For many, veganism and environmentalism go hand in hand. Many who are vegan care about the environment, and many environmentalists eat a vegan or plant-based diet. These two ideals, however, sometimes butt heads. I’ve decided to look at which choices are better for animals and the environment.
As an environmentalist, I believe many vegans have lost sight of the bigger picture and have one goal in mind: do not use animal products no matter the cost. Using alternative products can have a much larger impact on the environment, including on the same animals vegan are trying to protect.
On the other hand, I had a couple changes of heart while writing this post and have learned the environmental, social, and animal welfare impacts of non-vegan options may be just as bad as or worse than the vegan option.
Both have their reasons and their flaws, which is why it is up to you to decide which options align best with your morals and ethics. Let’s take a look:
I’ve split the conflict between veganism and environmentalism for foods into two categories: food items and food packaging.
I still eat eggs every now and again. So long as the hens who lay them are treated ethically, I see little reason not to eat their eggs which would otherwise go to waste. That stipulation is important though as apparently not all ethical eggs are as ethical as they claim to be. It is important to note “cage free” usually still means hens are kept in overcrowded barns with no access to the outdoors.
“Free range” should be better and allow for ample outdoor roaming, but Nellie’s (owned by Pete and Gerry’s) is currently facing a lawsuit due to alleged overcrowding in their barns and little access to outside.
One qualm I have for believing these allegations is they were made by PETA, which is a horrible organization that euthanizes most animals they “rescue” yet accused Steve Irwin of abusing animals. In the future, I want to keep chickens for eggs so that I know exactly how they are being treated.
When I set out to write this post, I believed honey was perfectly fine to eat. I figured few to no bees were harmed in the process and beekeepers were just taking some excess honey. This is not always the case. Bees may get smashed and killed while retrieving the slabs of comb from the hives. Many times beekeepers will take extra honey and feed the bees sugar water during the winter as a replacement for the honey the bees had stolen from them.
It is a common belief that honeybees are critical to our food sources since they pollinate such a large portion of our crops; however, commercial honeybees are invasive and have led to dwindling populations of the thousands of wild bee species around the world. So although we should definitely be concerned with the bee population, we should not be concerned with the honeybee population used as agricultural tools and kept by humans.
As a final note on the problems with honey, most commercial honeybee populations are trucked to California each year to pollinate almond crops. Along with the transportation emissions involved, this trip is very strenuous on hives and many bees die because of it.
For some vegans, especially many beginners, vegan substitutes are part of their daily diet. These vegan hot dogs and vegan cheeses are highly processed and come in plastic packaging. This isn’t necessarily a conflict so much as a warning. By eating whole food ingredients instead of packaged vegan alternatives, you will prevent a lot of waste from packaging and creating those items.
In the same vein, food packaging is an important concern. I first started changing my grocery list by trying to buy as little packaging as possible. Once I decided to try to be more vegan, I began to slack and ended up buying a lot of items in packaging just because they were vegan. So again, if you are vegan/plant-based, try to find as many whole food ingredients that are unpackaged as you can. Most produce items will have at least one version unpackaged.
Now there is a lot of data to suggest that while going vegan leads to the least carbon emissions, being just vegetarian/flexitarian or even subscribing to a Mediterranean diet is just about as good. Protein for a Mediterranean diet comes mainly from seafood, nuts, and legumes, and red meat is rarely on the table. So if you can’t let go of animal products, know you are still doing a lot for the planet by eating them in large moderation.
In my opinion, materials is where veganism and environmentalism really clash. As a vegan, beyond having a plant-based diet, you do not use any product from an animal. This includes materials like leather, silk, and fur, which all have vegan alternatives. Let’s take a quick look at each of these.
Leather and Pleather
Leather is mostly a byproduct material from the animal agriculture industry. In certain cases with unusual leathers (alligator or snake for instance) it is not a byproduct, but over 99% of leather comes from cows, pigs, and sheep. Now while leather is a current byproduct, if somehow the world demand for meat plummeted, leather demand could keep animals coming to slaughter.
