Cruelty Free?

cruelty-free-brown Tonight’s post is not, as planned, another recipe. I’m going to let you all savor my chicory salad with warm mustard dressing for another evening. In the meantime, I wanted to share what I think was a very interesting exchange I had with a reader about the expression “cruelty free,” and about vegan ethics in general. A few weeks ago, a reader named Kate wrote,

Hi Gena,

I’m a frequent reader but missed your post on living cruelty free, so I thought I’d respond here instead of in the comments as I’m late to the game.

Here’s my struggle with the very idea of living cruelty free–veganism doesn’t really do much at all to combat some of the greatest suffering in the world as it relates to people. That, obviously, is NOT a reason to not be vegan, and not at all what I’m trying to argue. Rather, it just seems a little…self-serving to think that because you’re vegan you’re living a cruelty free life. (By you, I don’t mean you… I mean any of us!) If you take part in neoliberal capitalism, which we all do, you regularly outsource all of your own environmental burdens to the world’s poor and the world’s non white. Certainly, veganism may reduce some of that industrial waste, but not in any way a large part of it.

Maybe I’m just being sensitive to this, because I’m a PhD student working in neighborhoods that are home to poor people of color and also to incredible toxic burden. Of course, these places are not home to grocery stores and when a family of four is living on $6,000 a year (median household income in one of the neighborhoods I’m in), they certainly can’t even begin to make the incredibly privileged food choices you and I can make.

Anyways, my point is that while I encourage us all to try to be ethical consumers, I hope we don’t let our own sense of ethical satisfaction when it comes to the nonhuman blind us to our ethical transgressions against so many of the people of the world.

Hope this isn’t too rambling, and thanks for a beautifully written site.



I took a moment to admire Kate’s intelligence and tough-mindedness. I get plenty of thoughtful letters from readers, but this one was arresting. After some time spent pondering the question, I wrote back:


Thanks so much for a thoughtful email!

I guess I should start by saying that, when I use the term “cruelty free,” I don’t mean it literally. I use it as an idiom—an idiom that signifies vegan-friendly food, makeup, skincare, and so on. The word, in the context in which I use it, suggests that my choices as a consumer are as free of animal abuse as I can ensure. It means that, and that alone. When I use the expression, I don’t mean to suggest that I live a life in which I’m never the cause of cruelty or suffering.

Obviously, if we got into a debate about semantics, you’d say that I’m using a broad term in a particular way that makes my usage dishonest, and I’d agree with you to a certain extent. I’m an editor, after all. We editors know better than most people that words have specific meanings, and those meanings are potent. At the same time, I believe that words and language exist to help us sum up things that are hard to describe, which is where labels like “cruelty-free” are both useful and tricky: they give us a fast, succinct way to describe a complex set of priorities (e.g., one’s priorities as a vegan consumer). But in coming up with single words or phrases in order to describe issues that really defy one-word summation, we have to cut corners. Sometimes this means creating implications (in this example, the idea that “vegan” and “cruelty free” are literally synonymous) that are a bit too facile, or only tell a part of the story.

So yes, expressions aren’t perfect. But they serve an important purpose nonetheless. I assume that people know I use the expression “cruelty free” to denote, “not from animals or their products.” Could we as a society come up with a better expression? Probably, and I think this is subconsciously why I use the term “vegan” much more often than “cruelty free.” But I don’t feel too off-base using the term occasionally to suggest that the shampoo I’m using was made without animal mistreatment.

I don’t for a second think that being vegan means I’m doing everything I can to make the world less cruel. There are many other issues — hunger, global health crises, women’s rights — that interest me, and I try to write about these, too! I’m thinking specifically of this summer’s post on volunteering with the NYRP. It was one of my favorite CR posts to date, not least because it forced me to be very self-critical at the end. (If blogging has done nothing else, it has made me a more perspicacious critic of myself.)

Of course, animal rights are particularly close to my heart, which is why they are my focus here. I don’t want them to occlude other kinds of suffering from my vision, but neither do I think that focusing upon one sort of suffering and devoting one’s energies to it necessarily means that one is impervious to others. It simply means that, with the time and energy we have, we all need to make choices about how we think we can best serve the world, and minimize injustices.

Many of us find that one particular kind of injustice feels more poignant to us than another; that’s not the same as saying they aren’t equally urgent. It means that we’re all driven by personal responses to things, and we’ll inevitably going to feel the pull of some causes more than others. Animal rights, women’s rights, and health care tend to be the causes I’m most interested in. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the outrages of poverty clearly, or feel concern for the environment.

Now I hope I’m not rambling. Thanks for a great comment.


Looking back on this email exchange, one other thing occurs to me. Some of history’s most remarkable activists, martyrs, and agents of change have been zealous about one particular cause, or a small cluster of causes. Often this was because of their personal histories. Would Margaret Sanger have championed birth control without her experience caring for women in the slums of the Lower East Side—or, for that matter, if she hadn’t borne three children starting at the tender age of twenty-four? Would Frederick Douglass have set fire to the American abolitionist movement if he hadn’t experienced the torment of black slavery firsthand? Would Elizabeth Cady Stanton have seen women’s disenfranchisement so clearly if she hadn’t spent her childhood years poring over her father’s library of legal books and papers? Probably not. Personal experience makes us care about things, and caring about them makes us uniquely suited to fight for them. Activism is a hard and often thankless task, and few could withstand its challenges without a fair dose of personal zeal.

Me? I grew up with a tormented relationship with the food I ate, and with a powerful suspicion—at odds with what I was taught at home—that there was something wrong with eating animals. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been in a unique position to see how animal slaughter creates suffering—not just the suffering of the animals’ who perish, but our own suffering, too, from ill health and apathy. For these reasons, veganism is a cause I’ll champion forever. But I hope that my strong feelings about veganism will ever stop me from seeing the other forms of cruelty that populate the world.

