Who is Vegan anyway?

31 May

There are loads of exceptional (!) blogs about animal rights and veganism out there. (Some are listed over there in my blogroll – yep, right there. To the right!)

It often seems that they are written for an audience of people who are already in the know, working in the field or related fields (yeah – you can get degrees in those things now!), or to enable visitors to stay on top of current news and trends because it’s part of how they define being vegan. But what if you’re not one of ‘those people’?

I worry that maybe we assume too much within movements, disciplines, and in our day-to-day interactions with each other as people. I worry that we assume that people know what veganism really means to those who practice it, who those people who practice it are, why they practice it (their intent), and how it’s very different from ‘plant-based diet’♥ and ‘vegetarianism.’

How many people, you ask, are actually vegans?

The number of actual vegetarians in the United States, a category that includes vegans, is said to be somewhere between 1% and 3% of the total population – and reportedly growing, but this might be confirmation bias. You can barely pull up Huffington Post or Salon or open a copy of The Atlantic these days without seeing at least one article about Ag Gag laws, vegan BBQ, the latest vegan fashion designer, or a review of the next AR book revealing problems within the factory farming industry, for example.  Or maybe you don’t see these things because unlike me, you are not actively seeking the information. You are interested in other things.

When you pull out your pencil and crunch the numbers using the most recent US Census Data (2010), you’d see that the ballpark vegetarian/vegan estimate of 1-3% of the total population is about 3,087,455 to 9,262,366 people. Though it’s just a guesstimate after all, that’s 3 million to 9.2 million people living either vegetarian or vegan all around you if you live in America.

Animal welfare is good at using social media and everyone is loving infographics right now, as a consequence of that fact and the fact that we are obviously a visual world. Don’t take my word for it – you can read this fairly recent and probably still true Chronicle of Philanthropy article on the subject.  Infographics, which I really like and plan to feature prominently in this blog, are super powerful ways to present data, but they are not always factually correct. Here’s a very recent infographic based on research conducted by the Humane Research Council that answers the ‘how many vegetarians/vegans?’ question:

An older study was conducted by Vegetarian Times Magazine in 2008.The study data, which was collected by Harris Interactive Service Bureau surveyed 5,000 respondents as a statistically representative sample. It showed that 3.2% of US adults followed a vegetarian or vegan diet – and that 0.5% or just 1 million of those are vegans.

Are you study-ed out yet? Because Gallup also took a poll in 2012!

The Gallup Poll concluded that only 2% of the population considers itself Vegan. Even more interestingly, and getting to the point, which you obviously came for (!), they wondered if “the term may not be as familiar to Americans as “vegetarian” is, given that 7% did not have an opinion when asked if they were vegan, compared with less than 1% “no opinion” on the vegetarian item.” (Which makes me question entirely the results of polls on vegetarianism.)

What does 1-2%, as a slice of the population, look like in America? According to a Pew poll on Religion and Public Life, people who identify as Atheist comprise 1.6% and adults who identify as Mormon and Jewish each comprise 1.7% of the total adult population. All three fall squarely in the middle of the 1-2% spread for Vegans.*

What’s most interesting about the Gallup Poll to me, is that the researchers include a statement that

“almost all segments of the U.S. population have similar percentages of vegetarians, suggesting that most stereotypes of who is and is not the typical vegetarian in American society have little basis in fact.”

This is true for vegans, too. We are not a monolith! We’re parents, seniors, childless-by-choice, adoptive parents, gay, politically diverse, professionals, athletes, etc. Many of us do not practice or like yoga. Many of us do practice and like yoga. We live in cities and we live in the country. You get my drift. There is a panoply of blogs, books, and articles confirming this. (Here’s one to start: “V for Veg: African Americans are indeed in the Vegan Mix,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb 23, 2012. Then check on the blogs to the right for more.)

The point is, Vegans are a diverse group in other ways and as a point of reference, there are as many people in America practicing Veganism as there are belonging to the Mormon faith or the Jewish religion.

