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What about Veganism?

by Constanze

This post is also available in: Deutsch

Veganism is a huge trend, Ben and Jerry’s (owned by Unilever) does vegan ice cream, Supermarkets are stocked with vegan alternatives to meat (made by meat and poultry companies) and even McDonald’s has a vegan burger now (manufactured by Nestlé).

While we vegans pat ourselves on our shoulders for our great work, the meat industry is growing world-wide. At the same time small vegan companies are giving up because many supermarkets replace their products with veggie products made by meat companies.

In Germany  large meat and poultry companies selling vegetarian and sometimes even vegan products. I’ve often heard that this is a good thing because it shows that vegetarians and vegans have the power to change the market. I have heard people say it means less animal products are sold, it means companies will change. I am not sure if anybody has ever tried to verify these claims. Because we’re lying to ourselves.

Yes, the demand for vegan products is growing. And so is the demand for dairy products. People eat less meat so they eat more dairy. Which I don’t see as an improvement. Also many of the new fake meats are egg based. The egg industry is just as cruel as the meat industry. In Germany every year over 40 million male chickens are killed because they are considered “useless”. And a court ruled that this is in line with German animal rights laws. Because people eat more dairy and egg products meat consumption in Germany is indeed stalling. But is that a success? No, it isn’t.

Because, again, the killing of animals does not stall. It has increased. German meat production (link in German) is growing. German companies have explored new markets in Asia and Africa. And the meat-free products they sell here probably cross-subsidise their meat products and help meat companies grow.

I grew in an area where these companies have their factory farms and their slaughterhouses. Being aware of what they did and how they did it made me go vegetarian at the age of 13. That was over 20 years ago and things have gotten so much worse since then. [Factory Farming: The True Price of a Pork Chop] There is no way I am ever going to support them and buy their products. (Here is a great overview [for the German market and in German] to find out who’s who. And here’s another one that also lists vegan companies at the bottom.) Which is apparently meant to be like that because these products are aimed at flexitarians. We vegans aren’t even their target group.

To me there are better alternatives. Especially since there are tons of companies that I can support instead, small companies dedicated to producing only vegan products. These small companies whose products I have been buying for years now have a hard time (link in German) because they have to compete (again) agains the meat industry, which just has more money and more influence to get their stuff placed on a supermarket shelf. And since there’s only so much space on a shelf, the vegan companies that also produce in a more sustainable way than meat companies, are discontinued (link in German).

An argument I have heard often is that on the one hand, these large meat, poulty, or dairy companies make veganism more accessible.That it is, on the other hand, a huge privilege to have access to health food stores and be able to pick out the best and most sustainable products. To have the time and educate yourself about the things you eat is a privilege, too. That some people only can get one brand of vegan cookies at the supermarket and that the vegan minced meat from the poultry company is the only meat alternative available to them. And that very many people have to time to cook their dinners from scratch and with hand selected produce. And yes, these are all good points. And they’ve made me understand that things are complicated.

In my opinion veganism is not about being convenient. At least not if you think about it as an ethical decision you’ve made. If you want to change things that annoy you, make you angry or disturb you, it is never convenient. It is not supposed to be. We like to say veganism is easy and yes, it has been getting much easier. The catch phrase on every new vegan cookbook is: “You don’t have to sacrifice x!” But that is not true.You are sacrificing things, things are sometimes being hard, you can not always get what you want, you are making choices and you always have to keep making choices. You have to question the things you do. Only this way you will help changing things or at least make others think about the way they live.

When I went vegan, there was nothing for me to buy at the supermarket. Except for vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and grains, there was not a single vegan product available. I was used to making my own stuff. And of course I often heard the complaint: “I could never go vegan because I can’t cook/I don’t have the time to make my own food.” These days I am happy to see more products but I find myself get lured into the convenience trap, too. Because of course sometimes all I want is to buy that frozen dinner and put food on the table in ten minutes because there was no time and energy for a home-cooked meal. Sometimes I’m gonna buy those cookies because I don’t want to make my own.