I don’t think they will, though, because one of the nicer upsides of being vegan (for me) is that it has made me more conscious and compassionate. I think more about issues of social injustice than I used to. I feel more strongly than ever about women’s rights, and it goes without saying that I’ve never been more interested in healing the sick. Becoming attuned to the suffering of animals has made me more compassionate for all living beings—animal and human–and I thank veganism for opening my eyes in that way.

I’d love to hear how you guys feel about using the words “cruelty-free.” And I’d also love to hear which causes resonate most deeply with you, and why. Let me know, and thanks again to Kate for sparking this conversation.


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  1. I think Kate’s post was really interesting, and i love that you’ve devoted an entire post to it, because it’s really important.

    I just saw this post this morning, as I returned from a volunteer trip to rural Brazil last night, and one of the things that struck me most relating this post to the trip was how easy it was for me to be a vegan, even in rural Brazil. There were so many fruits and vegetables along with the requisite rice and beans, and while there was meat and/or dairy at each meal, they weren’t necessary for everyone to be able to eat. In fact, in most poorer areas that I’ve been to or talked to others about, animal slaughter is reserved for special occasions, which I think is a good argument in favor of veganism not being limited to the privileged.

    I do agree that vegan doesn’t automatically mean “ethically and environmentally friendly in all ways, shapes and forms”, just as it doesn’t automatically mean “healthy”. Once I visited a farofa (manioc flour) factory in Brazil (manioc flour comes from cassava (aka yuca), a root vegetable, and is used as a condiment in Brazil and other South American countries, as well as in West Africa) with some of the women that worked there, I couldn’t look at the little bowl of it on the table at meals without being disgusted. Even the yuca fries were upsetting, and those weren’t factory produced. Yet it was all vegan.

    I do think there are many people (vegans and non-vegans alike) who do one small thing that helps the world, and think that that’s enough, so they go back to the rest of their lives without thinking of the impacts of everything else they do. To a certain extent, we need to do that in order to function in the world in which we live, but I think that people need to think about the impact of their everyday lives more often, and then take action in stead of just shrugging their shoulders. I’m particularly interested in climate change and its impacts and how to keep it from getting worse. When I discuss it with people, they tend to agree that it’s a problem that needs to be worked on, but make no effort to do so.

    I realize the slight hypocrisy in my views as I sit here in my heated home in New York, using an Apple computer and sitting on my warm, comfortable bed, but actions speak louder than words (of which I’ve used too many already), and veganism is a good place to start. Kate is right though, in that it isn’t enough. We vegans should pat ourselves on the back for making a good start, and then tackle the next issue.

  2. Wow, days later, I am the original Kate from this post. Being in the middle of term papers I haven’t been on the internet, and am so floored to come back to this wonderful conversation. Thanks to everyone for being so thoughtful and for Gena for her lovely blog.

  3. What an incredible post! I’ve so enjoyed reading the thoughtful comments and conversations that have ensued from it.

    Although I realize that labels are necessary for classification purposes, in some circumstances I find them limiting. For activists of any domain I believe the most important thing is to keep educating ourselves, adjusting our convictions based on what we believe to be “right” rather than what a label or group predetermines.

    On another note, I agree with many of the voices above about veganism, or any dietary choice, being a privilege. I have traveled in third world countries and currently work with students from very poor socio-economic backgrounds. It would be extremely arrogant of me to assume everyone can make the same “cruelty-free” choices I am able to make.

    That being said, I don’t believe we should ever “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. We should be proud of the compassionate choices we do make, inspiring ourselves and others to constantly seek betterment in other areas of life.

    Thanks for sparking such a great conversation, Kate and Gena!

  4. I am Greek Orthodox…

    (For those who don’t know, it is neither Protestant, nor Roman Catholic, but part of the second largest denomination in the world–Eastern Orthodox.)

    In any case, I am Greek Orthodox, and we “fast” at certain times of the week and year. By “fasting,” I mean we limit the quantity and types of foods we eat. There are variances, but typically we abstain from meat and dairy twice a week and during holiday preparations (i.e. 40 days before Christmas, the Lenten period before Pascha/Easter, etc.). Meals are to be prepared simply.

    In any case, people fast to different levels… some abstaining more or less than the “typical.” But this post reminds me of one thing I have heard again and again in our Church:

    “Fasting” is not an end in itself. It is only a tool. “For what doth it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brethren? ” –St. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407 A.D.)

    This doesn’t mean not to “fast”–but one should keep perspective. “Fasting” doesn’t make you great. But “fasting” can be an act/practice of humility and faith. Those are no small items.

    Κύριε ἐλέησον.

    (The full quote is at: )

  5. This is a great post and something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. You see, I spent last summer working on an organic family farm. And most of the fertilizers we used were animal-based. As in, fish emulsion, blood meal, and bone meal. I’m not a vegan myself (I’m a pescatarian), but I always wondered how vegans who were vegans on the basis of preventing cruelty to animals would feel about it. If you want to grow organic, it’s sort of unavoidable- you have to fertilize with something and all chemicals are off-limits.

    But like you said, trying to live 100% cruelty free is nearly impossible. You do the best you can and your best is good enough.

    • This is a very good point, and I’m not sure whether there is a good solution out there.

      I’ve seen conventional growing promoted as (under the right circumstances) safer than organic growing because the organic farmers are more likely to use insufficiently composted manure because the petro-fertilizers are disallowed. The argument confirms to me the importance of understanding the operations of farmers from whom I would buy my food – regardless of whether they are certified organic growers.

