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What Does it Mean to be an Ethical Vegan?

What Does it Mean to Be an Ethical Vegan? | Taylor Wolfram

As a long-time vegan and animal rights advocate who often refers to ethical veganism in my writing, I’m dedicating an entire post to exploring this topic. Veganism is not a diet. It’s an ethical philosophy and way of living. While it impacts food choices, it is about much more than food.

Living by the golden rule of treating others how I want to be treated is something that guides both my personal and professional lives, and I include animals within that philosophy. Because I am able to lead a happy, healthy, fulfilling life without consuming animal flesh or secretions or exploiting animals for clothing or entertainment, I live a vegan lifestyle. This is a very brief summary of what ethical veganism means to me. 

Veganism is not black and white and those who live this way choose where to “draw the line” in their own lives. Animal-derived ingredients are used in so many common items, from camera film and car tires to matches and pregnancy tests. It’s virtually impossible to avoid all products and industries which use animals. 

But, is perfection really the point of veganism? Let’s see … 

Definition of Veganism

The term vegan was defined by The Vegan Society in the 1940s and means: 

“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — 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 animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

I love that key phrase, “as far as is possible and practical,” because it brings flexibility and inclusivity to veganism. It acknowledges that the world in which we live is heavily reliant on animals and that it’s not realistic to avoid every single form of animal exploitation. 

Someone recently asked me about being “90% vegan” and said that’s what they needed to do for food freedom. My response was that if 90% is your personal sweet spot of helping animals without compromising your mental health, then that is the best you can do. And is nothing to feel ashamed about. That 90% is doing so much good for the world. And, there is no such thing as 100% vegan.

You’re more likely to maintain this lifestyle long-term if you incorporate flexibility and prioritize your mental health.


History of Veganism

Plant-based eating styles and animal-friendly lifestyle practices have been around for centuries, some related to ancient religions and traditions. And, people have been passing animal-protective laws since the 1600s. 

However, widespread attention to animal cruelty, especially animals used for human food, didn’t occur until the 20th century. As technology advanced, so did the opportunities for undercover investigations, videos, documentaries and other methods of showing people what really happens on farms and in slaughterhouses. Social media has been integral to the dissemination of animal rights content and advocacy.

The number of people who identify as vegan, as well as vegan alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs, has exploded in the past two decades. From just 2014 to 2017, the number of vegans in the U.S. grew from 1% to 6% of the population. While still a small percent, that equates to roughly 20 million people. Even non-vegan consumers enjoy plant-based alternatives, as one in three prefers plant-based meat and milk. 

While these figures are optimistic, there are still 70 billion farm animals killed every year. That is 10 animals for every human. If we live until we’re 90, that’s 900 animals we each kill for food in our lifetime. 

A rescue goat enjoying a sunny summer day at a farm animal sanctuary.

Why Vegan?

There is a certain level of cognitive dissonance that allows us to enjoy exploiting animals for food, clothing and entertainment without being disturbed by their treatment and death. Most people in the U.S. love furry pets such as cats and dogs. In fact, we have very strict laws here about companion animal abuse. It is a felony to harm cats and dogs in 48 states. 

Why is it a felony to harm cats and dogs but not cows, pigs and chickens? Are cats and dogs somehow superior to farm animals? Far from it. Farm animals also are intelligent and sentient. They form bonds, feel pain and display emotion (yes, even fish). If you spent time with a farm animal, you’d likely develop a bond with them similar to a pet.

The reason it’s OK to exploit, abuse and kill some animals and not others is because of our cultural norms. We are taught from a young age what is acceptable behavior and what is not. We learn which animals to love and which animals to harm (carnism), and that we as humans get to decide who is deserving of basic freedom and respect (speciesism).

Animals have inherent value outside of their usefulness to humans

Certain animals are treated differently depending on your culture. For example, the Yulin Dog Meat Festival is held in China every summer and 1.5 million people have signed a petition to end it. And certain animals are viewed as holy and are highly respected in various cultures across the world.

In the U.S., most farm animals are bred to grow as quickly as possible so that they become as profitable as fast a possible. They’re held in as tight of quarters as possible, fed the most fattening food possible, and are treated in the cheapest ways possible. There are countless sources for you to learn how farm animals are treated and I won’t go into the gory details here but I guarantee it’s no way you would ever consider treating your pet. 

A bonded pair of rescue ducks, roaming freely around a farm animal sanctuary.

In addition to ethics surrounding animals, many of the humans working at farms, slaughterhouses and meat processing plants also are not treated well. The animal agriculture industry is a key area in which undocumented workers are exploited. Polluting farms and plants are usually in low-income areas with a large population of people of color (this is called environmental racism). Once you learn about the meat industry, it’s easy to see how animal rights and human rights are so intertwined. 

This barely scratches the surface of everything that is wrong with the animal agriculture industry. We didn’t even talk about the environmental impact. Want to learn more? I highly recommend reading the book Protest Kitchen: Fight Injustice, Save the Planet, and Fuel Your Resistance One Meal at a Time by fellow vegan registered dietitian Ginny Messina and activist Carol Adams. 

Me holding a sweet baby rescue goat at a farm animal sanctuary.

