Helen Bee Greener goes behind the scenes to discover the truth.
You say ‘vegan’ and it seems simple – you’re talking about a person who chooses, usually for personal and ethical reasons, not to eat or wear any animal-derived products. Sometimes that person will be vegan for health reasons, but they will achieve the goal in the same way. And, by that logic, you end up with two camps – dietary vegans and lifestyle vegans.
The reason people always ask ‘what do you eat?’ is because food is seen as the basic unit of measurement for veganism. But, nonetheless, you’d be hard pushed to find a vegan who condones any practice that causes harm or a negative impact to the life of an animal.
It’s true that, in life, labels can be negative. Nobody should be put in a box, as we are all unique. But without such definitions, by its very nature, there would be no veganism – nothing would be achieved and, broadly, there would be no point. We’d just be a group of houmous lovers walking around, dodging flyers for McDonalds and Burger King.
In our hearts and in practical terms we’re fighting the good fight. Beanburgers instead of chicken legs, tofu instead of cheese, PU instead of leather. We want all living beings and the planet they live on to thrive and be happy. And we’re doing all we can to achieve that. We’re doing all we can to live cruelty-free.
Palming off vegans
Every week I go to the supermarket – a move so tricky in and of itself that I am in a permanent state of personal torture over whether I am making the right choice – and I put, more or less, the same items into my trolley. I like to push the boat out every now and then by throwing in some frozen peas. But so it is week in, week out, the same-old same-old.
Recently, however, I decided to buy some margarine. It came to my attention that there was a vegan version of Flora, and I thought why not? My bread grows weary of nut butter, so I’ll change it up… Frankly there are few things in the world nicer than hot toast with margarine and yeast extract on it. With tea, obviously. We’re not monsters.
But on turning the tub over one day I found that Flora Free, labelled suitable for vegans and endorsed by the Vegan Society, is made by Unilever. It also, just for kicks, contains palm oil.
This is not an exercise in Flora-bashing. I acknowledge the effort. And they are not alone out on their ethically confusing plank, as the certified-vegan Vitalite also contains palm oil. As does vegan sanctuary Pure. Now, clearly, acceptance of palm oil is a personal issue, and certainly people have every right to carry out their own research and decide under their own steam how they feel about palm oil, and how it is sourced. But it fired up an old frustration in me.
A question of ethics
How can a certified vegan product be certified vegan if it contains palm oil? Regardless of it being labelled ‘sustainable’, how can that be? How can those ethics be in alignment? Visit the Free From section and the majority of products include palm oil, from crackers to oatcakes. Wander to the freezer section and it’s the same – Unilever’s Swedish Glace and The Gluten Free Kitchen’s apple pie both contain palm oil. And on and on its goes – Polos by Nestlé, Extra gum by Wrigley/Mars, Duracell by Procter & Gamble. Pringles, clearly marked vegan, wears a P&G hat and Unilever lays claim to Ben & Jerry’s, so recently the toast of the town for bringing out its first vegan flavour. Leave the shop and you can find Urban Decay make-up, famously ethical yet owned by L’Oreal.
Like many umbrella companies, L’Oreal claims to have a non animal-testing policy but still sells its products in countries like China that have laws legally requiring it, making even former go-to The Body Shop a grey area. The latter has recently been sold to Brazilian company Natura Cosméticos, roundly recognised as an ethical company though with parent company L’Oreal making the financial exchange, a cynical onlooker might infer less than altruistic intentions.
Meanwhile, let’s not forget the ethical backhanders privileged Western preferences dole out. Our increased appetite for quinoa, for example, has driven prices up in its native Peru to such an extent that many local people can no longer afford to eat it. Not only that, but producing enough grain to meet demand is taking its toll on the land itself.
It has occurred to me over the years that being vegan and being cruelty free are not easy bedfellows. I did the former to achieve the latter but, honestly, I don’t know how successful I’ve been, or am being – or any of us are being. Because really, being vegan isn’t actually cruelty free. By saying we live cruelty free, we are simply removing responsibility for real and actual change.
Much as we would like to point the collective finger at big corporations, such as Coca Cola and its historic involvement with bullfighting, Procter and Gamble’s continually shady animal cruelty policies and Stella McCartney’s decision to sign up with them, or Nestlé’s shocking human rights record and ongoing use of palm oil, they are pretty horrendous juggernauts at the feet of whom so much blame must be laid. But the truth is vegans have to take on collective societal responsibility for the enormous mess human beings are making of the planet, and the atrocities we are committing to animals in the process.
Share of the blame
For the wildlife killed in the production of grains, fruits and vegetables we rely on; for the orangutans displaced, murdered and orphaned in the farming of palm oil; for the forced breeding and torture of laboratory animals in order to approve so many products we use from nappies on our infants to the medications that keep us well; for the exploitation of human farm labourers worldwide; for the irreversible environmental damage caused so that we can get our hands on the food, fuel, flowers and metals we want all year round: for all this we must accept our share of blame.
But we have a potent power to our elbow, and our sensibilities mean we are the right people to wield it. We know. We know what needs to be done and we know how to get there. That’s why we took that first step, and the next, and the next – and it’s why we’re still here. It’s why we try to find the right products, and read all the labels, and spend so long working at recipes and gave up foods we used to think were so important in our diet. We are not morally superior, we are just painfully aware that the world is full of utter madness and carnage and we are working hard to stop it.
Brand companies that want to sell vegan products for ethical reasons should extricate themselves from unethical corporations. But who knows if they ever will? Until they do, the only thing we can do is leave them on the shelf – every time we pick one up, we will put it down again. Because change takes patience. Only in the span of my lifetime has there been real movement in freedom from animal testing, and never did I think I would see the ASA allow an advert on cruelty in the dairy industry. In reality, a world completely free of cruelty may never happen, but to live in the shadow of unethical corporations and global atrocities is to abandon the foundation of veganism entirely. If we do things properly, together, one step at a time, one change at a time, one product at a time – when it all adds up, it will be one enormous result.
Helen has worked as a journalist and writer for more than 15 years. She has also written case studies and funding bids for charities, raising considerable sums for a variety of causes. Helen lives in Kent with her partner and rescue cat, and has been vegan for 19 years.