There are many steps involved in processing leather, which can take up to 10 days. This process involves toxic chromium, which harms workers (many times child labor) and is dumped into rivers. In addition to the exposure to chemicals and pollutants, workers often face poor working conditions and are at high risk of injuries on the job.
Vegan leathers are plastics (PVC or Polyurethane) with production processes that are more harmful to the environment than real leather. PVC releases dioxins during production and is treated with phthalates which are a harmful to human health. The chemical process to create polyurethane is dangerous to human as it can cause breathing problems and cancer. Furthermore, as a plastic, vegan leather will never fully break down in the environment like organic leather will.
Silk, Nylon, and Polyester
Silk is an ancient material from Asia that is created from the material used by silkworm larvae to build their cocoons. To harvest the cocoons, silkworm larvae are boiled alive. The cocoons are then carefully unwound. Some companies do allow the the silkmoth to emerge before boiling, which as an animal activist, you would think is the best option. But thousands of years of domestication for silk production have harmed the silkworm. If left alone, the silkworm moth will emerge with no mouth to eat and wings that it cannot use to fly. It will mate if possible and die within a week.
Silk alternatives like nylon and polyester are manmade fibers (plastics) made from petroleum. Their production processes consume large amounts of energy. For example, nylon requires three times the amount of energy to produce as cotton. Polyester production alone consumes a whopping 70 million barrels of oil each year. These plastic fibers release N20, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Although viscose/rayon is a natural fiber, its production processes are energy and chemical intensive and cause harm to both workers and the environment.
In addition, microplastics are shed from garments in the wash and will not be caught before entering the natural environment (contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).
Fur and Faux Fur
There is a very feeble leg to stand on for environmentalists about the fur industry. Animals used for furs like minks, rabbits, and foxes, are farmed and killed solely for their pelts. They are kept in horrible conditions, and there is little regulation in the industry. Unfortunately, demand for furs has risen, especially in Asia, so the market is not feeling the pressure to stop their inhumane practices.
There are only two ways I would be comfortable buying a fur: 1) if it was from someone who trapped the animal, ate the animal, created the garment themselves, and is selling it as their source of income or 2) if it is a vintage piece secondhand. (Although I’m not too sure why I would ever need a fur since there are so many other types of fabrics I could use instead that have much less of an impact.)
Beyond that, the fur industry are hunters for profit and discard the body. Faux furs are usually plastic polymers like acrylic, which we know come from petroleum and have harmful manufacturing processes and will never fully degrade in the environment. There are, however, faux furs made from natural fibers.
The best option whenever buying clothing is to buy secondhand. In doing so, you are not contributing to demand for virgin fibers and lengthening the lifetime of existing garments. Vegan environmentalists should have no issue wearing secondhand leather, silk, or fur because not only are they not personally contributing to the demand of animal products but they are not requiring harmful processes to create vegan material alternatives.
Beyond textiles, there is the floss debate on whether to use biodegradable silk floss or cruelty free plastic floss. Luckily, Dental Lace has come out with a plant-based alternative to both floss options.
We must also look at the end of an item’s lifecycle. Food packaging may or may not be recyclable, and even when it is, it may not get recycled anyway. Natural materials will biodegrade, but man-made plastic ones will not. Here is where I believe many vegans forget to look.
By contributing to waste, you are harming animals. The plastics that flow into the ocean, whether they are whole objects like tofu packaging that blew off the barge on its way to Asia or the microplastics that were released from a pair of nylon tights in the washing machine, are harming the ocean biome.
Plastics are being eaten by everything from tiny plankton to albatrosses to blue whales. They die of starvation for mistaking plastics for food or of complications relating to plastics stuck in their digestive tracts.
The need for more landfill space will require destruction of natural habitat and kill off entire populations of animals. Vegans must think not only of how production affects animals but also of how the item will affect them after its useful life is over.
As you can see, every option has pros and cons. What’s best for you may be different than what’s best for someone else. Make sure to keep yourself educated about the products you are purchasing, ask questions, and look at the bigger picture of the lifecycle of those items.
So what do you think? Does avoiding animal cruelty in production outweigh the environmental impacts of alternative products? Where do you draw the line on animal products? If you are vegan, do you or would you buy secondhand animal textiles?