The various sources available regarding veganism centre on the following issues for becoming vegan – health, environment and ethics. For us, the health benefits are a welcome bonus but were never going to persuade a change of eating habits alone.
Vegan reasoning behind not eating and wearing animal products may be obvious in some instances, like fur for example. In other cases such as by-products or where the animal does not have to be slaughtered to obtain the commodity, there is a perception that perhaps the animal is unharmed, or that as a by-product it does not contribute any further to the animals suffering.
Initially, we were not being prepared to follow blindly ‘the vegan rules’, eg that we should not eat eggs or wear wool. Since we had no idea where what we were eating came from or how it was farmed or reared, we decided to educate ourselves. This information is readily available on the internet and helped to make our own decisions as to why we will not consume or wear anything that has caused suffering. What follows is some clarification about the processes from which certain animal-derived products are obtained.
Justifying the wearing of leather because it is a by-product of the meat industry is not viable. Today the meat industry is not sustainable on its own – it actually relies on the sale of hides to remain in business.
Leather that comes from young animals is even more valuable because of its softness, in some cases, this will come from the unborn calf or lamb of a slaughtered pregnant cow or ewe.
Leather is perceived as a ‘natural’ product, however, the treatment process of the hide to stop it from biodegrading involves the use of harsh and poisonous chemicals.
Inevitably there are risks to health and the environment wherever these tanneries (factories where the hides are treated) are situated. Not only are the workers exposed to carcinogens, but also the people that live near the factories. The tannery waste also enters the water supply contaminating the surrounding soil and potentially endangering any wildlife.
You may hear the argument that the synthetic alternatives available are not any better environmentally. Yet synthetics will come in standard size and thickness making it more efficient to use, whilst animal hide does not which means some parts cannot be used. Hide also requires cooled transportation and to enlarge the carbon footprint even further most leather comes from India which is then shipped to the main importers – the UK, Germany and the US.
Where to buy leather free:
As well as all the possible man-made substitutes, depending on whether you are vegan for purely environmental reasons there is also the option of recycled leather. This is being used by many designers now to make handbags and purses and is arguably more environmentally friendly than having the original product end up in a landfill and wasting the life of the animal that died.
Suede (also called nubuck)
Made from the reverse side of leather (primarily lambs but may also be goat, pig calf or deer), which is brushed or sanded to give it the textured finish.
Alternatives (all man-made) are microfibre/microsuede and alcantara.
Exotic leather and fur
Animals hunted or farmed and killed specifically for their skins include seals, foxes, birds, alligators, zebras, rabbit, snakes, lizards, kangaroos (primary material for football shoes), mink and chinchillas, sadly this list is by no means definitive.
Domestic animals such as cats and dogs are also farmed for their fur in China. Although fur farms have been banned in the UK since 2000, there is no legislation to prevent the importing of fur from other countries and no requirement to label what type of fur it is (granted for some, one kind of fur is just as bad as another, but some consumers may not buy something with fur if they know it is from a cat or dog. Horrifyingly in some cases garments with trims that were labelled as faux, have later been identified as originating from animals). For these cats and dogs at least there is some hope as on the 31 December 2008 the Government implemented the EU-wide ban on the import, export and sale of domestic cat and dog fur.
Check if a product contains fur and be aware of fur trim; even the smallest piece can come from an animal. Just because something is not expensive doesn’t mean that it is fake fur.
A guide to spotting real fur by the Humane Society is here.
Merino are bred specifically because their wrinkly skin means there is more wool per sheep, far more than would occur naturally in an animal where it’s wool acts as insulation in winter and keeps it cool in summer.
Fifty percent of this type of wool comes from Australia where a practice known as mulesing is common – cutting large chunks of skin and flesh from the sheep’s backside to reduce incidence of fly strike, without painkillers. The fly strike, which is essentially being eaten alive by maggots, is due to the hot conditions of the country. Unsurprisingly these sheep are not native to Australia, they were in fact introduced by John Macarthur (the wool pioneer) in 1796.
Once wool production declines the sheep are then shipped to the Middle East (where animal welfare standards are non-existent) in cramped conditions enduring journeys that can take months, to be slaughtered for their meat.
British wool is no better, primarily raised for meat, again it may be presumed that wool is merely a by-product and is not actually the cause of any suffering to the animal. However, the shearing of sheep can lead to death from exposure, baldness (believed to be caused by the actual stress of being sheared) and injuries such as nicks and cuts caused by the careless way in which they are handled.
Eggs from the silk moth are hatched into larvae, and placed in a controlled environment and fed mulberry leaves. The larvae then mature into caterpillars called silkworms. Once fully grown they will begin to spin a cocoon for protection whilst transforming into a month.
Silk is the natural protein fibre or filament from which the cocoon is made. To keep the filament in one continuous piece the moth is left inside the finished cocoon during the remainder of the silk extracting process. To ensure the larvae do not eat through the silk to emerge as moths, they are killed either by immersion in boiling water (which is required to soften the gum which holds the cocoon together), steaming or drying in the oven.
A ‘non-violent’ alternative has been developed whereby the silk yarn can be procured without killing the silkworm (known as wild, ahimsa or peace silk- the manufacture of silk begins only after it has emerged from the cocoon. However, it should be noted that if cultivated silkworms are used they are still farmed. This method also requires culling to control the number of eggs since moths lay more than would actually be used in one silk harvest.
A completely animal-free substitute is offered by bamboo fabrics which can drape in the same way as silk. Bamboo also has the benefit of being sustainable, biodegradable and able to thrive naturally without the need for pesticides or fertilisers.
