examples where the message of veganism is being watered down. And that’s not okay—because it means so much more than that.

At the end of the day, veganism is a choice. Either you’re committed to it, or you’re not vegan. And it’s okay not to be a vegan—I mean, I’d prefer you to be vegan, but again, it’s a choice.

I’m increasingly passionate about this definition because I believe veganism has some serious weight behind it.

People are trying to devalue veganism

Mass media portrays veganism as a fad, or a trend—that’s based on individuals, and what they want—not the impact of their actions. Each year seems to be “the rise of veganism”.

Startups and major corporations alike are seeing veganism as an emerging market with billions of dollars up for grabs.

Then there’s a bunch of people promoting plant-based as this all-encompassing lifestyle that can transform your health. While there’s some truth to the benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet, it’s not fundamentally the point of veganism.

Veganism is a philosophy ingrained in the idea of compassion towards animals. I find it hard to believe that a philosophy with such an altruistic view of the world, is a trend. I’m not buying it!

I know this to be true because I see it in vegans who understand what it means to be vegan.

Their transition into a vegan lifestyle seemed straightforward to them. Challenging at times, sure, but pretty simple to execute.

I find them to be naturally curious about the world. And they practice selflessness even if it means acting against their introverted nature. People who get veganism, move, talk, and more importantly act in line with their values.

There’s a different level of conviction in how they operate. There’s no hesitation to explain why they make the choices that they make—as they know it’s not about them.

If you’re interested in becoming vegan, or have been vegan in the past, or are vegan and want validation, then hang tight—because, in this article, I’m going to break down the origin and definition of veganism, to hopefully extend and refocus the message and what it means in our society.

It starts with vegetarianism

To understand how veganism came to be, we need to start with vegetarianism.

I should also say that since the beginning of humankind, it’s safe to assume that there have always been people who chose not to consume animals—at least, that was their preference.

Then came along Donald Watson who in 1924, at the age of 14, became vegetarian because he was horrified at what he saw on his uncle’s small farm. One day he would see a pig that he loved, then the next day the pig would be gone.

Donald became increasingly frustrated with the philosophy of vegetarianism which was initially intended to embrace freedom from all exploitative animal products but came to include eggs, cows milk and honey.

So he officially became vegan, which at the time was called a non-dairy vegetarian, in 1942, at 32 years old.

He later formed The Vegan Society in 1944. Good man!

Where did the word vegan originate from?

Donald wanted a more concise way to describe a non-dairy vegetarian. At the time, he individually wrote and edited a vegetarian news publication.

He wrote a piece with a call to action for his readers to brainstorm some ideas for a concise definition of a non-dairy vegetarian.

Some interesting submissions came rolling through, including; vitan, dairyban, and benevore. I wonder what names we would think up in this generation? Very interesting!

But understandably Donald wasn’t a fan of the submissions and ended up taking the first three letters and last two letters of vegetarian and coining the term vegan.

His reasoning was he felt that veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its next logical conclusion.

The definition of veganism

Between the inception of The Vegan Society and today, there have been multiple iterations on the definition of veganism.

According to the Vegan Society, 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.

For the purpose of this post, I want to focus on the section I’ve bolded above. Here’s my simplified version:

Veganism is seeking to exclude all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

As a vegan, I think this definition does a fantastic job in encapsulating the philosophy of compassionate living. But I’m about to take this post in perhaps a different direction than what you expected—because buried in this definition of veganism we can derive even more meaning.

What is an animal?

Okay, if you’re like me, you probably quickly answered this question in your head based on your intuition and your domain knowledge on what you think an animal is.

As it turns out, if you google, “what is an animal?”, depending on the source, there are a variety of studies and definitions.

But the reason why I ask this question is less about the definition of an animal, and more about whether we think humans are animals.

Personally, based on schooling, watching, reading and listening to collective opinions, and of course, my own logical conclusions, I believe humans are animals.

If we stay in this position for a moment, and we agree that humans are animals, the definition of veganism just got a whole lot more interesting!

Incorporating humans into the definition of veganism

I hear it all the time—“Vegans should prioritise human rights over animal rights.” This statement always makes me quiver.

Even if we decided to define humans and animals separately, I find it hard to see how it’s not possible to be vegan and still prioritise human rights? Why should one preclude the other?

Anyway, I digress.

If humans are animals, then the definition of veganism extends to humans.