      One of the farms that attends my local farmer’s market advertises their produce as “veganically grown”, meaning that they do not use animal products in their growing. They are a very small farm, though, and I don’t think this is common.

      I guess the question is whether we decide that using bone meal (and similar products) contributes to the mistreatment of animals. On one hand, the bone meal is a byproduct that would be generated by the meat industry anyway. No animals died to provide it. On the other hand, you could argue that buying by-products of the meat industry helps to make the industry (slightly) more profitable. Higher profits encourage the industry and could potentially lead to the lowering of the cost of meat and in turn encourage people to buy and eat more meat. In practice, I suspect that profits from the sale of by-products for use in agriculture is such a small proportion of industry profits that we could safely shrug and dismiss the concern – but I’m not sure. From what I’ve heard, profit margins for factory farming are extremely narrow, so it may be that they are really depending on the sales of by-products.

  6. perhaps this has already been addressed at some point in the comments or on your blog, but i take personal issue with vegans who don’t eat animals or animal products and think that they are not harming the many animals that die in agricultural crops? not to mention that they are most certainly still eating some insects which are also living beings? why not instead make it a point to eat as much as possible from local and ethical sources, get to know where your food is coming from? i feel that my health and wellness is dependent on eating a broad spectrum of foods, including the meat, eggs, and dairy of animals which are raised in a healthy and humane way. as a former vegan who suffered from health consequences despite extreme diligence in meeting nutritional requirements, i feel pretty strongly about honoring my health as well as eating omnivorously as most cultures have done throughout history.

    • M.R.,

      I, and most vegans I know, DO make it a point to know where our food comes from, and to eat from local and ethical sources. One doesn’t preclude the other. I buy a ton of my produce–a solid 80%–from my local farmer’s market, which I support year round, and I study food companies assiduously before I buy from them. Yes, most vegans do accidentally consume insects or contribute to their wounding, but it’s almost impossible to control this, whereas we CAN control how much we contribute to the slaughter and use of animals through animal farming. The founder of the Vegan Society, who coined the term “vegan,” defines veganism thus: “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose . . .”

      I believe the “possible and practical” part of things means that we can forgive ourselves for the insects that may die in the crop harvesting process, though of course we’ll never seek to harm them on our own.

      As for eating meat, that’s your choice. Thank you for sharing it with us. In response to the comment that cultures have eaten meat historically, I’d simply say that most cultures have historically had all sorts of health practices and traditions that we’ve come to reject over the course of time, and with the expansion of our own reason.

  7. Wonderful post, Gena, and a very intelligent letter. And just wow on the comments. For me, the term cruelty-free has a similar meaning as it does for you, choosing a lifestyle that avoids animal cruelty. Truthfully it’s not a term I use much, but that’s what it’s meant to me when I come across it.

  8. I agree with the reader comment about the use of the term “cruelty free”. It’s always bothered me because I tend to be very careful about the way a vegan lifestyle is represented. Unfortunately, people are always looking for a fight with a vegan, and I think we need to be very cognisant of the way we represent veganism to others. As frustrating as people are who “pick apart” the claims of veganism, I think they have a very important role to play in keeping us honest and in helping us to constantly question and better understand our ethical convictions.

    In terms of the causes that speak most to me, as an environmental scientist the environment always comes out on top. However, it was actually environmental justice issues that sparked my passion in the first place so the issues Kate is working on are the type that are very near and dear to my heart. This also means, like Kate, that I tend to look at the intersection between socioeconomics and the environment, and all that comes with it. I tend to more interested in the way humans interact with the environment than in the environment as a separate entity, which I think is what brought me to the issue of animal rights. I could go on and on about my thoughts on all of these things, but it’s much too long for a blog comment. What I will say is that I have to constantly keep myself in check because I do think that I can sometimes have unreasonable expectations of other vegans. I find myself thinking a lot, “How can vegans care so little about the impact of their lives – not just their food choices – on the environment?” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it, but a popular comment from vegans is “A vegan driving a Hummer has less impact on the environment than a meat-eater riding a bicycle.” It’s simply not true, and I find it gives vegans a false sense of security and a feeling that they are “doing their bit” just by being vegan. Veganism CAN be good for the environment, but the way it is generally practised really isn’t.

    With that said, just because I personally see the natural connections between issues like the environment, social justice and animal rights, that doesn’t mean that I should expect everyone else to. Most vegans I know are beginning to be more aware of the intersection between various movements, but they are falling short of meaningful action in many ways (myself included in this). And most environmentalists I know aren’t vegan, but many of them do more for environmental and social justice movements than the vegans I know.

    So I realise that vegans realise their lives can never be “cruelty free”, and that the term, like the term “vegan” itself, is an imperfect and tricky one. But I do have a problem with the fact that the term “cruelty free” is used liberally and interchangeably with products that are vegan, or a vegan lifestyle. I know all terms are imperfect, but I can completely understand where Kate was coming from in her email, as well as where you are coming from in your response. It’s a really tricky area, and I do believe there’s a need for vegans to think more broadly about the impact of their choices on other living beings and on the Earth. Vegans are not the only ones who need to do so – everyone does – but I think they are an easy target because their eyes are open to suffering. Now it’s just time to be a bit more real about our contribution to that, and humble in the way we characterise our vegan lifestyles.

    Really excellent post, Gena. You and your wonderful readers always get the gears turning.

    [Side note: I had to look up the word “perspicacious” as I read this. I love reading your blog.]

