Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, explains why he thinks it is perfectly possible to be a “perfect vegan”
I am not a perfectionist.
I do not seek perfection in any of my creations. If you read my articles, you will be able to tell. Every now and then, you can spot a typo that passed the editors or a sentence that does not sound British enough. I don’t care that much about these things. Like the wonderful Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi (the acceptance of transience and imperfection), I think there is great beauty in imperfect objects. The organic natural beauty you find in Nature is unrivalled by any polished human creation.
However, I do not enjoy chaos and disarray (I am in a permanent struggle with gravity that seems to control the order of objects in my home), and I rejoice in aesthetic symmetry and harmony (many great artists have managed to move me). Workwise, I am known for my attention to detail — perceiving small things most people miss — which was very handy when I was dealing with prosecutions of animal abusers during my anti-hunting work.
No, I am not a perfectionist, but perhaps I am a detailist, which I think is different. I can see each tree when I look at a forest, and I can read micro-expressions in people’s faces better than words, but I do not care that much about abiding by conventions (I often make up new words, such as “detailist”), I break rules if this seems necessary (I avoid wearing ties even in places they are a must), and it is not that difficult to me to stop improving on anything I am making when the deadline is looming (as the proverbial cold princess said, I can “let it go”). Although I have a rational mind, many of the things I create (books, articles, photos, reports, campaigns, videos, investigations, designs, etc.) are very instinct-driven, so I let my informed subconscious call the shots, and I don’t ask questions if I do not understand what it’s doing.
I am an imperfect being in an imperfect world who makes imperfect things hoping they will be good enough for what they are worth — but accepting they may not be, and that’s OK.
However, I am an ethical vegan striving to become a perfect vegan. This may sound quite contradictory, considering that I do not care that much about perfection. But I do care about details, including all individual animals who are currently exploited by humanity — no matter how small and ignored they may be — and all their cries and tears. For me, none of them is insignificant because when I look at the world, I see them.
How often do we hear carnists accusing vegans of being hypocrites for avoiding some obvious animal exploitation (i.e., factory farming) but not a less obvious one (i.e., insects killed by the pesticides used in crops), and the vegans replying, “there is no such thing as a perfect vegan.” We see this in the mainstream media too, as in the article titled “Why there’s no such thing as a perfect vegan” published in the Guardian in 2018.
I have often wondered whether this is true. Common sense told me that it should be…but my instinct told me otherwise. Having thought about it a bit more, I concluded there may be such a thing as a perfect vegan, and I would like to become one of them.
Let me explain what I mean.
Do Vegans Exist?
If we are to assess whether a perfect vegan can exist, first we need to ascertain whether vegans can exist, because if they can’t, we should stop right there. I said that I am an ethical vegan, and I have been for many years. What do I mean by that? Simply, I mean that I hold the philosophy of veganism as defined by the Vegan Society. Isn’t that what a vegan is? Yes, but the adjective “ethical” is often added to make the point we follow the entire definition, as some people call themselves vegans but only follow part of it — the part regarding diet — and not the rest. The official definition (and it has remained unchanged since 1988) is clear about veganism covering more than people’s diet: “Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
If you hold the philosophy of veganism under this definition, you are an ethical vegan, a true vegan, a proper vegan, or if you want to deny the vegan title to those who only eat a vegan diet but do not seek to exclude exploitation of non-human animals for any other purpose, then just “a vegan”. I do exist — or at least I think I do — and most of my friends define themselves as vegans too, so the question of whether vegans exist should be an unequivocal yes (it has been estimated that there are about 80 million people in the world who follow a fully vegan diet, so a good bunch of them are bound to be ethical vegans).
But just in case, let’s double-check that we are not all delusional, and see if despite saying we are vegans, we can actually be vegan and it’s not all in our head. Can people follow a philosophy that affects their lifestyle? Yes, they can. Can people seek to exclude all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals, regardless of whether they are successful in excluding them all? Yes, they can. Can these people try to exclude such forms in food, clothing, or any other purpose, as far as is possible and practicable to them? Yes, they can (especially with the addition of the word “practicable”, which means “capable of being put into practice, or of being done or accomplished”). By the choices they make following this philosophy, can these people also be promoting the development and use of animal-free alternatives to the products, services, and activities they have rejected? Yes, they can.
