Out of Bounds: When Are We No Longer Vegan?

I’ve written quite a bit before about the dangers of essentialism in veganism: it causes the erroneous perception that vegans are morally pure; the stereotype that vegans are anti-science, anti-GMO hippies; and the idea that “vegan” is a noun rather than an adjective — who you are rather than what you do (the latter is more accessible).

We’ve also talked about the “spirit of veganism” — how the strict definition of the term often leaves out animal products, such as cultured meat, that are (or can be) free of animal suffering, and how it can actually include products, such as palm oil, that are animal-free but cause immense suffering.

But we haven’t addressed another aspect of the fuzzy boundaries of veganism: what is it exactly that makes someone “vegan,” what is it exactly that turns a “vegan” into a “non-vegan”?

The first question has a somewhat simple answer, you might think. Someone who contributes to animal suffering by purchasing animal products (or hunting) is not vegan, and a vegan is someone who does not do those things. But is this definition prone to the essentialist fallacy?

What if I am purchasing some chocolates for a loved one, and the ones that I choose contain milk? Am I no longer vegan? If not, and after this I purchase and/or consume no animal products whatsoever, when do I regain my vegan status? The next day, next week, next month? It’s not very clear how to answer that. If I can keep my vegan status despite buying milk chocolates, then what does it even mean to be vegan? Does it not count if I don’t consume them, even though I’m contributing to needless suffering by purchasing them? Again, it’s very unclear.

I recently purchased a pack of gum. I was informed the other day that this type of gum for some ridiculous reason contains gelatin. I looked at the ingredients and, yep, gelatin. It was an honest mistake — and admittedly not the first time I’ve done it. Was I not vegan when I purchased the gum? Did I regain my status at some point after that? Am I not vegan while chewing the gum as I write this? Should I throw it out, even though that won’t fix anything?

Let’s say I don’t learn my lesson, and negligently purchase the same gum in the future, like an absolute moron. Does that negligence nullify my vegan status? For how long? At what point, exactly, does such negligence cost me my identity? I don’t have an answer to this. Intentions matter, no doubt, but it’s unclear when negligence crosses the line.

Going even further, let’s say I intentionally purchase the gum, for some reason specifically because it contains gelatin. That’s decidedly not a very vegan thing to do, but do I lose my citizenship in the vegan community if everything else I purchase and consume is vegan?

From the other side, when does someone who is not vegan become so? If someone makes a stated commitment to become vegan, are they suddenly vegan, like Michael Scott attempting to declare bankruptcy? What if they continually slip up, meal after meal, for days? Weeks? Months? A year? When is their provisional vegan license revoked?

I don’t exactly have a point to all of this; I am mostly just thinking out loud. We should consider that essentialism and intent may be inherent in our definition of veganism, but without those two elements the term can devolve into meaninglessness. Perhaps we need to move on to a different term (and rename our website!), one that takes these considerations into account. Then again, maybe I’m just needlessly rolling around in the weeds on this.

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  1. I would definitely consider intentionally purchasing nonvegan items to be nonvegan.

    Vegans don’t intentionally contribute to needless suffering; Those are the conditions, veganism is about need and intention;
    No one needs milk chocolate so there’s no justification for purchasing it, especially as a vegan.

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