    • As a newly-turned vegan, I find your comment honest yet disheartening: “Veganism CAN be good for the environment, but the way it is generally practised really isn’t.” I do not know much about the true environmental impact this diet can have. Can you please point out examples of how to practice veganism in a benevolent context with the environment? 🙂

  9. I’m hard pressed to make a point that hasn’t already been eloquently stated by you or your thoughtful readers. I am quite fond of the quote from Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (and my apologies to those who have seen me quote this a thousand times alreay). “Just because you can’t do everything, don’t do nothing.” Being vegan isn’t all there is to living a compassionate life. However, my belief is, it makes a big difference. And with the thoughtfulness I am forced to give to my food choices based on my decision to be vegan, I am constantly sensitized in other ways to abuses. I think, for instance, by vegan and queer identities intersect in this way. My compassion for non-human animals is so much greater because I as a queer woman have had just a taste of what it is to not be free to live my life in keeping with my natural desires. And, yet, I have a voice and privilege. With that comes the power to end as much oppression of humans and non-humans as possible. Can I do it all? No, but in living my own personal truth, I have causes that are nearer and dearer to my heart. On these, I focus my efforts rather than spread myself thin on all the potential cruelties in this world, while attempting to remain informed of other ways I can lessen the suffering the world.

  10. incredible comments. i’ll echo veggiegirl’s comment: i always thought ‘cruelty free’ meant something in the lines of ‘all-natural’ : totally vague, but the label is there for those who are looking for it. which is why it’s important to do your own homework about products you use instead of being satisfied by the label and saying, “well, that’s that.” i also like bitt’s comment that being vegan is the LEAST one can do for those who care deeply about the cause. those who are vegan in north america are vegan because they can afford to. it’s one way to give back because they are so privileged already, though i don’t believe all vegans are vegan because they want to give back. i think it’s important to remember that people give back in different ways (at least those who do).

  11. Wonderful post Gena!! I think that the fact that some people think “being vegan” is not enough to be cruelty free is the reason that some people don’t do ANYTHING at all… I mean, doing something it’s better than thinking “Oh screw it, being vegan it’s not changing anything!”
    As the Dalai Lama said, “be the change you want to see in the world”. Little actions DO count, and our food choices are the “least thing we could do”.
    Personally, I do it for religious reasons. I’m a buddhist, and Buddhism encourages you to be compassionated with all living beings. My food choices may not be enough to change live in a “cruelty free” world, but they are something…

  12. Ah-ha! The cruelty-free conundrum!
    Thank you so much for this blog. When I gave up meat 10 years ago, it was for animal rights. While I am still very much against animal testing and cruelty to animals and am more of a conscious consumer than I have ever been, I’ve found that when talking to people about my diet and lifestyle choices, cruelty-free is the last thing I mention.
    As I said, this is VERY important, but I feel it is such a one-sided way to look at the importance and reasoning behind veganism and a conscious lifestyle. In my personal experience, people who are vegan and focused on animal rights are often the ones who alienate others from the vegan diet and make people feel like they have to give up EVERYTHING immediately in order to be a good person. This is hardly ever an effective way to reach anyone, especially people of color who may come from lower income neighborhoods or might not have as much experience and access to other types of lifestyles and foods. I’ve experienced this with my family members (I’m Black) who are insulted by people who are so concerned with animals when there are thousands of children and people in this country with no healthy food choices. How can they focus on giving up meat when they can barely put any food on the table? And how dare someone call the treatment of animals “modern day slavery” when there are still human slaves! It’s such an offensive and “privileged white American” way to look at it all.
    If we ever hope to make a plant-base diet more accessible and possible for the planet, we need to learn how to communicate these ideas in a way people outside of our socio-economic background will understand.
    Until then, I’ll do my part by leading a happy, healthy vegan lifestyle; sharing healthy recipes and ideas; supporting conscious companies and encouraging others to make small, realistic changes in their life.
    Thank you!

  13. There are some wonderful and intelligent comments already posted, so I’ll just add one more point: animal rights often intersect with human rights in the context of factory farming. Corporate pig and poultry farms are some of the worst violators of fair labor practices. To wit, workers from outside the U.S. are often recruited to work in these facilities for low pay; sometimes, they’re even deported when their labor is no longer needed. So, if part of your (my) reason for being vegan is to withdraw support for factory farmed meat and dairy, then you are acting in support of both humans AND animals. Obviously, there are other ways to advocate for workers’ rights, but I think being vegan is one way to advocate and to be ethically consistent.

  14. What a brilliant coversation going on here! I definitely don’t claim to be cruelty free – even though I’m vegetarian. When I can help it, any dairy I purchase is organic, but I still consume it. I still own leather products and products not made in the USA. But at least I’m starting somewhere.
    I’m very passionate about animal cruelty as well as brain cancer research

  15. “Anyways, my point is that while I encourage us all to try to be ethical consumers, I hope we don’t let our own sense of ethical satisfaction when it comes to the nonhuman blind us to our ethical transgressions against so many of the people of the world.”

    While I agree with this sentiment, I also think that it’s very important for any caring person to sometimes indulge in his or her “sense of ethical satisfaction.” Otherwise, it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed with feelings of powerlessness and cynicism — and what good will that do us?

  16. What a thought-provoking post!

    I agree with Kate in the sense that I think veganism can tend to be a privileged choice.

    I disagree, however, with Kate’s fear in her last full paragraph that vegans might feel completely ethically satisfied by their decisions to be vegan. On the contrary, (while I try to avoid broad-brush classifications as the one I’m about to make), I have generally found that most vegans I encounter tend to be very thoughtful individuals. Not just thoughtful about food choices, but curious and concerned about how the consequences of their other choices. It’s easy for us to throw our hands up in the air because factory farming seems undefeatable. But if we did this with all problems, it would be a sad world.

