The following is an excerpt from Vegan Vittles written by Joanne Stepaniak, M.S.Ed.
Simply stated, veganism is the conviction and practice of compassionate living. Although this way of life has been followed by a number of individuals and groups throughout history, it wasn't until 1944, when the first Vegan Society was formed in England, that the term vegan (pronounced VEE-gan) was coined to differentiate vegans from vegetarians. This was the beginning of the vegan movement.
By definition, a vegetarian is one whose diet consists of vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts, and sometimes animal products such as eggs, milk, or cheese. A total vegetarian is someone who lives solely on the products of the plant kingdom without the addition of eggs or dairy products.
The term "vegetarian" refers only to what one eats and does not pertain to any other aspect of one's life. The impetus for becoming a vegetarian may be based on ethical, religious, health, environmental, or economic concerns, or any combination of these. The motivation for becoming vegan, however, is fundamentally rooted in a compelling set of ethical beliefs. Both total vegetarians and vegans abstain from eating all meat, fish, or fowl, as well as any other foods of animal origin such as butter, milk, yogurt, honey, eggs, gelatin, or lard, and any prepared foods containing these ingredients. But veganism encompasses far more than just diet.
The Vegan Society in England defines veganism as follows: "Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals."
Therefore, in addition to adopting a total vegetarian diet, vegans make a conscious effort to avoid all forms of exploitation, harm, and cruelty to animals regardless of any "beneficial" end result or any perceived "value" to society. Thus, vegans do not hunt or fish and abhor the unnatural confinement, cruel training, and degrading use of animals in circuses, zoos, rodeos, races, and other forms of "entertainment." Vegans oppose the unnecessary and barbarous testing of cosmetics, drugs, and household products on animals. They also denounce experiments performed on animals. The use of animal products for adornment such as pearls, ivory, or tortoise shell; or clothing including items made from silk, wool, leather, or fur is also shunned. Furthermore, vegans do not use soaps, cosmetics, or household products which contain animal fats or oils, perfumes which are made from animal products, brushes made of animal hair, or pillows, comforters, or parkas stuffed with feathers.
Although this may appear to be a lengthy list of "don'ts," it illustrates the extent to which human beings have come to rely on animal-based products and will advocate animal exploitation when it involves making a profit.
Some people might argue that it is impossible to be totally vegan in today's modern society, and technically, they would be right. The use of animal products and the byproducts of meat, dairy, and egg production are, sadly, tremendously pervasive. For instance, animal fats are used in the production of steel, rubber, vinyl, and plastics. Hence, cars, buses, and even bicycles are not vegan items. Animal products are used in bricks, plaster, cement, and many home insulation materials. They can also be found extensively in everyday products including over-the-counter and prescription drugs, glue, antifreeze, hydraulic brake fluid, videotape, photographic film, tennis rackets, musical instruments, and innumerable other items. Even wine may be clarified with fish meal or egg whites.
Vegans acknowledge that purity in an industrial country is not only unattainable but unrealistic, and to maintain the impossible as an objective may very well be counterproductive. Participating in a society which is founded on animal exploitation places vegans in a continual ethical dilemma. The goal, in effect, becomes trying not to capitalize on, promote, or in any way contribute further to this anthropocentric perspective. Vegans are, at times, inevitably forced to choose between the minutia of ethical consistency, and a realistic approach.
Embracing veganism compels practitioners to confront their attitudes towards all forms of life. According to the American Vegan Society, founded in 1960, the primary motive behind veganism is dynamic harmlessness, the tenet of doing the least harm and the most good. This philosophy encourages vegans to search for options which will protect and improve the lives of all living beings on this planet, eliminate suffering, bring about the responsible use of natural resources, and inspire peace and harmony among people. Consequently, veganism is not passive self-denial. On the contrary, it instills active and vibrant responsibility for initiating positive social change by presenting a constant challenge to consistently seek out the highest ideal.