Everything in the definition can be done by ordinary humans without the need for superpowers, great skills, or enhance intellect. Anybody can seek to exclude whatever they want to exclude, and even if others prevent them to achieve such exclusion, they cannot prevent the willingness to exclude.
A philosophy (like veganism, feminism, environmentalism, or pacifism) is a structured set of thoughts that can lead to a conviction, belief, or determination that, in turn, can lead to a permanent change of behaviour and even lifestyle. Once that conviction has been formed in people’s minds in the context of the definition of veganism, the people holding it are already vegan, even if they had not behaved as vegans yet because they had not faced any choice yet that would test their beliefs. So, if you can think rationally — not anyone can, though — and you are awake and sober, you can decide that, from now on, you will behave in such a way to not contradict the definition of veganism, and if you feel this will be part of your new identity, you can identify yourself as a vegan. Therefore, vegans are defined for what they think (“seeking to exclude”) rather than for what they do — although what they think will have a strong influence on how they behave.
After you have adopted the philosophical belief of veganism, you can continue calling yourself a vegan if you make all your choices (the options chosen by you of your own volition, not forced by others on you) compatible with veganism, as far as is possible and practicable to you — due to your knowledge and circumstances, which can be unique to you.
Therefore, not only it is perfectly possible to be a vegan, but most people could become vegans if they so wished, although for some it will be easier to manifest such veganism in a way it is recognised by others, while in other cases they may struggle. But if vegans exist, are all vegans equal? Can you be a better vegan than another, and improve on your veganism until you become a “perfect vegan”?
Non-Vegans Are Not Imperfect Vegans
When Eric L. Adams became the Mayor of New York in 2021, most people reported (including me), that he was the first vegan mayor of the city. However, later we all discovered that he ate fish. When challenged about it, he replied that he was an imperfect vegan. Specifically, he said, “Let me be clear: Changing to a plant-based diet saved my life, and I aspire to be plant-based 100% of the time. I want to be a role model for people who are following or aspire to follow a plant-based diet, but as I said, I am perfectly imperfect, and have occasionally eaten fish.” For me, he is not an imperfect vegan because he was not (at least then) a vegan yet. He was only a pescatarian.
Some people claim they are imperfect vegans, but they would be better described as non-vegans (or pre-vegans if they are willing to become vegan later), because they do not believe in veganism yet, or have interpreted it in a way that has corrupted its core principles. In my opinion (and this is just my opinion, I am not trying to be an entitled vegan gatekeeper who definitively knows who can be classed as vegan and who can’t, as at the end of the day whatever interpretation that becomes dominant may become the one that survives in the future, even if is a corruption from the original) here are some examples of these types of people who I do not consider vegans (despite they may identify themselves as vegans):
- Someone who avoids consuming flesh but still willingly consumes dairy or eggs (even backyard ones) where alternatives exist is not a vegan even if seeks to exclude animal exploitation beyond diet. These would be called vegetarians instead.
- Someone who avoids consuming flesh from terrestrial animals but not from fishes and aquatic invertebrates (where alternatives exist) is not a vegan even if does not consume eggs and dairy and seeks to exclude animal exploitation beyond diet. These would be called pescatarians instead.
- Someone who only seeks to reduce contributions to animal exploitation and cruelty, as opposed to seeking to exclude them where they can be excluded, is not a vegan (such a person could be a reducetarian if makes this an ideology and an identity).
- Someone who only adopts aspects of the vegan diet occasionally but without exclusivity and commonly reverts to consuming animal products for convenience or whim despite vegan-friendly alternatives being available, is not a vegan (such a person could be a flexitarian if makes this an ideology and an identity).