    There can always be hierarchies of problems if we so choose, e.g. why would we help those suffering in foreign countries like Haiti or Afghanistan when there are people in the U.S. who are suffering too? But creating these hierarchies is fruitless. As several have said, there are many different issues in the world to which some of us can dedicate some of our efforts. It all comes down to individual priorities. But on the whole, I find vegans to be a thought-ful crowd.

  17. “Vegan isn’t enough, but it’s a starting point.” (bitt)

    I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. One of the first major injustices in the world that I felt like I could personally stop contributing to was the factory farming system, therefore I went vegan. Since going veg 5 years ago, I have started caring so much more about so many other issues and injustices on our planet. I’m way more conscious of my carbon footprint. I’m way more conscious of the things I purchase and what companies they come from. I now see the value in voting with my dollar.

    Veganism, for me, was a launching point from which I started to question everything around me and evaluate what lifestyle practices I could do or stop doing to try and make the world a better place.

    Thanks for such as insightful post, Gena. You never cease to amaze me.

  18. Great post!!
    I agree with all you’ve said as usual, though I’d like to stress that since it is a tricky territory it would we be better if we found a better word to describe what we mean.And I ‘d add ( I don’t know if someone has said it yet I’ll read the other comments in a while )that not only it’s personal experiences that helps do best, but also what we are often most drawn at naturally, like the job we choose because we love it and that makes way better at helping this job or cause than others. For me it’s a mixture of what I love the most like animals, children, who I am/ what I’ve been through like lgtb rights,freedom of expressions and women’s rights and frankly everything means a lot to me poverty sickness everything because by my nature I want to help as much as I can and I see the interconnectedness of all those. I have to choose though I can’t help with everything so I choose the most important to me, groups and minorities that are abused.
    On a different matter, are you going to write your thoughts about the accusations on veganism of that ex”vegan”? Or you ‘ve written and I missed it?

  19. this is a hard topic for me both in that i am omni,a scientist who does animal research and a lover of animals. therein lies the rub…i have reduced my meat consumption drastically from the beginning of this year but in my day to day work must manipulate animal models to benefit human beings. honestly, i sometimes struggle with how i can love animals and yet research them simultaneously. maybe it’s a rationalization on my part but i try to view each situation in its appropriate context and exercise caution, comapssion and mercy when it could be overlooked by an unsymapthetic researcher.

  20. I love this post and discussion. It’s important to keep our minds open and consider issues outside our pet causes.

    Personally, I’m about 95% vegan. The other 5% shifts depending on my situation – I don’t always think the “vegan” choice is the best one. For example, would it be better for me to eat a local egg from a farmer just down the road, who cares for his chickens in a humane way, or to eat a block of tofu, shipped halfway across the world, whose production causes greater environmental impact and, in the end, harms more animals than the egg? This is why I’m sometimes reticent about labels, even as I use them. 😉 My morals and my compassion are steadfast, but my actions shift depending on the situation.

    • You have made an excellent point, and this is something I struggle with. What helps you choose which way to go? I’m afraid someone will call me out on this personal choice, and I would not know how to respond.

      • That sounds a lot like me, too. How about “I try my best to eat ethically and minimize animal cruelty”? or “I try to balance harm to the environment and harm to animals in my food choices”?

      • That sounds a lot like me, too. How about “I try my best to eat ethically and minimize animal cruelty,” or “I try to balance harm to the environment and harm to animals in my food choices”?

      • That sounds a lot like me, too. How about “I try my best to eat ethically and minimize animal cruelty” or “I try to balance harm to the environment and harm to animals in my food choices”?

      • Hi Ritika! It’s hard to say what helps me choose, because it depends on the situation. I try and opt for local eggs from the farmers’ market when they’re available, which isn’t always. As for processed foods, I do my best to limit them – including tofu. This isn’t to say I don’t eat them, or that laziness never wins out. I do, and it does.

        People will call you out on your personal choices no matter what you do or how you explain yourself. Sometimes I just say, “this is the best choice I can make at this moment,” and leave it at that.

        • Thank you, Chrissy and Laura! I am definitely going to remember your pointers and phrases. I love this community.

  21. I think Ilana and Christine have already summarized my thoughts on trade-offs that exist in the world with our attempts to be cruelty free. That death is a part of natural world and poverty all over the planet reduces choices. And the need to rely on chemical/oil industry products if you choose to give up animal clothing – but those industries destroy natural habitats and wildlife, so what really is more cruelty-free?

    And if you really are curious about causes that other people care about, I have one that is unusual.
    I care deeply about the people who work in the sex industry, the systemic prejudice and discrimination that our society displays towards them, ignoring their choices, agency and sometimes, even their humanity. And I am not talking about the victims of trafficking – I mean people who have, sometimes freely, sometimes under financial duress, made the choice of doing sex work. As the result, they face stigma, isolation, physical dangers and dire social consequences that don’t have to be and should not be inherent parts of that work.

    • Hey Ingrid!

      Actually, I’ve had some very interesting Twitter discussions lately about sex work. I think that the debate over sex work (should it be prohibited or not?) will be to this generation of feminists what debates over pornography were to our parents’ generation of feminists. I find it a really fascinating debate myself–obviously, I see the reasons why we’d want to discourage sex work, given the rates of sex trafficking and child abuse.

      It’s a topic I haven’t quite resolved in my head, but I basically support a woman’s choice to enter into sex work freely, and if she does, I think we should indeed find ways to make industry regulations that will help to protect the people (men AND women, really) who take that course.


      • Wow 😉 It’s somewhat rare that people outside of relevant advocacy or non-profit groups or direct experience are familiar with it.

        In terms of regulation, there is a very interesting experiential organization in British Columbia that is working on regulation guidelines. They’ve been consistently lobbying the City of Vancouver for by-law changes. I suspect grassroots organizations in the US have similar projects, but their work is hindered by criminalization.
        Their website has a tab to the left with “Projects and Initiatives”:

          • Ingrid, thanks so much! I’m at work but look forward to exploring this site and referencing it in future conversations. And let’s make it less rare for people to care about this, eh?

