Is Veganism Cruelty Free?

cruelty free isn't the same as vegan - Is Veganism Cruelty Free

Written by Stephanie Villano. Reposted with permission.

Is Veganism Cruelty Free?

Even if you aren’t vegan, you’ve probably noticed that veganism has been gaining a lot of momentum in the last few years, and seems generally accepted as more of a mainstream lifestyle instead of a fad. 

With so much more visibility, you’ve probably also heard the lifestyle referred to or promoted as “cruelty free.”

The unofficial mantra of the ethical vegan movement, the phrase is proudly emblazoned on vegan apparel and handbags, or hashtagged in social media posts promoting the lifestyle.

Ethical vegans abstain from consuming or using any products made from or tested on animals with the goal of willfully causing as little harm to other living beings as possible. By refusing to participate in industries that exploit and commodify animals, many ethical vegans bill their lifestyle as one that is free from cruelty.

As someone who has been keen to shed labels as of late, I would still identify as an ethical vegan if pressed to describe my philosophical beliefs – they’re by and large in line with the ethos of the movement.

But, labeling an entire lifestyle as free from cruelty is misguided

I can understand the impulse and the appeal of using the phrase “cruelty free” in the context of describing the conscious choice to eschew products made from harming animals – living a life without harming bringing intentional harm to other living beings is the very essence of living a cruelty free life, after all.

And I am certainly guilty of using the term “cruelty free.” But, I’ve been trying to become more aware of when and how I use it and honestly think the movement should let the phrase go entirely.

Words matter.

So does context.

And I think it’s important to consider the ways in which labeling an entire lifestyle “cruelty free” as inaccurate and actually undermines the overall message – which is to live a life intentionally and consciously, with kindness.

Here’s why:



Honestly, unless you’re eating hyper local, package free, organic, in-season whole foods, making your own clothes, or buying second hand – well, your lifestyle isn’t cruelty free. (and congratulations if you’re able to live up to that standard- but I would imagine that it’s not practical or possible for the lot of us)

I realize that the focus of the ethical vegan movement is to promote the idea that animals are not ours to use or consume, but a lifestyle that is supposed to be about compassion toward all living things should consider human beings as well.

So even though your vegan meal might be absent from intentional cruelty to animals, there might be some ingredient that involved cruelty to people at some point in its supply chain.

cruelty free isn't the same as vegan - Is Veganism Cruelty Free

For example, how did the bounty of fruits and vegetables get to your local grocery store?

From tropical fruits like mango and dragon fruit piled high in bins in markets in New England, to bright red tomatoes of all shapes and sizes available to shoppers in Chicago in February, we’ve grown accustomed to enjoying a veritable cornucopia of whole foods all year long.

Each and every piece of fruit and vegetable we enjoy was picked, packed, and processed by a human being. If out of season, those same fruits and vegetables were shipped many miles to reach the produce section of your local market, adding to its carbon cost.

And while we might envision idyllic family owned farms brimming with succulent fruits being happily picked by farmers, the sad truth is that the industrialized agricultural industry is rife with human rights violations and what is tantamount to modern day slavery and debt bondage.

No one knows the extent to which modern day slavery is prevalent in agricultural work, but it is certainly a known problem and the most at risk are seasonal workers who are tasked with the grueling and laborious job of harvesting, enduring long hours in harsh conditions.

If you’ve ever enjoyed fruits or vegetables out of season, there’s a good chance they came from Mexico. As the United States’ largest exporter of fresh produce, Mexico is responsible for much of the fresh fruit and vegetables we find, year-round, in our grocery stores.

In 2014 the Los Angeles Times uncovered cruel and inhumane living and working conditions endured by thousands of workers across farms in Mexico. Laborers were found crammed into dirty, rat-infested housing units, many of which lacked beds, and some which lacked functioning toilets or a reliable supply of water.

Wages were often illegally held from workers to prevent them from leaving during peak harvesting periods. There are many reports of workers who attempt to leave, but are subsequently captured and beaten.

Furthermore, as seems to be common in the agricultural industry, workers were forced to pay inflated prices for necessities at company stores, which often put them into debt.

Many workers end the season with nothing to show for it because their entire pay goes to paying off their debt. The inability to save despite working long hours is part of what keeps many of these laborers in cycles of poverty.