The way I see it; exploitation and cruelty to any sentient being is not a good thing. Wouldn’t you agree? For example:

  • In some countries, men are considered to be the masters of women.
  • Male chickens are being slaughtered at birth because they are not considered to be a valuable asset.
  • Newly discovered land has been taken away from the native people by force since the beginning of time.
  • Same-sex marriage is not legal in many parts of the world.
  • Kangaroos in Australia are being culled at scale.
  • Civil war breaks out over centuries due to a conflict of religious beliefs resulting in billions of deaths.

These are just a few horrific examples of many. I think it would be depressing to list all of the ways we exploit and abuse each other.

But what do you see as a common thread in these examples? Superiority. Ones desire to rule over the other.

I intentionally lumped human and non-human examples together—because if we remove the idea that we’re superior to animals, why wouldn’t we consider these examples at the same level?

This is what it means to embrace the vegan philosophy.

The superiority complex is real. Animals want to dominate other animals. But veganism is arguing that we have a choice to do things differently—to set a compassionate tone, which brings me to the next point.

Veganism is a choice

When you’re vegan, and you engage with non-vegans, you start seeing a pattern. People think that vegans are living with extreme restriction and deprivation.

It’s always, “can you have this? You can’t have that, can you? Sorry, I forgot you can’t have that!”

Just because we can technically do something doesn’t mean we should.

Human, or non-human, we have the choice to show mercy and compassion to others.

We all have a choice.

Yes, you. If you’re reading this article, you have enough resources available to you that make veganism a choice, not a necessity.

Most of us choose not to kill each other. It’s a choice.

Similarly, there’s a growing population that chooses not to consume animals. Again a choice.

But it all comes from the same philosophy of compassion. Why compartmentalise, scrutinise and argue an ideal that is so kind and considerate to everyone?

What would a world look like if we didn’t think we were superior to another culture, race, sex, country or animal?

It’s almost impossible to believe, isn’t it? And that’s what we’re up against — a whole history of wanting to gain an advantage over one another.

What it means to be vegan

So when I say I’m vegan, it’s way beyond eating plant-based, with the occasional organic honey or backyard egg.

No, when I say I’m vegan, I’m seeking to exclude all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

We talk about equality. But what does that mean really? Equality for a segment of our population that’s only relevant to the pain-points of your specific situation? Or equality for all living animals, human or non-human?

This really matters to me. I don’t want to harm other animals. It’s a choice that I can make, and I act on it. It’s not nice to do bad things, period!

I hope after reading this, you can find the courage, vulnerability and humility to put every animal on a level playing field. Then act on it. Show others what it means to feel, think, and be compassionate. That’s what it means to be vegan.

Special mention to Colleen Patrick-Goudreau for providing inspiration and education about the definition of veganism.

Extending The Definition of Veganism

Other articles you’ll love:

  1. How To Go Vegan: A Guide On How To Transition To a Vegan Lifestyle
  2. Why You’re Struggling To Stay Vegan
  3. But Plants Have Feelings Too, Don’t They?
  4. Vystopia: The Anguish of Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World

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  1. Hi, great read, thankyou.
    I’ve been vegan since 2016 apart from a few slip ups that included……….caramel squares? but I’m past the temptation now after realizing it wasn’t just about the food.
    It was overnight that I decided to go vegan and I had been vegetarian for a year or so before that. It was my inner self shouting at me not to “take” from animals so I listened. Now…..I’m on my way to a mostly raw diet….. apart from mash and roast potatoes! I can’t give them up, I’m from Ireland ???
    I chose not to talk about my food or lifestyle choices because I get so much negativity and the usual “what do you eat then?!” Or, or! Some people tut and walk away!….only happened once lol but some people won’t accept what needs to change in their own lives or for the planet….so I usually keep quiet about being vegan.
    Thankyou for this article.
    Thankyou for your compassion, may it spread out to all the planet xo

    1. Hi Julie, it’s so lovely to hear about your experience so far.
      I love your honesty, and I too, have had my fair share of slip-ups over the years.
      Also, kudos for going mostly raw, that’s impressive!
      I know the feeling of not wanting to deal with those common questions, but I’ve learned to see those situations as an opportunity to share a different perspective on how we consume food. Little interactions with people become a reference point for their encounters with veganism in the future.
      Thank you for your kind words, and thank you for your compassion.

  2. Dear Michael: I do consider myself vegan but I love honey and since I didn’t think any animals were being harmed I have considered it ok. Should I then consider myself vegetarian? Except then restaurants and friends cooking would assume I eat eggs, cheese, fish maybe — am I really being an ass if I say I am vegan?