  22. I was just talking about this with my husband last night—he’d pointed at my computer and asked about a book I’d been writing for what feels like, forever. It’s a book on atheism and what that means for women (since women are more interwoven into church and faith then men) and it’s been left there, unloved for years as I’ve spent all my free time “fighting the vegan fight.” I signed, saying “Its not that I think the atheism movement is any less important, or that I no-longer feel so strongly, but, that I had to pick and choose my battles, and it seemed, still seems like there is more urgency in fighting the vegan fight. I may have lost sight of one battle, but I have not lost sight of the war.” You have to try your best. Do the best that you can do. Take it in stride.

  23. From reading the initial post, i don’t think Kate is criticizing veganism, animal rights activists, or even really the term cruelty-free, so I think there is no need for any of us to be defensive. She is, rather, providing an always-needed reminder that the world works in particular ways, with particular benefits to particular people/life forms. And we are all part of this world, and we all participate in it in ways that either alter it or reinforce it. Kate is giving us a heads up: being vegan is not 100% ethically sound (and nothing else is, either.) For example, yes, a vegan might not consume or use products that contain animal (by)products or have been tested on animals, but the things a person consumes or uses instead often have problems of their own (for example, fair trade coffee can actually negatively affect some poor coffee-producing regions/countries.)

    I guess what I am trying to say is that the world is a complicated place, and yes, we should all do our best to make ethical decisions that will ultimately and hopefully make the world a better place. But sometimes we do take the moral or ethical high ground, assuming that we are doing all we can to change the world, or perhaps assuming that our veganism, or vegetarianism, or local-food-eating-ism, or whatever else exempts us from doing harm (unintentionally) in other ways. This is never true. We all participate in the world and continually shape it in ways both good and bad. This is not a jab at anyone, but just a reminder to myself and others of the larger context in which we make our own personal choices.

  24. gena this was such an insightful post. kate’s question reminded me of one of the questions that was asked of jonathan safran foer in the back of his book, eating animals. he was told that one criticism of his book was that his plight against factory farming wasn’t worth the attention he was giving since there were so many actual humans in the world suffering and (this is a loose quote since i don’t have the book right now) “how could he prioritize a chicken over a child?” i remember his response because it resonated with me. he said of course that he cares more about a child than a chicken, but that it isn’t a zero-sums game and caring for one does not mean you cannot care for the other. compassion is not a finite resource, and in fact, similar to what you said, developing your compassion for one cause actually deepens your compassion and heightens your awareness to others causes. imagine that your heart is a muscle – the more you exercise it to empathize with one cause the more able it is to do the same with another cause. i have found this to be true in my own life. as i pay more attention to the impact my eating habits have on animals, i also think more about how my choices impact the environment. veganism has also forced me to think more deeply about food access in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, where i used to teach and witness the high level of processed and toxic foods my students ate. as i’ve felt my health improve with a vegan diet, i think about how many of my students would complain daily of headaches and stomaches and wonder how different their lives would be if they had access to fresh, whole foods. as time goes on this is a cause i might feel increasingly passionate about and begin advocating for, and would never have gotten their without veganism. so i wholeheartedly agree with what both you and safran foer have said. the part you added that safran foer didn’t, about how every cause needs passionate people that are focused on that cause to push it into the consciousness of the mainstream and to effect actual change – well you couldn’t have said it better. the key with what you said is that in order for change to come the advocates must be passionate, and if we play the game of prioritizing causes by importance and say “well a child is more important than a chicken so let’s fight for children’s rights instead of animal rights” then what we advocate for wouldn’t be based on passion at all, it would be based on logic. and while sure, everyone might be focused on the same cause then, they wouldn’t be approaching it with the same fervor and, additionally, some causes would have zero voice at all.

    thanks for this 🙂 i’m loving your non-recipe posts more and more gena!

  25. I feel like by being vegan I am doing the best I can at this moment. I make a lot of choices based on it, and it gives me some control over what goes in and on my body.

    I generally use the term cruelty-free in connection with animals, but I can see how it could serve a large connection.

    I would love to stop supporting sweatshops and buy everything fair-trade, but unfortunately that seems to be a lot harder to do.

  26. I’ve spent some time volunteering in the developing world – Nicaragua and Ethiopia – and in countries where human rights are not as protected as in America (like Thailand and Israel). Each time I return from a different culture I am reminded of how absolutely privileged we are in the United States – the choices we have available, the liberty to make such choices, the money to make such choices. And generally free from the threat of death at the hands of some rogue militia (yes really). I think this is part of why “my” vegan ideology differs from that of the “classic” vegan who is interested in completely eliminating animal death. I have seen what it is to be absolutely reliant on the land around you and what grows there, plant and animal, for adequate food. When a family is lucky enough to be able to have chickens or a pig, who am I to begrudge them their right to kill that animal to live? And I have seen that people are absolutely capable of levels of cruelty towards one another that most Americans only find on television or in books. I hate to say it but I firmly believe that killing is part of the human condition. We kill each other along with the animals. I literally cannot take a person seriously who cries over the fate of cows but pays no mind to the fate of children in the developing world who sniff glue and live in dumpsters because that is where scraps of food are most likely to be found, children who become entangled in street gangs and violence because they have no other way. No, it’s not enough to be vegan. That does not make you (anyone) righteous just because you don’t partake in animal products, for whatever reason. Abuses of human rights, animal rights, and environmental rights are absolutely, inextricably linked, and one cannot ignore the damages of one in favor of another in the quest to live a truly compassionate life.