Bee Produce – honey, beeswax, propolis & royal jelly
The gathering of bee products from cultivated bees involves the clipping and culling of the queen bee (to prevent swarming – when bees leave the colony), and use of smoke to maintain control. It also entails taking what they use to build and maintain their colony – honey which is a food source for use during cold weather or when other food sources are scarce, beeswax which is used to build honeycomb cells, propolis which is a sealant for unwanted spaces in the hive and royal jelly which is a secretion for feeding larvae (not as commonly believed reserved for the queen). As the honey is removed, the bees are given glucose or corn syrup as a replacement.
Extracting ‘wild’ honey would be virtually impossible, not only would a hive first have to be located, but removing the honey would almost certainly provoke an angry swarm of bees and it would end up in the destruction of the hive itself.
Instead of using honey other natural sweeteners available are agave nectar (used extensively in raw food preparation), coconut nectar, syrups (made from barley, brown rice, maple, date and fruit) and specially created vegan honey.
Incidentally, the UK seems to be following in the footsteps of the US which has been suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder where there has been a devastating reduction in the number of bees. To find out what you can do in your own garden to encourage our stripey friends read more at Bumble Bee Conservation Trust.
The environmental impact of the meat industry is also hitting the spotlight with many promoting a vegan diet as the best thing you can do to help reduce your carbon footprint. Issues include:
Deforestation and habitat destruction for grazing land.
Water and energy consumption – it takes far more of these to produce meat than vegetable alternatives.
Oil consumption – to transport feed, animals and meat, operate machinery and make fertilizer for crops.
Antibiotic (required because of poor living conditions) resistance on intensive farms
Disease – caused by above resistance and food contamination (BSE, Foot and Mouth and last years Irish pork recall).
GM crops (it is not necessary to label meat, eggs or milk from animals fed on GM feed).
Pollution – water contamination from animal waste, hormones and antibiotics.
Greenhouse gases – methane produced by farm animals is contributing substantially to the greenhouse effect.
The number of people turning towards a meat-free diet has also been influenced by health factors. It is widely acknowledged that a well-balanced veggie diet is extremely beneficial because foods eaten are naturally lower in fat and cholesterol and have more fibre. The section on nutrition details some of the main requirements from any diet and where a vegan can obtain them.
Gone are the days when fish used to be line caught by a man in a little wooden boat. Today’s commercial fishing boats have huge trawlers which are dragged across the seabed causing serious damage by dragging up everything including bycatch (non targeted fish and other marine life).
The relationship between tuna and dolphins, and the overfishing of cod are relatively common knowledge. However turtles, seabirds, seals, whales and sharks are also affected.
Farmed fish are no better – to feed carnivorous fish (salmon, cod and haddock) and prawns huge quantities of smaller fish are needed. Again the inefficiency of animal products for food becomes apparent, we get far less food out of the animal then what is put in. These farmed fish also produce mineral faeces which damage surrounding waters, there is also waste from antibiotics, uneaten food and with salmon – dyes.
Go to The End of The Line to see more about the very real threat that we are driving our fish to extinction.
The main concern with regards to health is the mercury content of fatty fish and with wild fish you are unable to control where it has been or what it has consumed. This is something to think about as our seas and rivers become ever more polluted.
Other marine issues:
It does not matter if you buy free range or even organic eggs, all egg-laying chickens will initially come from a hatchery. Here male chicks are literally thrown away because they cannot lay eggs and are therefore useless. That is 50% of chicks being destroyed.
Should they survive this first phase, they then face the prospect of becoming a battery hen where they will never see day light or have enough room to stretch their wings. Whilst battery cages were banned in the UK in 2012, the replacement ‘enriched’ cages still restrict the hen and prevent their natural behaviour. The conditions they must live in can lead to cannabalism (debeaking is a common practise to prevent this), feather pecking, brittle and broken bones and tumours. Once egg production declines, typically 12 months, they are then slaughtered and in such poor condition that they are only suitable for use in soups, pies and pet food.
As with the rest of the meat industry, the amount of feed and water used to produce one egg is hugely inefficient and the environmental impact is exaberated by the amonia gases produced.
Health issues regarding eggs include salmonella and cholesterol. For alternatives when baking take a look at the recipe section.
Holsteins are the predominant breed of cow used in the dairy industry because of their ability to yield high volumes of milk. To produce the milk the cow (as with all animals) must have a baby. This entails the cow being in a continuous cycle of pregnancy and lactation for her artificically short life (cow’s in milk production will live less than a quarter of their natural lifespan which could be up to 25 years).
Once born the calf will be taken from its mother after only a couple of days causing great distress to both and fed a milk replacement so that humans can have all the milk for themselves. Male calves will be reared for beef, veal, used for breeding or slaughtered because they cannot produce milk, whilst female calves will be reared for milking.
If the cow does not calve every year her milk production will drop. When this happens or she succumbs to other typical ailments (caused by the stress of carrying udders equivalent to the weight of a full grown man) – leg and foot problems and mastitis they are culled for cheap meat.
The dairy cow is the hardest working of all farm animals and can barely sustain the way in which she is forced to live. Many vegetarians do not realise that by consuming dairy products they are also unwittingly supporting the meat industry.
The environmental impact of the dairy industry is covered by the issues mentioned in the meat section above.
Healthwise there is the issue of lactose intolerance, and milk is now being linked to a whole host of diseases and ailments including cancer and diabetes.
For vegetable sources of calcium please refer to the Nutrition page.
It is also worth noting certainly since we turned vegan in 2008 that there has been a huge growth in the plant-based milk market. Today you would be hard-pressed to find a supermarket or coffee shop in London that does NOT sell or serve at least one dairy alternative. Nut milks in particular have increased in popularity, but you can also find products made from oats, rice, hemp and coconut.