- Someone who has given up veganism and does no longer believe in its ethical imperative or its four core principles (which are not harming others, all animals should be considered sentient beings, speciesism is wrong, and all animal exploitation should be avoided), is no longer a vegan, even if retains some of the behaviours associated with vegan people. I would call these ex-vegans.
- Someone who used to be a vegan but decided to start consuming some animal products due to believing they come from animals who are not sentient is no longer a vegan, but perhaps a post-vegan (such a person may choose the label ostrovegan or bivalvegan if such animals are bivalves).
- Someone who used to be a vegan but decided to start consuming some animal products (or exploiting some animals) due to believing they come from forms of animal exploitation that are acceptable, is no longer a vegan, but perhaps a post-vegan. Some of these may choose the label beegan or veggan if such exploitation is apiculture or egg production/consumption, respectively. Others may not use any specific label or identity, like those people who willingly ride horses or support zoos).
- Someone who disagrees with the basic principles of veganism, denies its nature as a cogent philosophy, and opposed the socio-political movement it generated, is not a vegan even if behaves as vegans do in terms of consumer choices. I would call these Mimetic Vegandeniers.
- Someone who thinks is superior to others because of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic group, nationality, species, or any other group characteristic or class, who consciously discriminates against others for who they are, or who is violent against other sentient beings (human or non-human) without a proper justification (such as genuine self-defence), is not a vegan even if consumes the same products vegans consume. I call these Supremacists.
- Someone who eats the diet vegans eat, but who willingly does not follow the definition of veganism in any other aspect of life (such as in clothes, cosmetics, hobbies, entertainment, etc.) is not a vegan. Many of these may identify as Plant-Based People, but if they do identify as vegans, I would call these Dietary Vegans because this is a well-established term for them, and the Vegan Society has accepted them as voting members for its AGM, even if they do not follow its definition of veganism to the full — possibly because they realised these people are very numerous and could become fully vegan if they are not shunned from the movement. Because of this, and to be welcoming and inclusive to pre-vegans, I sometimes use the term «Vegan» in inverted commas as a wider term to mean the group comprised of dietary vegans and ethical vegans, but for the purpose of this article, I will be considering dietary vegans as non-vegans, as I think I need to be more strict with the definitions in here.
Many Vegans Are Imperfect
To identify perfect vegans, perhaps it would be easier to look at imperfect vegans first and see if there is anyone left when we rule them out. There are two main types of reasons why a vegan can be an imperfect vegan: internal (to do with their thoughts and choices) and external (to do with their environment and circumstances).
As far as internal reasons are concerned, looking at what vegans are, people who have decided to seek the exclusion of animal exploitation and animal cruelty from their lives by choosing alternatives of products, services, and activities connected with such exploitation and suffering, you could then see that an imperfect vegan would be someone who imperfectly seeks such exclusion — in a way that could be better — rather than someone who actually fails to achieve the total exclusion. Here are some examples of these:
- Someone who hasn’t got the chance to apply veganism yet, as just decided to become vegan (after seeing a documentary, for instance), could be called an Embryonic Vegan. This type of imperfect vegan would typically be someone who has been vegan for just a few minutes or hours.
- Someone who has decided to avoid animal exploitation because of the conviction this is wrong, but who does not know what to avoid and how to do it yet, could be someone I would call a Rooky Vegan. This type of imperfect vegan would typically be someone who has been vegan for just a few weeks or months.
- Someone who began following a vegan lifestyle from childhood — or birth — could be an imperfect vegan until reaching the age where adopting a philosophy is possible as the brain has developed enough to do so, and now is capable of fully understanding veganism. I would call these Immature Vegans, and they would typically be children from a vegan household before they reach adolescence.
- Someone who has decided to become vegan but has some doubts about the decision, not being sure whether it is the right one, could be a type of imperfect vegan we can call Doubtful Vegan, still considering the issues intellectually before veganism becomes a true conviction for them.