    • Nice comment, Ilana, though I do disagree with the logic that, since killing is our natural tendency, it’s therefore a reason to justify animal slaughter. Killing sure is our natural tendency (along with rape, theft, and other forms of violence), but I don’t happen to think that makes it right. As socialized creatures who possess powers of reason and compassion, I think we make the choice to say that some of our biological instincts are simply not acceptable, and that we’ll challenge ourselves to do better.

      To wit, most of us agree that killing and rape and theft and so on are simply not alright. Why, then, do we decide that killing animals is OK, and use the rubric of “natural law” to justify it? That, to me, is a double standard that cannot be taken very seriously (unless you simply say that animal suffering is negligible or unimportant, which strikes me as either unscientific or cruel).

      Sure, killing is the way of the world, but if the gift of reason has granted us anything, I would hope that it’s the capacity to challenge ourselves to fight that urge as best we can.

      • I have to disagree that killing, in all instances, is not “alright,” and I think that’s the inherent difference in my belief from yours. I also don’t think killing and rape are the same kind of crime – having been a victim of the latter, I’m still alive, and breathing, and better than ever. I *personally* don’t think most instances of killing (animal OR human) are justified, but I’m an incredibly strong believer in cultural relativism, and I know that there are cultures and people in the world who absolutely disagree with me – and who am I to say I am more right just because I favor a more compassionate way of viewing and relating to the world? Maybe you’ll find that argument sub-par but I cannot ever make myself believe that the way I view the world is the absolute correct way and that’s that/

        Animals kill animals in the wild, those animals suffer. Man has killed animal to live since we first walked on this earth – defense, food. I think the more horrific abuses are found on factory farms and mass slaughter houses; I would NEVER begrudge the kill of a pig to feed a family of twelve that makes less than a dollar a day total. On that same hand, when I was working in a farm community in Nicaragua, I was incredibly impressed to learn that, in order for a person to buy and farm land in many communities, there are sustainable-agriculture laws in effect that require farmers to use earth-friendly practices like crop differentiation, fertilizers that don’t destroy the soil, and allowing the land to rest every few years. LAWS, because sustainable agriculture is not just a novelty in a country where people grow what they eat or they don’t eat, it’s a matter of survival. When we start regarding our food as a survival tool, it becomes more practical to understand why people need to kill animals to survive. Is the suffering of animals at a factory farm more or less horrific than the suffering of human beings who do not have access to health care, education, a supportive government? I cannot say.

        • Understood. To be clear, I don’t think rape and murder are the same things either, but my point was to summarize the *many* impulses that humans (and, sometimes, animals) feel, which I nevertheless believe we can afford to control. And I would never argue that veganism is easy (or, perhaps) possible in situations wherein starvation is imminent; what I *do* think is that anyone who has the capacity to make a choice–those who are not starving, not fighting simply to survive–that reduces animal suffering and death ought to make that choice. I have the luxury of making that choice, and I always will.

        • “Is the suffering of animals at a factory farm more or less horrific than the suffering of human beings who do not have access to health care, education, a supportive government”

          There’s really no need to rank it. To be vegan aims to not take part in cruelty to nonhuman animals. It is a separate issue. It is also horrific what happens to people, but that requires a different set of choices that what is on your plate.

          • Thanks B. A great point, of course–part of my aim in this post (which you’ve now articulated better than I did) was to say that different kinds of suffering and cruelty need not outrank each other. We can devote our energies to fixing many global problems.

    • I agree with a lot of what Ilana says. My dietary choices are a reflection of my privilege, education, culture, and environment. Veganism is possible for me because of all of the above. Would my diet change if I lived in another place, if I lost my job, if I was in danger or starving? Absolutely. This doesn’t mean my ideals would change, or my compassion. But reality is bigger than intentions.

  27. I’d love to be perfect, but I’m not. I’d love to think I’m doing my very best, but I’m probably not. I do think that every little bit matters/helps/makes a difference.

    I have found that this whole “vegan thing” is a real journey. I started eating vegan for MY body, MY health. I can’t lie. But, because I’m curious and inquisitive, I started learning about a vegan diet, about what happens to animals, and my thinking shifted from dietary vegan to ethical vegan. And that journey continues. In the same way that my journey around race, class and gender issues has progressed over the years.

    I’ve never referred to myself as living a “cruelty-free” lifestyle. There’s too much I don’t know to make such a bold assertion.

  28. Oh Gena, do I really have to hear about the mustard salad again? 🙂 For all I try substituting garlic for mustard in everything I read on your blog, it still makes me feel icky to read! 😉
    A common mantra in Judaism, taken from the Pirkei Avot, is “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (Avot 2:21). The world is an overwhelming place with a multitude of problems and widespread suffering. And yet we can make a difference if we are not afraid to act. I agree with both the question and the response. Veganism is not sufficient to address the majority of suffering in the world, but it is a means to addressing some of it. I also strongly believe that opening eyes and heart to one form of suffering opens doors to the others. No (wo)man can do it all. It is unsurprising for that reason that fair trade products are often organic, vegan products are often locally sourced, vegan clothing is often fair trade, produced by a womens collective, etc etc. Each step leads to another. For me, of the causes you mentioned, environmentalism is probably my #1. And of course that comes from how I was raised- with organic household products and foods, spending time in nature and reading about animals, and learning about destruction of the world’s habitat. Veganism- or my trend towards it- ties in directly. I also see women’s education around the world as key to prevention of poverty and abuse of human rights. And we absolutely need champions of each cause, so that the rest of us can follow and learn from each one.
    I would like to see the phrase lengthened slightly to “free of animal cruelty.” I think that is reasonably accurate and to the point.

