What is Veganism?

The answer to the question “What is veganism?” sounds like it should be a simple one, and in many ways, it is, but the common conception of veganism is often misleading; it doesn’t quite match up with how we vegans think of our own identity and our movement.

The Vegan Society, which first coined the term veganism, describes it as:

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.

You’ll see many definitions of what veganism is and isn’t, but this one is the most
authoritative, and the one that most vegans will agree on. Before we unpack that definition, let’s look at what veganism is not.

Veganism is, absolutely and unequivocally, not a diet. That may seem obvious, but it’s an odd realisation for many who have spent time researching veganism on any social media site, to find it dominated by pictures of, and discussions about, food. Food is certainly a big part of veganism, but veganism is not Buddha bowls, it is not faux meats, it is not yoga instructors eating watermelon halves with a spoon. Veganism is a philosophy and a way of living, and it includes a dietary component, but a diet is not all that it is. If someone eats a plant-based diet but chooses not to follow a vegan lifestyle then they’re eating plant-based, and while all vegans eat a plant-based diet, not all people who eat plant-based are vegan.

Veganism is also not a boycott. It’s tempting to think of veganism in purely negative terms, ‘vegans do not eat this, vegans do not support that’ but to think this way is to do a disservice to veganism and the immeasurably positive influence it can have on a person’s life. Veganism is, at its core, a positive philosophy. It is about what we can do, not what we cannot. It is about what we can do to make a difference in our lives, the world we live in, and the beings we share it with.

Veganism is also not a set of rules or a complete ethical system. There are no Ten
Commandments dictate how we should behave, how we should approach every situation, and how we should think about any ethical dilemma; from abortion to euthanasia. Veganism touches on many movements and its advocacy includes many social justice issues. But, at its heart, veganism is a specific position on a specific topic – namely, the rights of animals. Veganism provides loose principles which are, most of the time, open to some interpretation. It won’t tell you how to behave, it’ll just offer some guidelines on responding to specific ethical issues in our world.

The core principle behind veganism is common in many philosophies, that is simply to do less harm. Veganism is about treading lightly in the world, about minimising the impact we have on the planet and its citizens, including members of other species. Veganism as a philosophy fully acknowledges that living a life that is completely free of harm is not possible, hence the as far as is possible and practicable line in that definition.

Veganism only asks us to do better, to do our best. What veganism can offer is by no means a perfect solution to the world’s problems, but it is something practical that anyone, and I do mean anyone, can do to make their world a little bit better. As vegans, we believe that animals should have some fundamental rights, including the right to live their own lives and therefore not to be exploited for human gain.

Acknowledging that animals should not be exploited isn’t just theoretical though, it has practical implications. Following this philosophy means that as vegans we avoid eating meat and fish, as well as any other products derived from animals, such as dairy, eggs or honey. It also means that we avoid animal fabrics, animal-tested cosmetics, using animals for entertainment or treating animals as objects in any other way.

By avoiding contributing to these industries, we demonstrate our commitment to the belief that animals deserve rights – that they are not ours to eat, wear, use or experiment on. We also hope that by abstaining from the products of animal exploitation, we will directly affect the public demand for these products, since reduced demand results in fewer animals being exploited and killed. The more people who are vegan, the more this impact can be seen in the world, so while you may not feel like you can make much of a difference as an individual, as a vegan you would be part of a large movement seeking change through collective action. This is a very powerful thing.

So being vegan isn’t just about what we do or don’t do, it’s about how we behave towards our fellow animals, and how we view their place in the world relative to ours. It is not a list of dos and don’ts, but a comprehensive philosophy and ethical stance. Veganism is a powerful statement against exploitation; an act of protest against a system that is built on the backs of suffering animals.

Getting Started

There are many effective methods for going vegan, from going cold turkey to a slow
transition over several weeks or months. There is no ‘best’ way to go vegan. These
methods will be covered in a later chapter in some detail, but, this book offers a set of principles that should encompass all these other methods. This should allow you to choose how you want to approach your vegan journey, while still offering you a structured framework to work with. In my advocacy, I have spoken to hundreds of people about their journeys into veganism, and the route I offer now is based on those conversations and what has worked for them and me.