And this is just one investigation. There are countless other examples of exploitation, forced labor, child labor, and wage disputes happening all over the world, including in the United States, on farms where our fruits and vegetables are grown.

cruelty free isn't the same as vegan

Not All Vegan Diets Are Created Equal

You might be the vegan who eats exclusively plant-based whole foods, but you also might be the vegan who subsists on Fritos, Doritos, Oreos, fast-foods, meat substitutes, and other unhealthy, heavily packaged, processed, unsustainable palm-oil laden delicacies.

We all know that plastic is a major environmental pollutant, so one can hardly call their lifestyle cruelty free if it actively contributes to our collective plastic problem.

We also know that unsustainable agricultural practices, most notably palm oil production, are destroying entire ecosystems and displacing and endangering the futures of the species who live in them. In the last twenty years, orangutan habitat has decreased by 80% in Indonesia, where much of the world’s palm oil is grown. Other species, like elephants and tigers, are also at risk.

There are ethical vegans who might take issue with all the above by raising the point that while crop farming might be exploitative to workers and destructive to the environment, it is not an inherently cruel industry.

With major overhauls and proper legislation, work can be done to find solutions to these problems. And, as ethical vegans will tell you, animal agriculture is , on the other hand, inherently cruel, because there is no humane way to take the life of another living being.

And that brings me to my next point.

Calling One’s Lifestyle “Cruelty Free” Can Lead to Moral Licensing

The smug self-satisfied vegan is a well worn stereotype. I think the majority of vegans would fall outside of this stereotype, but it does have its merits. Beyond the stereotype, it’s easy to imagine that one might use their so-called cruelty free lifestyle to excuse, or license, other potentially negative or harmful behaviors and actions they might choose to engage in:

“I haven’t eaten meat for like 20 years so it’s okay if I occasionally use products containing unsustainable palm oil.” or “I am making better choices for animals and the planet every single day, so it’s okay if I occasionally buy clothing made from unsustainable materials.”

Also related to this is the notion that one’s “cruelty free” lifestyle is morally superior to anyone who isn’t living “cruelty free.”

This ignores the fact that not everyone has access to healthy vegan foods, and may lack the resources to regularly buy them – especially in the United States where farm subsidies aren’t offered to specialty crops- which includes most fruits and vegetables.

As a result, the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables are higher in comparison to other foods like dairy, processed meats, and corn-containing products.

Regardless of how we all identify or characterize ourselves, we should never become complacent and ignore any of the consequences our choices have on a much larger scale.

Calling for the end of using “cruelty free” to describe veganism might sound nit-picky. But as someone who wants to promote the benefits of veganism for all its wonderful attributes, it’s important we acknowledge its shortcomings.

Only then can we truly begin to make progress toward a more compassionate and sustainable future for everyone.

More in Reflections

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. Of course it’s impossible in our current society to be 100% cruelty free, but living a vegan lifestyle, which includes being mindful of human rights as well as animal rights, is as close as one can get. Consider the zero waste movement.
    In our current society, it. Is impossible to be 100% zero waste, but it’s something to strive towards, and that is how the term “zero waste” is generally defined. The same applies with the term “ cruelty free”. People get hung up on semantics, and love to discredit those who are making an effort, in order to make themselves feel better about doing nothing.
    The term “cruelty free” was co-opted by the beauty industry years ago, anyway. It doesn’t mean anything anymore, as brands call their products “cruelty free” when they don’t test on animals, but contain animal derived ingredients, or they don’t personally test on animals yet sell their products in China, where animal testing is required by law.

    1. This post was written by a person who lives a vegan lifestyle and was shared in a spirit of education and accuracy, not shame or fatalism about our choices. I agree that a massive reduction in animal agriculture – and particularly the industrial kind – is needed, though I think that the specific benefits of a wholly vegan diet are based on ecosystem, climate, and access. I appreciate your comment!

  2. As always, I really appreciate your ability to see nuance and to break it down for us! Great piece!
    I would add, when marketers (not vegans at fault here) label plastic shoes and bags as “vegan leather” it really irks me because such items are cruel to the planet!

    1. Yes, it’s so frustrating! It’s like labeling produce and things like rice as “gluten free.” True, but deceptive!

  3. Thanks for this column. I try to eat vegetarian. (Doubt I will ever be vegan, for various reasons, but have close connections to a local dairy farm, so know how things are done there.) But I am uneasy with much of the conversation around it because it often seems like people are overlooking the treatment of humans in the conversation.

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