Is Eating Vegan Affordable and Accessible?

With booming plant-based alternatives, veganism is more accessible than ever. And, considering that the foundations of a balanced vegan eating pattern are very affordable, eating vegan doesn’t need to break the bank. 

Grains such as rice, pasta and bread, legumes such as beans, tofu and peanut butter, fruits and vegetables including fresh, frozen and canned, and nuts and seeds including almonds, walnuts and flax and are cost-effective ways to get the nutrients you need. And these foods can be found at most grocery stores. Even mainstream grocers and big box stores in rural areas carry veggie burgers and fortified almond milk.

Going out to eat is usually cheaper as a vegan. Plant-based menu items tend to be less expensive, such as pasta primavera, bean tacos and tofu stir-fry. Even when no entrees present themselves as vegan, a combination of side dishes such as beans, potatoes and vegetables can come together to form a delicious and satisfying meal.

A satisfying and delicious vegan meal I received on an airplane flight.

Sure, some plant-based meat alternatives and fun foods such as ice cream and vegan cheese may be more expensive than the animal-based versions. The subsidies the animal agriculture industry receives is a huge part of this issue. Nonetheless, it can make some people assume that being vegan is more expensive than not.

Follow me on Instagram to see a variety of vegan meals, snacks, treats and lifestyle strategies.

As with any eating style, mindfulness, balance and variety are the keys to good nutrition that supports your overall health. My favorite book on vegan nutrition is Vegan For Life: Everything You Need to Know to be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet by two vegan registered dietitians, Ginny Messina and Jack Norris. I highly recommend reading it if you are vegan or thinking about becoming vegan. It’s filled with science-based info and practical strategies without any crazy claims or sensational BS. If you feel at all that eating vegan is harming your relationship with food or leading you to some disordered habits, work with a registered dietitian nutritionist right away

Here’s the thing about veganism: don’t knock it until you try it and remember that if this is something you care about and want to do, you can make it happen. It might not be to the extent that you wish you could, but there are so many animal-friendly decisions you can make, and they don’t all have to be related to food. Just like with eco-friendly choices, every time you choose the animal-friendly option, you’re making a difference. You’re voting with your dollar. Celebrate what you can do rather than what you can’t do. 

Vegan Dinner

A plate loaded with plant-based deliciousness, including salad, couscous, rice and falafel.

What does a Vegan Lifestyle Look Like?

Beyond food, animals are used for clothing and entertainment and animal-derived ingredients are used in many cosmetics and personal care products, not to mention all the things that are tested on animals. Vegans seek to avoid these things as much as is possible and practical. 

Does that mean you have to stop your prescription medication because it was tested on animals? No. Does that mean you need to toss all of your leather stuff and replace it with new vegan stuff tomorrow? No. 

When it comes to clothing, shoes, furnishing, cars and personal care products, it makes most sense (financially and environmentally) to use your stuff to its fullest extent and then when you need to buy new or secondhand, seek out animal-friendly options. This can take time. Luckily there are loads of resources on how to find vegan-friendly alternatives and you might even be surprised by how many are in common stores like Target!

In terms of entertainment, zoos and circuses are the big ones that make money off of exploiting animals. There are lots of fun and educational alternatives to patronizing these places. Click here to learn more.

The book How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach by Tobias Leenaert is a great read on vegan philosophy, dealing with perfectionism and creating a long-term vegan lifestyle that isn’t too stressful.

Ready to go vegan? Check out my 10 Strategies to Help You Go Vegan!

Hanging out with a sweet rescue sheep at a farm animal sanctuary.

What’s the Difference Between Veganism and a Plant-Based Diet?

While there is no standard definition of the term “plant-based,” many people who abstain from animal foods for health reasons may use the term plant-based. Many often still use animals in other areas of their life such as clothing, entertainment and personal care products. 

Some people who are ethical vegans prefer to use the term plant-based if they’re worried that the term vegan may be unapproachable or is associated with negative stereotypes.

And sometimes plant-based just means eating lots of plant foods, and still including animal foods. You really can’t know what someone means by plant-based unless you ask them.

The most restrictive meaning is a “whole foods plant-based diet” in which vegan processed and fun foods are excluded, and sometimes, even oil and salt. There is no evidence to suggest that vegan meat alternatives and fun foods must be eliminated in order to enjoy good health. And there is cause for concern for disordered eating with a diet of this nature. 

Feel like you’re getting caught between disordered plant-based dieting and ethical veganism? Let me help you sort it out. 

Above all, veganism is about saving as many animals as possible, not dieting, purity or bragging rights. Consider where you can have the biggest positive impact on animals and start there. 

Want support on your vegan journey? Join the Anti-Diet Vegan Nutrition Online Course!


This post contains affiliate links to books that I recommend. That means if you click the link and make a purchase, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting this blog!


  1. Samia Ahmed says

    Thanks, Taylor for your nice explanations. I am a vegan also. Many people think that veganism is only about diet but it’s not so. It’s a firm belief that holds un on veganism. People should understand our belief but many times they failed to do so. But Personally I don’t support any extremist. It’s totally up to someone if they want to adopt veganism or not. You can’t blame anyone or can force others. All the best Taylor. Have a Good Day!! ☺

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