- Someone who goes in and out of veganism because of repeated mind changes may be an imperfect vegan we could call an Intermittent Vegan, but only if the conviction was genuine at the beginning of each vegan period. People can change their minds about ideologies and philosophies, and this does not mean they never hold them true in the first place, but if they keep lapsing and reconnecting this may suggest that either they held weak convictions or they were very influenced by external forces that pushed them out of them occasionally. These could typically be very addicted individuals who constantly fall for consuming animal products, and their addiction rationalises the mistake.
- Someone who doesn’t understand what the philosophy of veganism is, and thought it meant something else when adopting it, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call a Confused Vegan, if the confusion did not lead to behaviour incompatible with veganism yet (although it will likely do with time, making them non-vegans).
- Someone who has not gone deep into the philosophy yet and only copies other vegans’ behaviour, without fully understanding the reasons behind it, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call a Superficial Vegan. This may be typical of teenagers who adopted the philosophy because it is fashionable in their social circles, or because a celebrity who they are a fan of happens to be vegan.
- Someone who is vegan but has once or twice “fallen off the waggon,” perhaps when was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call an Intoxicated Vegan who, by having temporarily lost mental capacity, has also temporarily lost the ability to hold a philosophy or behave true to it (incidentally, trying to avoid this could be one of the arguments for becoming an Abstinent Vegan).
- Someone who has the conviction of the veganism principles and manifests them appropriately in terms of consumer choices, but feels hostile to the vegan community, adverse to the vegan concept/label (but not to the extreme of publicly renouncing it), and spends lots of time and energy criticising other vegans and making their lives more difficult, I think could be a type of imperfect vegan who I would call Hostile vegan (or Anti-Vegan Vegan).
- Someone who follows veganism, but often forgets about the philosophy and its principles when choosing something (regardless of whether the choice ended up being a violation of such principles) could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call a Distracted Vegan. These may be more common among people who have not been vegan for long, or who try to keep a low profile as a vegan.
- Someone who is vegan but does not give the necessary thought, time, and effort in deciding what are the most vegan-friendly options to choose from, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call Lazy Vegan, regardless of whether the choices made ended up being the right ones.
- Someone who is vegan but does not know much about veganism and its different dimensions, and does not want to know more, could be a type of imperfect vegan who I would call Ignorant Vegan. This would not include people who know little but are willing to learn more.
- Those who are vegan (and follow the definition of veganism) but only for themselves, and do not care about others — either other vegans, other human beings, or other sentient beings — could be classed as imperfect vegans who I would call Selfish Vegans. A typical case may be the so-called Health Vegans who are obsessively and vainly into fitness.
- Someone who is vegan but, as far as the grey areas beyond the core principles of veganism are concerned, does not accept diversity in the interpretation and manifestation of the philosophy, could be an imperfect vegan I would call Intolerant Vegan. This may be typical of inexperienced vegans who are still learning about the philosophy.
- Someone who entered veganism via one of its five gateways (animals, environment, social justice, spirituality, and health) but does not consider vegans those who entered via the others, and is not interested in exploring the other four dimensions of veganism, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call One-dimensional Vegan.
- Someone who becomes too obsessed with a particular manifestation of veganism linked to particular socio-political frameworks or cultures, while forgetting about the core values of veganism and their inherent universality of expression, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call Culturally-biased Vegan.
- Someone who is vegan but, in manifesting veganism, puts other people off becoming vegans for being too aggressive, inconsiderate, inappropriate, offensive, or socially blind, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call a Pushy Vegan.
- Someone who is vegan but misses many opportunities to help others to become vegan, for being too accommodating, insecure, self-conscious, or pushover, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call an Apologetic Vegan.
- Someone who is vegan, but nobody knows because willingly lives in isolation from society and is not interested in spreading the vegan message, or helping anyone to become vegan, could be an imperfect vegan I would call a Hermit Vegan.
Then we have imperfect vegans who did not achieve vegan perfection, not because of something they did or who they are, but because of something their environment did to them. Their imperfection comes from not being able to manifest their veganism in a way that has a significant positive impact on animals and the world, despite their belief being genuine and as strong as it could be. Here are some examples of imperfect vegans for external reasons:
- Someone who firmly believes in veganism, but who lives in extreme circumstances that prevent manifesting such philosophy in the way an average vegan would do (for instance, for lack of any vegan alternatives available), could be an imperfect vegan I would call Restricted Vegan. A typical case could be someone in custody, in a war zone, or surviving under severe hostile conditions in a harsh environment.
