Veganism Is Impossible, Because People Aren’t Perfect

A new year is upon us, and with it comes another Veganuary. According to the organizers of the annual campaign, one person is signing up every two seconds this January, a new record.

But despite Veganuary’s rapid growth, its participants only represent a minuscule percentage of the population—even smaller than the 3 percent of Americans who already call themselves vegan—and by this time next year, many of this year’s participants will likely return to eating animal products.

By all appearances, Veganuary’s growth is part of a larger pattern. An increasing number of people are experimenting with a vegan diet out of concern for the planet, the well-being of animals, and their own health.

However, many ultimately become overwhelmed and give up. This includes famous celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Jenna Ortega (of Netflix’s Wednesday). Indeed, according to a 2014 study by Faunalytics, 84 percent of people who tried a plant-based diet ultimately abandoned it; a 2021 follow-up study found that 43 percent of participants lasted less than six months.

Plenty of hardline vegans may disagree, but I think it’s difficult to judge those who fall off the tofu train too harshly. For many people accustomed to more traditional diets, going vegan means learning a whole new repertoire of ingredients and recipes. You have to figure out a way to feed yourself that doesn’t feel like deprivation, which is a major obstacle for many would-be vegans. Premade vegan foods, like plant-based meats you’d buy at the grocery store or meals you’d get from a restaurant, are often priced higher than their non-vegan equivalents—and in many places, these foods just aren’t available. Some family and friends won’t understand, let alone offer support or encouragement, which makes going vegan not only more challenging, but isolating, too.

And of course, people like the foods they like. Giving up your favorite foods is a bummer if you can’t find adequate replacements. Whether it’s holiday pressure or a drunken night out, slipping up can be incredibly easy.

And that’s only the dietary component of veganism.

The thing is, despite strict vegans’ understandable frustration with meat eaters, no one is completely vegan. It’s just not possible to live in this world and entirely avoid causing animals to suffer.

For many, true veganism means avoiding not just foods with animal products in them, but clothing and shoes made from wool and leather, certain cosmetics, skincare, personal care items, tattoo inks, and much more. Even some wines and conventionally processed sugar use animal products as a refining agent which—in the eyes of many—excludes them from a vegan diet. When you start to do some research, you’ll find that the list of everyday things that include animal products, or rely on animal exploitation in some way, is expansive. And yet, many people who call themselves vegan are vocally judgemental of anyone who doesn’t live by their strict standards (me included).

To be clear, I understand vegans’ frustration. The realities of animal exploitation are horrifying. Male baby chicks are ground up alive, cows are forcibly inseminated and kept perpetually pregnant to produce milk, and cages are too small for their inhabitants to even turn around. Farmed animals are subject to the callous infliction of pain, mutilation, and more. The list goes on. When you have those images in your head, it’s difficult to sympathize with someone who says they just had to have a burger.

“Campaigners for animal rights form part of the Official Animal Rights March protest in downtown Manhattan, New York with a banner that reads ‘Go Vegan.’

Epics/Getty Images

The thing is, despite strict vegans’ understandable frustration with meat eaters, no one is completely vegan. It’s just not possible to live in this world and entirely avoid causing animals to suffer. I’m not just talking about accidents, though most vegans will tell you that they mistakenly eat an animal product every now and then. Everyone, including self-described vegans, makes choices that in some way harm animals.

It may not be obvious, but every form of travel can kill living creatures. If you walk on grass, you’re going to crush some insects. (The same goes for biking and driving.) Flying is out, since aircraft often hit birds.

Being completely vegan would also require giving up many of the benefits of modern medicine. Say goodbye to vaccines, medications in gelatin capsules, and any other medical treatments that include animal products or were tested on animals.

Since many people go vegan out of their love for animals, it’s not uncommon for them to have pets. But caring for one animal often means harming others. Forget about rescuing a cat. As obligate carnivores, you’ll need to buy them meat-based food.

How much sacrifice is really required to qualify as a vegan? The most commonly cited definition of veganism was proposed by Donald Watson, an activist who founded the Vegan Society in 1944:

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—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.”

Let’s aim to do the best we can to avoid being complicit in animal cruelty, but stop shaming people who deviate from time to time.

Technically, it is possible to make significant sacrifices. Plenty of people notoriously avoid vaccinations. It’s also technically possible to travel exclusively by foot and only when absolutely necessary—it helps that remote work is especially viable these days. However, these sacrifices are not feasible for the vast majority of individuals. And if such an extreme lifestyle is what veganism requires, not many people will be eager to sign up.

But veganism is, for most people, an extension of compassion and empathy. If we expand that compassion to other humans and encourage them to reduce their reliance on animal exploitation as far as is reasonably practical for them—which will mean something different to virtually everyone—we can accomplish a lot more than we would by trying to maintain incredibly unrealistic purity standards. If people felt empowered to practice veganism in a way that works for them, without the pressure of being perfect, the result could be a major reduction in animal suffering.

For some, veganism might mean abstaining from animal products all year long, except for eating turkey on Thanksgiving. For some, it might mean indulging in some chicken wings on Fridays after a night out, but skipping animal products the rest of time.

If expanding our concept of ethical consumption could convince even 10 percent of the population to significantly cut back on animal products, the impact would be much greater than convincing a tiny minority of people to go vegan. My own studies have shown that asking people to cut back is much more effective than asking them to fully commit to veganism. That’s why I champion the idea of being a reducetarian. In the grand scheme of things, we can save more animals if many people contribute a little bit, rather than if just a few people contribute a lot. Ideological purity and unwavering discipline make no difference to the animals whose lives are in the balance.

Ultimately, veganism should be considered an ideal we can aspire to, not a static identity or way of living. Let’s aim to do the best we can to avoid being complicit in animal cruelty, but stop shaming people who deviate from time to time. True vegans are imaginary; nobody is perfect in any dimension. But if we make a genuine effort to make the most ethical choices we can, whenever we can, our impact could be very real; and that would be spectacular.

Brian Kateman is the president and co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing societal consumption of animal products. His latest book is Meat Me Halfway, inspired by a documentary of the same name.

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