Why veganism still isn’t easy

by Constanze

Veganism is a huge trend, Ben and Jerry’s (owned by Unilever) does vegan ice cream, Supermarkets stock 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, meat consumption is rising world-wide. In Germany large meat and poultry companies sell vegetarian and sometimes even vegan products. In the US plant-based meat is made by meat companies, too. 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 often hear people say it means less animal products are sold, it means companies will change. But this doesn’t convince me.

The demand vor vegan products is growing. And so is the demand for meat and dairy

Yes, the demand for vegan products is growing. And so is the production of dairy products. People who eat less meat probably 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. Companies in Germany produce much more meat than we can eat. German meat and dairy companies have explored new markets in Asia and Africa. The meat-free products they sell here probably cross-subsidise their meat products and help them grow.

Meat companies producing vegan products don’t change much

I grew up 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 become a vegetarian at the age of 13. That was over 20 years ago and things have gotten so much worse since then. You can read about how the German meat industry works here. (Also: 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.) But vegans aren’t even their target group. It’s flexitarians they are marketing to.

Often there are better alternatives. Especially since there are tons of companies that I can support instead, small companies dedicated to producing only vegan products. You can find these at German health food stores.

Many people say that large meat, poulty, or dairy companies make veganism more accessible. Sure, it is a huge privilege to have access to health food stores and be able to pick out the best and most sustainable products. Having the time and educate yourself about the things you eat is a privilege, too. Some people can get just one brand of vegan cookies at the supermarket. The vegan minced meat from the poultry company might be the only meat alternative available to them. Many people have no time to cook their dinners from scratch and with hand selected produce.

Veganism is not about convenience

These are all good points. I understand how complicated things are. And that my opinion is probaly just my opinion. To me 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. Over the years I’ve learned to embrace this. 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. I am lured into the convenience trap, too. Because of course sometimes all I want is to buy that frozen dinner. We want to 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 black 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.

Vegans aren’t perfect and we should be aware of that.

As I said, I try to make my own foods and support small vegan companies. And still I also do the things I just criticised. I often rely on soy yoghurt, which I use in baking and for my breakfast.

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 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 am 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 by Simply V (owned by the large dairy company Hochland) or the Ben and Jerry’s (Unilever) 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. 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 know I live a very privileged life. And 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. Veganism still isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be. It’s good to keep questioning things and change your behaviour from time to time.