    1. Hi Judy, apologies for the delay in getting back to you!
      Fundamentally, honey is an animal product and is therefore not vegan. Have you considered some alternatives to honey such as maple syrup and agave nectar?
      As a reference, it might be worth reading Simon’s comment above about how he positions himself to others?

  3. I do not think you answered Dominic’s question. He was wondering if fruits, depending on bee pollination would be considered vegan.

    1. Hi Sunni, I don’t know the answer to that question. In fact I have as many questions Dominic. But for me personally, I choose not to consume honey based on the reasons I stated above.

  4. Thanks for the post Michael,
    One of the things that always seemed a grey area to me are honeybees, and by extension their pollination. If it were not for honeybees, we would not have almonds, avocados, oranges, berries, and many other fruits. Are these foods still vegan?
    I also see honeybees as somewhat different from other animals, and let me explain why. Honeybees are true social insects, meaning that no single honeybee or any honeybee caste can survive without the other castes. Individuals are cells of a superorganism, which is the hive. The hive goes through growth and contraction cycles throughout the year, and some honeybee behavior may seem cruel to us, but is necessary for the survival of the hive (culling infected larva, forcing drones out in the fall, altruistic suicide of diseased bees, workers forced to work to their deaths, queen supercedure, etc..). It is for these reasons that the survival of the hive is more important than survival of individuals. We should then be focused on the well-being of hives rather than individuals.
    I wouldn’t have learned all of this if it were not for my own hives. Being a beekeeper has helped me learn so much about honeybees, the multiple serious threats they are facing, and how important they are to our food system, especially fruit, vegetable, and nut production.
    So I understand that honeybees can be exploited, but what about the role they play in pollination for food production? Are the foods they pollinate able to be considered vegan? I mean this as a genuine question and have always wondered this myself, and would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    1. Hey, Dom, I hope you’ve been well!
      You have far more domain knowledge and experience than me when it comes to the ecosystem of hives and bees.
      I’ve never heard of the idea of the superorganism—so I find it to be fascinating.
      When it comes to ethics, I like to keep things simple.
      I 100% agree that honeybees are critical for everyone’s survival and if it weren’t for beekeepers, we’d all be in serious trouble.
      However, whether or not bees produce an excessive amount of honey, the intended use of their honey is for the insulation of their hive and to feed themselves and their families (please correct me if I’m wrong).
      I’m sure they’re around—but I’m yet to see a beekeeping practice that purely exists to breed more bees for pollination without any extraction of honey. There’s no return on investment for such a practice, whether it’s to sell the honey or consume the honey. So this mentality in itself is exploitative. I’m not sure how else to view it.
      To throw some ideas out here; what if we had dedicated bee sanctuaries? Or what if local communities came together to do beekeeping in their yards, but with no intent to extract honey? Is that too idealistic? Is that too much to expect from humans? Heck, would I do it? I don’t know. But it’s something worth pondering nevertheless.
      I think you’ve inspired us to write an article to go more in-depth on the topic 🙂

      1. Honey is used by the bees as a food source in the winter, but not insulation. When it gets cold, bees will huddle together into a tight ball and consume honey as they slowly move upward toward the top of the hive through the winter. The temperature just outside the cluster of bees is not much warmer than outside. Excess heat and moisture is vented upward out of the hive.
        The most common type of honeybee raised by humans, the Italian honeybee, has been selectively bred to produce much more honey than they need for winter in most climates. The idea is that you can take the excess produced by the bees, and leave the rest, although some producers will take nearly all of the honey and feed them sugar water instead.
        Actually, it is possible to exploit honeybees for their pollination, and this is frequently done by some commercial beekeepers. In February-March hives are moved to northern California for almond pollination, then in April-May to Oregon, Washington, New York, and Michigan for blueberries, apples, and cherries. In the summer, they are kept in the midwest for clover to produce honey, then from October to January they are kept in Florida for oranges until the process starts again the next year. A less exploitative alternative would be to keep hives in one place, but since these crops only bloom for 3-4 weeks out of the year and modern agriculture clears out other year-round sources of nectar (“weeds”), the bees would starve if they were kept there.
        And yes, it absolutely is possible for communities to raise bees solely for pollination in a non-exploitative way! There is a type of hive called a top-bar hive which is a long, rectangular or cylindrical hive. They can be built by hand or made from natural materials such as a stump. In fact, this type of hive is commonly used in Africa where it is called a bee gum. This type of hive is the most natural type of hive to give bees since a tree stump is an ideal place for a hive to live in the wild. However, they don’t do well in cooler climates because there isn’t much room for the bees to move up (bees instinctively migrate upward over the winter), and since they are small, they frequently swarm (reproduction on a hive level). There are some communities that raise bees this way in New Mexico and Arizona.