- Someone who easily caves to social pressure and only manifests veganism when alone because cannot find a way to overcome this pressure coming from friends, family, or authorities (such as bosses) could be a type of imperfect vegan who I would call Suppressed Vegan, if the conviction is genuine and the effort to resist the social pressure is significant. This may typically be people in environments where nobody else is vegan, who have no support from anyone to be vegan, who live under an oppressive social situation, and who have characters that do not help them to stand their ground.
- Someone who has been brainwashed into joining a cult which happens to follow a vegan lifestyle could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call a Brainwashed Vegan, because the lifestyle may have been psychologically forced and not adopted voluntarily. In those cases, one could say the mental faculties of these people have been compromised so the philosophy of veganism was not adopted of their own volition.
- Someone who becomes vegan due to their relationship with others, but who would stop being vegan when the relationship ends, as following the philosophy was one of the conditions for the relationship, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call a Conditional Vegan. That is if their conviction for veganism was genuine when the relationship was ongoing, but the motivation to continue being a vegan disappeared after the relationship ended. These could typically be people who become vegan when their spouse or partner became vegan in a way that threatened the relationship had they not followed suit.
- Someone who has been misled by others about what following the philosophy of veganism entails, and such misinformation has led to behaviour incompatible with veganism, could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call a Deceived Vegan. These may typically be people with very little knowledge of veganism who became vegan because of the influence of other imperfect vegans, often still in their junior-vegan phase, who claim to be an authority on the subject, when they may not be.
- Vegans who are already living in an environment where all the right vegan-friendly choices have been made for them, so they no longer need to seek to exclude animal exploitation — because that task has been done by others — could be a type of imperfect vegan I would call an Institutionalised Vegan. A typical case of these would be vegans who were born in — and still live in — fully vegan communities.
Are There Perfect Vegans Out There?
Now that I have spelt out who I consider non-vegans and vegans, and from the latter, I have listed several types of imperfect vegans I could think of, are there any vegans left? In other words, are there vegans who are not imperfect vegans, and by definition, are therefore perfect vegans?
Well, to be one of them, one should be an ethical vegan in the first place, and then not be an Embryonic, Rooky, Immature, Doubtful, Intermittent, Confused, Superficial, Intoxicated, Hostile, Distracted, Lazy, Ignorant, Selfish, Intolerant, One-dimensional, Culturally-biased, Pushy, Apologetic, Hermit, Suppressed, Restricted, Brainwashed, Conditional, Deceived, or Institutionalised Vegan. During my 20 years of veganism, I could have been described as several of these imperfect vegans on several occasions, but I am getting better at it, so would I ever be able to be a perfect vegan who has overcome all these imperfections?
I don’t know, but if I do not, I don’t think the reason would be that the perfection I was trying to get is unattainable. If we understand that what makes vegans imperfect is not how well they manage to exclude animal exploitation and cruelty from their lives — in the environments where they can actually exclude them — but their lack of conviction, effort, dedication, or willingness to try (which could well be caused by a weakness of character or due to a mental issue rather than negligence, complacency, or laziness), then the quest to become a perfect vegan becomes far more achievable.
The first step to getting there should be addressing the external obstacles. There are places in the world where veganism is not suppressed or restricted and many vegan-friendly alternatives exist for the vegan community living there. Places where becoming vegan is a free choice for anyone and nobody is brainwashed into veganism. Places where veganism is not used as a pre-condition of anything that could make people pretend to be vegan rather than genuinely being one. Places where there is enough truthful information about veganism accessible to anyone so people cannot be easily deceived about it. Places where animal exploitation still exists so vegans have to actively consider the philosophy when they face any choice (so their behaviour comes from their convictions and not from mindless imitation). I know many places like that, and I live in London, one of them. Therefore, either through emigration, socio-political transformation, or luck, in the second decade of the 21st century, many vegans may be already living in places where there are no external reasons to make their veganism imperfect.