But I don’t think we should make “You can have everything you like just the way you like it” our main selling point for veganism. Just like those sugar-free, fat-free back bean brownies will never taste like the real thing. And they don’t have to, right? Because the moment we start telling these tales, things will go into the wrong direction. Because  veganism is linked to so many other things like sustainability, environment, and ethics. We should talk about these things, too. They don’t really go well with capitalism. They don’t really go well with our upbringing that tells us to “vote with our dollars”. Making people promises about how they don’t have to sacrifice anything won’t make them think about why they are making the choices they are making.

Now that I have said that,  I feel that I need to get off my high horse for a moment. Recently I posted a picture of a vegan cream cheese on Instagram. I had bought that cream cheese on a whim in a vegan online store. I hadn’t researched the company. And even if I had, it would not have become instantly obvious to me that the cream cheese (By the brand Simply V) I had bought was not made by a vegan company. On their homepage you won’t find out that they are a brand of Hochland, a large European cheese manufacturer. A quick internet search on the other hand will give you this information. On Instagram I commented that I didn’t want to support this company. I have to admit that I was mostly mad at myself for not getting my butt in front of the computer before I had ordered the cheese. I had my usual arguments at hand: I won’t support a company that is part of the dairy industry.

A couple of minutes later I was standing in front of the fridge, taking out a tub of soy yoghurt. I am used to making my own stuff, but soy yoghurt and soy milk are not one of the things in my fridge that are homemade. I rely on them a lot, I use them in baking and both my daughter and I use these foods as a source of calcium. A while ago I argued that I didn’t get why everybody was so exited about Ben and Jerry’s producing a couple flavours of vegan ice cream. I don’t like it when companies like that are praised for making veganism easier. Because eating fruits, vegetables, and grains has always been easy enough. And now I am standing there with that tub of soy yoghurt in my hand, which is basically made by a dairy company.

In Germany there are only two or three brands of soy yoghurt available. One of them is Alpro/Provamel and the other one is Sojade. While Alpro is available at many supermarkets, Provamel and Sojade are only available at health food stores. Now guess what. Both brands belong to companies who do sell a ton of milk products, too. Alpro/Provamel is owned by Danone (Dannon). Sojade belongs to Triballat Noyal, a French company selling soy products but also goat cheese and other dairy products.

I remember that a couple of years ago when WhiteWave Foods wasn’t an independent company yet and still belonged to Dean Foods, there were huge discussions in the vegan community. Some even said that since Alpro was a part of Dean Foods at that time, their products could not be called vegan. I am not very familiar with them, but the fact that such a large dairy company had bought the Alpro brand made a lot of vegans angry. At that time I just shrugged my shoulders and kept buying their soy yoghurt. I didn’t want to think about giving it up. I thought that would be silly because the company Alpro was selling only vegan products. They were just bought by a company that was not vegan.

Today I see how flawed so many of my arguments are. I an a complete bigot. I don’t live without convenience foods. It’s easy to draw a line and say hey, I don’t consume any animal products. But then things get blurry. There’s not much of a difference between the soy yoghurt I buy and the almond cheese or the Ben and Jerry’s that I don’t buy.

I have always understood that veganism isn’t about purity. It is a complicated subject and I don’t see through everything. But I see that my personal history is repeating itself. I went vegetarian because I didn’t want to feel bad about eating animals anymore. Then I went vegan because I didn’t want to feel bad for supporting the horrible dairy and egg industries any longer. And now what? I still feel bad. And I guess that’s just kind of normal if you try to question some things. But it doesn’t mean that you have to give up and just not change anything at all.

I realise that I don’t get anywhere with my yes-or-no, black-or-white attitude. But I also don’t want to cheer for every vegan product out there just because it’s vegan. I think we still should make choices and, if we are in that position and have those choices, think about where our shiny new vegan products come from. I realise I am very privileged to even be able to think about these issues. I know that many contradictions are going on here. The minute my favourite non-dairy product is at stake, I feel like boycotting companies just because they sell both dairy and non-dairy products might bite me in the butt. I used to say: “Hey, I am out. I don’t consume animal products.” But really, the line isn’t that clear. On the one hand, I have a responsibility and can do better than just reaching for those Oreos. But on the other hand, it is impossible to do everything right. And I probably need to stop thinking about having to make everything right. Which is not meant as an excuse though. I still think it’s important to make conscious choices it’s just that they aren’t as easy as “I don’t consume animal products” any longer.