      2. Michael and Dominic,
        Thank you Dominic for explaining about bees a little bit. I came here to do the same but you have done a much better job than I would have!
        Michael, I can highly recommend the documentary “More than Honey” (2012) it’s a great film about bees and beekeeping.
        I truly believe beekeeping can be ethical but I also know it very often isn’t (even if it is just for pollination) and thus vegans should consider that when they consume fruits, almonds or vegetables that are pollinated by bees! (however I also think that even the worst kind of beekeeping is still more ethical than even the most ethical way of any other kind of animal farming)
        So my point is I think it can be more ethical to consume some honey but no fruits, nuts or vegetables that have been pollinated by bees from exploitative (who do not care much about the loss of entire hives) commercial beekeepers (however it is not that straight forward to find out how exactly these fruits, almonds and vegetables have been pollinated).
        So what does that mean for the term “vegan”? If we follow your simplified definition, then I think to be a vegan we would also have to stop eating everything that has been pollinated by “domesticated” bees (wild bees and other insects might actually play quite a large role in pollination, but I think more research in this field is needed).
        Maybe this would be the most ethical way, but maybe not, let’s say for example one part of your diet that is important for your health is something that is pollinated by bees, there might be a replacement that isn’t pollinated by bees but maybe it doesn’t grow where you live so it has to be transported a big distance to get to you which of course is less energy efficient. (this is just hypothetical I don’t have an example, I just wanted to make the point that sometimes there is no 100% ethical solution at least not at the moment, actually leather shoes is a good example, since I stopped wearing leather shoes my plastic shoes don’t even last a year… whereas the leather shoes lasted a few years and if I had taken better care even longer)

        But otherwise a great article! Apart from the bee and honey stuff I agree with everything!
        And I would be very interested if you wrote an article about bees and pollination! Actually I should really do some research myself I would really like to avoid foods that are linked to exploitative beekeeping.
        Ah and if I tell someone that I’m vegan I often add “but I eat honey” (even though I very rarely do) it just seems more honest that way.

        1. Dominic and Simon,

          Thank you so much for taking the time to add your knowledge and experience regarding the dynamics of honey as it relates to veganism.

          There’s lots to digest here, and admittedly, I’m not in a position to answer the question about supporting crops that rely on the pollination of bees.

          On the surface, though, I still feel like there’s a more ethical solution than supporting the honey making industry—which we’ve started to brainstorm in this conversation.

          This has piqued my curiosity to go deeper, and yes, we’ve watched “More Than Honey”. I may need to consult with you both in the future about this topic—as it’s caused a lot of confusion in the vegan community.

          And Simon, you’re spot on, there’s never going to be a 100% ethical solution for anything—as it seems like we’re always going to exploit an animal indirectly.

          Thanks again for your time.

  5. First three letters and last two letters to write vegan is what you meant in your article.

    I think the “possible and practicable” part of the definition is important. Because I have hard to fit feet, and I’ve quickly worn out or donated many pairs of poorly fitting vegan leather shoes, I’m permitting myself one pair of gently used leather dress shoes every two years. I’ve seen processed foods advertised as vegan online that list honey as an ingredient.

    I prepared traditional egg custard and eclairs for my flexitarian Mom in her last four months of life to help her stop losing weight so quickly. On the rare occasions eating out where dessert is allegedly vegan and honey, egg and dairy free, I resist asking if the sugar is bonechar free to encourage restaurants to have options at all.
    Recently, as I am a single and rural vegan, I’ve become more omnivore friendly. I’m not advocating as other vegans are, yet no one complains when I surprise them with homemade vegan cupcakes. When one’s livelihood depends of supporting veganism, one would be, can I say?, a “professional vegan”. For those of us amateur vegans, we might not be able to sacrifice the relationships with the few family members and friends we have. Thank you for your time to read my comment.

    1. Hi Rhea, thank you for picking up the typos, and for sharing your experiences!

      I think you make some really valid points concerning the definition of veganism.

      I think your examples reflect your intent and commitment to veganism. One of the motivations behind writing this article is the example of said vegans to willfully pursue non-vegan options when there are clear “possible and practical” alternatives.

      I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally consumed cow’s milk, cheese, honey, butter and other animal products over the last five years, and I accept they’ll be many more accidents to come.

      I also don’t think it’s necessary to sacrifice personal relationships for veganism. At least this hasn’t been the case for us.

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