Regarding the internal reasons, though, many may be quite common, but I believe all can be overcome once they are detected and there is a willingness to overcome them. Time alone will help to move away from the embryonic, rooky, immature, and doubtful states of veganism. Meeting other vegans (especially from other types, cultures, and demographics), learning about veganism from many sources, and constantly (and honestly) evaluating your behaviour, can help to pass the confused, superficial, ignorant, selfish, intolerant, one-dimensional, culturally-biased, and hermit states. And by trial and error, and learning from experience, one can overcome the pushy and apologetic imperfections, and find the right balance.
If you recognise the imperfections of how you interpret and manifest veganism, you can work on trying to overcome them. If you do that all the time, 24/7, never forgetting the official definition of veganism or trying to water it down, never weakening your convictions regarding the core principles of veganism or looking for ways to bypass them, never stop progressing or growing as a vegan, and remain a committed vegan for the rest of your life, I think with years you could become a perfect vegan if you are lucky enough to end up living in a place that will allow you to achieve that.
For me, a vegan who is always trying to improve, who is trying to become a better vegan every day by learning more about animal exploitation (and not only about how to exclude it from one’s life but also how to abolish it altogether), who is constantly helping to build the vegan world for future generations, and who is always getting better at helping people to become (and stay) fully-dimensional ethical vegans, is more likely to become a perfect vegan than someone who was born into a vegan family in a vegan community and just follows the lifestyle for habit, without thinking about it, without studying it, without trying to progress with it.
Two vegans who put the same commitment, effort, and consistency in manifesting their veganism, and always try to follow all the core vegan principles of the philosophy in all decisions they make, could be both perfect vegans even if one has been a dedicated vegan activist for decades having directly helped many animals while the other only has been an ethical vegan for a few years and has not been directly involved in hands-on animal protection yet — even if the former may have a lower Blood Footprint. It’s not what they have achieved or how much they avoided animal exploitation that defines their vegan perfection, but their attitude, resolve, and diligence in becoming better vegans.
I am sure perfect vegans already exist, but we may never know who they are because we would never know all the life circumstances that affect them (internal and external), and therefore how these affect the manifestation of their veganism, and its impact. When you become a perfect vegan, I am sure you will know, because you will know whether you can do better, and that’s why I know I am not a perfect vegan yet — and I have a long way to go.
I believe the positive impact in the world perfect vegans already have will continue to increase with time after they have become “perfect”, as they will never stop in trying to help more, and help better, even if they seem to have reached the limit of how much can they do within their circumstances. It’s almost like the concept of Bodhisattva of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which means practitioners who have attained enlightenment but rather than leaving the circle of rebirths and suffering of this world (Samsara) and retire to Nirvana (which represents an equivalent of Paradise if we look at it from a Judaeo-Christian perspective) they stick around to help others to attain it too.
“Perfect” does not necessarily describe excellence, by the way. In this case, it’s not a statement of value, but a statement of accuracy. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in being an imperfect vegan who does not wish to improve, or intrinsically right in having attained perfect veganhood in all its facets. Imperfection is part of nature, and we should accept it for what is worth. However, when looking at it relatively in a human society we want to improve, it’s better to be a perfect vegan than an imperfect one, and better to be an imperfect vegan than a non-vegan.
It’s not a competition, though. This is not about seeing who wins a hypothetical vegan gold medal. This is simply about achieving something you set up to achieve the day you said to yourself “I want to be a vegan”. If you get there, I am sure you would not be disappointed if nobody gives you an award or a trophy, because you would have learnt the true meaning of veganism. You would have learnt why you seek to exclude all forms of exploitation of others; you would have learnt to choose right and behave ethically; and you would have learnt about not expecting anything in return.
It is perfectly possible to be a perfect vegan, but being a perfect vegan is not an ego-inflating aspiration reserved for a selected elite of overachievers.
Being a perfect vegan is the minimum we all should be.