After picking up a promising-looking treat at the grocery store, the question inevitably arises: Is it vegan? Your natural response is to turn the package around and glean what you can from the nutrition label. If the ingredients list checks out, you’re good to go — right?
The depth of your research into the products you consume is mostly based on your purpose and personal interpretation of what it means to be a vegan. Plenty of vegans use the strict definition of veganism as a guide; they “will not eat or use animal products.” The tenets of mindful consumerism often fall by the wayside.
But is this the depth of what it means to be a responsible vegan? There are many social issues related to veganism, including animal welfare and sustainability. These are particularly relevant issues for most minimalist vegans, who often base their lifestyle choices on their local and global impact.
If you haven’t already begun to do so, now is the time to consider looking beyond the nutrition label. If you want to live a truly ethically consistent lifestyle, research the businesses responsible for manufacturing the products you consume. In my own experiences as a vegan, I’ve discovered three key areas to be watchful of when determining if a business supports ethically sound practices:
1. Animal Welfare
While some people opt for a plant-based diet strictly for dietary reasons, many vegans are driven by a desire to reduce animal suffering. Of course, it behoves ethically conscious vegans to look into the track records of businesses that they purchase goods from. For example, while Tyson has started to invest in meatless protein alternatives, the corporation has been known for rampant animal cruelty violations, and they will continue to slaughter millions upon millions of animals. While buying meatless burgers from them will result in increased corporate interest in exploring vegan options for the market, doing so also indirectly supports the mistreatment of animals.
Another major concern in regards to welfare is animal testing. This practice leads to unnecessary suffering and death, usually without anaesthesia. While companies are gradually moving away from animal testing, many major food giants continue to practice it to this day. Aim to buy goods from businesses that abstain from deliberately harming animals.
Animal rights organisations like The Humane Society, PETA, and Mercy for Animals frequently perform investigative reporting on animal welfare violations. It is wise to search these sites for information regarding any violations a particular businesses may have made before pulling out your wallet.
2. Environmental Impact
The well-being of our environment is inextricably linked to our overall health. Ethical businesses place social health concerns above the need to maximise profits. There are many ways agriculture can harm the environment. Harmful pesticides and farming practices, combined with the well-known rampant pollution caused by factory farming, can wreak havoc on the local and global environment.
A hot topic in this vein is the string of potential lawsuits following the revelation of the health and environmental risks of the weed killer RoundUp. Glyphosate, the main ingredient of this formula, is believed to cause cancer, and it also can ruin the soil ecology in any area it is used, dramatically impacting the biodiversity of the local area. Nevertheless, many manufacturers rely on produce from farms that use chemicals like this. Refuse to support the use of this, or similar compounds, by not purchasing products made using them.
Of course, it is impossible to discuss the environmental impact of farming without mentioning the importance of minimising carbon emissions. Every business needs to be held accountable for the pollution that they produce. Such pollution can lead to health risks including shortened lifespan, reduced lung capacity, and serious life-threatening diseases like cancer. Seek out products from businesses that are transparent about their carbon footprint, and refrain from buying from those that place profits over public health.
3. Nutrition & Societal Impact
Another way that businesses can impact society is through the nutritional content and marketing of what they produce. The nutritional content of food is an ethical issue. As noted in an article on Triple Pundit, there is a concerted effort on the part of many food producers to get consumers addicted to foods that are convenient, inexpensive, and — incidentally — extremely unhealthy. Salt, sugar, and fat satisfy physical cravings and create powerful food addictions. When companies choose profit over responsibility, they eschew the duty to produce food that actually has any nutritional value; instead, they choose cheap ingredients that can easily get customers addicted.
This practice has a profound effect on public health. While healthcare providers and technological innovators are looking to combat the obesity epidemic by educating consumers about healthy lifestyle choices, nearly 38 per cent of all adults are clinically obese, according to an infographic by Arizona State University. Nevertheless, marketers for products that largely contributed to this issue continue to push back with messaging that keeps users craving, furthering the epidemic.
Responsible businesses are aware of the potential impact of marketing, and they aim to produce goods that are viable for a healthy diet. In essence, you shouldn’t only look at the nutrition label to determine if a product is suitable for your diet; you should try to ascertain the intent of the manufacturer. Look at the messages made by their advertisements, and don’t be fooled by labels. If a product is loaded with salt, sugar, and fat — and lacks any notable nutritional value — abstain from purchasing it.
It can be hard to stay positive about the food system, so we sometimes choose to remain ignorant about how our chosen products are manufactured. However, our choices have a clear impact on animals and the environment. Rather than merely striving to meet the definition of what it means to be a vegan, we should strive to do the least amount of harm possible. A major part of being ethically consistent is researching the actions and policies of those that produce the goods we consume. By being informed shoppers, we can send a clear message to corporations: We aren’t content with just reading the nutrition label anymore.