What does it mean, then, to be Vegan?*

It’s hard to tell how people in the polls described above define the terms vegetarian and vegan for themselves if they were not provided with a definition by the survey-takers. It is likely that there is much more variation in the definition of vegetarian than there is in the definition of vegan, which is pretty straightforward.

Vegetarians, the larger group described in the surveys above, don’t consume animal flesh, but might wear clothing made from animals, like wool and leather and consume other animal-derived products like L-cysteine (an additive in bread and pizza doughs that comes from human hair, feathers, or sometimes hog hair); gelatin (in a lot of foods, like marshmallows and medications, and derived from animal bones); and milk and eggs, which both (like it or not) do involve the killing of cows and chickens.Vegetarians may or may not be dedicated to abstaining from purchasing products tested on animals, like home cleaners and cosmetics.

A Vegan, by contrast, is someone who abstains entirely from the exploitation, killing, use, and consumption of any animal, at all. Veganism is, by its very nature, a rejection of violence and oppression of all species and it is concerned with the advancement of rights for all sentient beings. To that end, Vegans do not purchase or consume animal-derived products or ingredients,  do not wear clothing or use products made from animal-derived ingredients, and do not participate in activities that exploit, harm, or use animals for research, entertainment, or profit. That may sound like a burden, but we see it as liberating, corny though that may sound. Most vegans also practice compassion beyond consumption by working, volunteering, advocating, or openly protesting animal use.

Vegans do argue amongst themselves over the finer points of related ethics, philosophy, politics, and the like. We also individually differ in terms of what specifically motivates us to become Vegan or stay Vegan over our lifetimes.

Abstaining from exploitation in the 21st century is really not hard at the table or in the home, at the restaurant or while traveling. It’s things that we take for granted and don’t really think all that much about – less obvious things – that can pose challenges. These are not insurmountable, but they are also not often discussed widely and perhaps we should start mulling them over. An example is a traditional financial investment option provided by an employer.

Bet you didn’t think I was going to say that!

I once worked for a large animal shelter that offered the Calvert Social Index as a 401(b) option. We liked that a lot as employees, and we thanked our employer for offering it! It was, by comparison, a better option. However, it wasn’t a panacea for the Vegans there (I was Vegetarian at the time). That’s because even the Calvert Social Index, which is an array of companies ranked as being ‘socially responsible’ and an alternative to more aggressive and traditional portfolios, contains companies that participate in the exploitation and killing of animals.

In rejecting animal exploitation, there is an implied, unstated rejection of capitalism and structures of oppression that give rise to capitalism and propel it forward. I chose the 401(b) option because it demonstrates how this is true in a pretty obvious way.  Another example that shows how impossible it is to truly un-intangle oneself as a vegan are federal taxes. I do not like thinking about how much of my taxes fund animal experimentation, factory farming, and the like and the GDP that these enterprises contribute to the economy. (Hence, Ag Gag laws.) Girlie Girl Army devoted a blog post to this subject, but it mainly discusses animal experimentation and not farm subsidies. More on this later.

The short answer to this question “what does it meant to be Vegan?” is that in a much broader sense, a person is actively refusing to participate in violence and to avoid violence. Some Vegans wear a Jain symbol for ahimsa (which literally means the avoidance of violence) to represent this as a personal reminder, though being Vegan is not synonymous with being a Jain. The two are not the same thing. The symbol represents a hand that is stopping the cycle of reincarnation through the pursuit of nonviolence. It looks like this:


Judging from popular documentaries and what is most talked about in popular media, it often appears as though the mainstream views Veganism as mostly related to food consumption. That says more about the mainstream than it does being Vegan, however, as it ends up coloring much more than the plate.

♥While Vegans consume a plant-based diet, eating a plant-based diet is not the same as being Vegan.

*The author is not asserting here that Veganism is comparable to a religion, though certainly many Vegans feel that being Vegan has a spiritual dimension. Lots of people have been writing about this recently (here is the reason why), which might be covered in a later post on this blog.


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