While everyone is different, most successful transitions have a great deal in common and
seem to follow some familiar stages, which have formed the basis for what I believe to be an effective four-step process to going vegan.

1) Get Inspired

This is all about igniting that initial passion for going vegan, as this drive is needed to work through some of the initial difficulties you are likely to experience. This is the single greatest indicator of whether someone will maintain their veganism – not individual situation, support network, or wealth. Inspiration is key.

To help you get there, you should check out the recommended books and media in my resources section.

2) Get Educated

All the inspiration in the world won’t help if you don’t know what you’re doing. This is
the nitty-gritty of going vegan in terms of which products to avoid, why, and what to
replace them with. One of the greatest challenges most vegans deal with is usually the one that most surprises them, which is the hostility and criticism from those around them. Being educated on the theory behind veganism, animal rights, animal farming, and animal ethics is extremely important. This section will equip you with all the basic knowledge you’ll need, and hopefully help dispel some of your misgivings and misconceptions.

I have covered a wide range of topics to get you started in my education section, so that would be a good place to get started.

3) Begin Transition

This is the part where you begin to put into practice everything you have learned and achieved in the first two steps. This is where we begin to move away from animal products and towards a plant-based diet and a vegan lifestyle. You may feel like this is the tough part, but if you’ve done everything in the first two steps, you should be prepared to begin cutting out animal products or even do it all at once.

4) Commitment

This step is much less obvious, but no less important. Going vegan is such a positive decision, but the problem is staying vegan when the documentaries you watched feel like a distant memory, but the cheese pizza you’re craving very much does not. This step gives you methods for staying motivated and engaging with veganism on a deeper level. It also explains what your next steps may be moving forward.

This method allows a great deal of flexibility in how you approach the process of
transitioning and offers a helpful framework to make your journey as simple as possible. It will help keep you focused on the road ahead, but this is by no means a straight path. You will take wrong turns, you will slip up. Mistakes are normal, even experienced vegans make them. The important thing is to recognise these as the learning experiences they are, rather than viewing them as barriers to your veganism.

Remember, veganism is not dogmatic and it isn’t something you can win or lose; we are all at different stages and perfection is not possible. So long as you truly are doing your best, no one can ask more of you than that.

Methods

Depending on how ready you feel to leap in, you should choose one of three methods. If you attempt one and it isn’t successful then don’t worry, it just means that method wasn’t the right one for you. Take a break, seek out more inspiration through articles/documentaries, and then get right back to it following a different method.

There is no ‘one size fits all,’ it’ll depend on your personal preference. You should opt for the one you feel is most likely to succeed for you, not necessarily the one you think will make you vegan the fastest. These methods focus on food first and foremost, not because it is any more important than any other aspect of veganism, but because it tends to be the part of the process that people find the most daunting, at least initially.

Whichever one you choose, you must act now while all of this information is fresh in your mind. You may have already come up with reasons not to transition now and to leave it to the future, perhaps when the new year starts, when you move out, or when you are off work and school. The truth is that there will always be reasons not to go vegan, and you may spend your life waiting for the perfect moment to do it, which may never come.

The perfect moment is when you are inspired, that inspiration and passion will see you through almost any difficulty, but the longer you leave it before you act, the more that tends to fade, and the longer society has to pull you back into the exploitative mentality.

By Product

This is the method that most people follow, and it’s the one that is generally considered to be the easiest. This is fairly intuitive; all you need to do is eliminate and replace one product at a time. You may start with something you find easy, like beef or cow’s milk, and eliminate that one product from your diet. When using this method, be sure to eliminate one thing at a time, so you don’t become overwhelmed.

You should move on to the next product only when you feel ready. The advantage of doing this one product at a time is that you’ll have plenty of time to find suitable alternatives for whatever you have just eliminated, and it is important that you do replace it. There are delicious faux meat alternatives widely available these days, but if you’re going with beef, you don’t necessarily need to replace it with a beef alternative, you can
substitute it for just about any protein source. A cup of lentils, beans, chickpeas, or tofu would be ideal options. They don’t taste the same, but they provide a similar function on the plate when paired with a carbohydrate, and have a similar (if not superior) protein content. It is important that you are replacing instead of eliminating, or you’ll feel like your diet has become too restrictive.