  29. Oh Gena, do I really have to hear about the mustard salad again? 🙂 For all I try substituting garlic for mustard in everything I read on your blog, it still makes me feel icky to read 😉
    A common mantra in Judaism, taken from the Pirkei Avot, is “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (Avot 2:21). The world is an overwhelming place with a multitude of problems and widespread suffering. And yet we can make a difference if we are not afraid to act. I agree with both the question and the response. Veganism is not sufficient to address the majority of suffering in the world, but it is a means to addressing some of it. I also strongly believe that opening eyes and heart to one form of suffering opens doors to the others. No (wo)man can do it all. It is unsurprising for that reason that fair trade products are often organic, vegan products are often locally sourced, vegan clothing is often fair trade, produced by a womens collective, etc etc. Each step leads to another. For me, of the causes you mentioned, environmentalism is probably my #1. And of course that comes from how I was raised- with organic household products and foods, spending time in nature and reading about animals, and learning about destruction of the world’s habitat. Veganism- or my trend towards it- ties in directly. I also see women’s education around the world as key to prevention of poverty and abuse of human rights. And we absolutely need champions of each cause, so that the rest of us can follow and learn from each one.
    I would like to see the phrase lengthened slightly to “free of animal cruelty.” I think that is reasonably accurate and to the point.

  30. Huh, and here I thought “cruelty-free” just meant “not tested on animals.” Didn’t realize this was such a can of worms. I have to wonder if the original writer, Kate, was well-intentioned, but perhaps bringing her own emotional/political baggage into the discussion? (Though she sort of admits she’s sensitive to it.) I’ve certainly been guilty of the same.

    As others said, we all have our own banner causes, and we can’t expect the rest of the world to conform to them. It isn’t an ideal world. If it were, we wouldn’t need to have causes at all. Kate’s desire to abolish human and animal cruelty alike is admirable and worthy of our attention, but shouldn’t be overshadowed by an argument over semantics.

  31. As a vegan I’m hardly ethically satisfied. I feel like it’s the LEAST I can do. It’s hard to know what cruelty went on with the products we use, but it can be easy to pinpoint an animal product and rule out buying certain things because of that. I appreciate the labels “fair-trade” when it comes to food and there needs to be more labeling in that regard.

    I appreciate that the reader cares about other issues other than animals. I sure do, but I also know that the vast majority of people do not. Therefore the people that care need to advocate for animals loud and proud.

    It can be a slippery slope when people start saying “vegan is not good enough”. There’s one person I know who said that and then started eating factory-farmed animals in a long train of twisted logic. Vegan isn’t enough, but it’s a staring point.

  32. Cruelty free is one of those terms like natural, free range, clean, healthy, cage free, green, holistic, or many other words/semantics/terms that depending on who you ask, and in what context, can have a profoundly different meaning…and loopholes by those who are doing the marketing seem to be frequently taken to make the avg consumer feel they are making a more compassionate, or better, choice. When in reality, sometimes clairol “natural instincts” shampoo is probably not any more natural than pantene, type of comparison.

    As for being compassionate about things…I have had major epiphanies since becoming a mother about the way women and children are treated in society. I will not blabber on about it all…but to talk about women’s rights, child’s rights, health care, living wages, access to childcare that is competent and affordable…these are some of the causes that resonate with me now.

    What an awesome post. Thanks to you and Kate for this one!

  33. I am big on semantics and take issue over the claims such as ‘humanely raised’ and other bogus terms that companies use to market and sell food and other products, actually I support lawsuits on the grounds of false advertising and deception (among other counts of course). So for this reasoning I support limiting use of ‘cruelty free’ only when it can truly be justified. As you have done very well! (You are a deep & honest thinker and a lovely writer with lucky readers.) Personally, I would like to see products labeled ‘animal and animal by-product free/ not tested on animals, instead of vegan, but as you point out we need a simple way to communicate a common understanding.

    • David,

      You’re so kind. I too think that we need to be careful with language–especially on product labels and in advertising.

      Great to see you, if from a distance, on Monday night!


  34. Our blog uses the term “sketch-free,” and we receive lots of comments requesting clarification of this term. For us, sketch-free is our philosophy on food, food products that are minimally processed, from accredited, ethically sound companies. And food that is nutrient dense and actually serves a purpose within the body, although we have been known to indulge in yummy raw desserts 🙂
    We are also big on allergens, a lot of people don’t even know they are allergic to soy, gluten, dairy or corn until they eliminate from their diets and realize, hey, that feels better.
    We also avoid any products or ingredients commonly produced by Monsanto (we try to avoid GMO’s as much as possible) and GMO culprits are usually, who could have guessed: soy, gluten, dairy and corn. (also did you know almost all papayas are now GMO’s?)
    This is what we mean by sketch-free. Personally, I eat wild, organic meat, raw dairy and organic free range eggs, but I know that most people do not have access to these things, and it can also get expensive, so for financial and sourcing reasons I eat vegan most of the time.

  35. One of the most wonderful, intelligent and thoughtful things I have ever read. Thank you Gena, I will be reflecting on this for a long time to come.

  36. Gena,

    This is such a meaningful area for consideration. What good is vegan food if we use slave labor for production, or focus on manufacturing the lowest cost possible by driving quality to the lowest possible nutritional value.

    Another area that opens for challenging the vegan mainstream is the idea that conscious and loving beekeepers might be able to create a symbiotic relationship with the bees in a way that rivals “fair trade” agreements that have become so popular for coffee, cacao, etc.

    The important thing is that we think before we buy into something, and for that matter that we think before we buy something too.


  37. To me, “cruelty-free” is kind of like “all-natural” – it can be interpreted or mean something totally different to one person/company or another. Tricky territory.

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