A potential problem with this method is that, no matter how easy you start, you will
eventually have to give up those products you like most, which can result in cravings.
There are ways to overcome cravings, which are detailed later in this section, but it is something to be aware of if you are going to explore this method.

By Meal

This may be a faster method, and it works better for some people. This involves eating
plant-based one meal at a time, rather than eliminating individual products from your diet. Following this method, you may start by making your breakfasts 100% plant-based. This could be as simple as swapping the cow’s milk in your cereal for plant milk, or butter on your toast for a plant-based alternative, of which there are many. You would eat as you normally do the rest of the day, just keeping your breakfast as your one plant-based meal.

Once you have developed a set of nutritious, animal-free breakfasts that you enjoy, you
would then move on to lunch, dinner, and then any snacks in between. The big advantage of this method is that it will slowly lower your consumption of every animal product simultaneously, rather than suddenly eliminating one. This is often enough to avoid cravings or any ‘body shock’, which is one of the issues many people struggle with, and it encourages you to cook and experiment with foods you may have never even tried before. It also gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of what is easier for you, you may find it easy to eat plant-based meals at home but not at work, meaning you can tailor your approach to work around your schedule.

One potential problem with this method is that you will have an initial period of unfamiliarity when you extend your plant-based eating to a new meal. You will have
breakfast sorted, but lunch may be a different matter for you, and it may take a few days each time for that to settle down, during which you may feel like you’re starting back at square one. The best way to pre-empt that problem is to spend time researching recipes for lunch and dinner before you move on to the next stage; you should have at least six in your rotation that you can regularly eat and enjoy.

I have some meal ideas and recipes that may help you in my food section.

All In

Often called going ‘cold turkey,’ this method is the one that many people find the most
difficult. It involves eliminating all animal products from your diet all at once. This sounds
overwhelming, but it may be the right choice for you if the idea of continuing to eat animal products for even one more day sounds repulsive to you. For those who feel like it’s now or never this may be the right move, and there is something to be said for setting that first foot on the road as quickly as possible.

The great advantage of this method is that it will result in a complete transition far sooner than the other two, which means that you’ll begin to feel the positive physical and mental benefits of veganism much sooner. Before that happens though, you’re likely to experience something of a body-shock as your system gets used to the radical change, this can also include cravings. Both of these issues and how to counter them are explored in more detail in my arguments section.

Whichever method you choose, you should expect the first two or three weeks to be the toughest. This is the stage when your body and mind are still getting used to the transition. Regardless, it is recommended that you focus solely on diet initially, before you move on to clothing, cosmetics, and other products. You can feel free to do it all at once, though there is the danger of becoming a little overwhelmed with so much change so quickly, meaning it can be better to parcel it out over a longer period.

The Lifestyle

Whichever one of these methods you go for, it is best to get the dietary aspect sorted before you move on to the other parts of your life. I have some meal ideas and recipes that may help you in my food section. Diet will likely be the thing you find most difficult, at least at first, and trying to modify all aspects of your life at once will be extremely overwhelming, no matter how dedicated you are.

Over time, you will need to begin to replace your clothes, your cosmetics, and your household cleaning products, and eliminate animal experiences like zoos and aquariums. There is no need to rush out to replace your entire wardrobe and the contents of your cupboards; no reasonable vegan will expect that of you. Instead, you should use what you have until it runs out, then look into vegan replacements, one product at a time.

If you do replace clothing items, food, or makeup that is still perfectly usable, make sure you donate them or give them to a friend rather than throwing them away. The item has already been produced, and the harm has already been done, so it may well do what little good it can rather than being wasted. However, there is no real reason why you should feel obliged to use products you’re no longer comfortable with.

For more detailed guidance on these other aspects of the vegan lifestyle, you should visit the other pages in my Guidance Section here.