Veganism as a Social Justice Movement | thinking beyond the diet

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Having grown up vegan, I feel I must have answered every question in the book about what it means, why I am vegan, where I get my protein and the all-time favourite “So you can’t eat…. (insert favourite food here)?!”

It has been amazing to see veganism grow so quickly over the past few years; not so much for how much easier it is to eat out, but because the conversations are now rapidly moving on. People are no longer hearing the word ‘vegan’ for the first time and I find a lot more people already think of it as a positive choice to make, aware of the environmental impacts, health concerns and costs to animal welfare of a meat-based diet. However, I do find the focus is still heavily centred around diet and food; still discussing, comparing and commodifying other animals in terms of products, not persons.

human and non-human animals drawn curled up, all showing similar needs for comfort and security

Changing our food and diet is undoubtedly a huge component of transitioning towards veganism. However, this is not due to veganism's obsessive concern over food, but because of the extortionately high numbers of non-human animals who are used and killed to feed humans under carnism every day - ‘the dominant and invisible belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals’ (Joy, 2010). Of the many ways we use other animals for our own benefit and pleasure, using their bodies multiple times per day as products to eat is one of the most blatant exploitations and so it is understandable for this to be the first thing we notice.

However, I find this problematic on a number of levels. Veganism is not a diet, it is a social justice movement, fighting for an end to animal oppression in the same way that, and in intersection with, movements such as feminism, anti-racism and gay rights are fighting for an end to the oppression of marginalised humans. Veganism works towards liberating non-human animals from exploitation, (ab)use and commodification by humans and any health benefits this also brings to us as individuals are (fortunate and happy) side effects.

Associating veganism simply with which sandwich millennials are choosing for their meal deal, the latest diet ‘trend’, removes power from the movement and from activists alike, creating stereotypes of vegans and reducing the conversation to a surface level aesthetic.

Veganism can be defined in many ways and as more people are adopting a vegan lifestyle we are needing more ways to describe its adoption into a diverse range of livelihoods. As we grapple with the language, or even identity of the movement, interpretations and intentions range from plant-based veganism to environmental veganism, intersectional veganism to ethical veganism....

For me, veganism is deeply rooted in my practice of ethics. It is both an ideology that seeks a world where we can live without the use of other animals – human or non-human - and the adaptation of this ideology within our everyday interactions and choices.

The Vegan Society defines veganism as ‘a 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’, a definition I feel fits my practice of veganism. In practice, I don’t believe in a binary between vegans/non-vegans, in superiority or perfection but in a work in progress that ranges as diversely as we do. The behavioural changes and interactions we have with others will therefore undoubtedly look different for each of us at different times, acknowledging the limitations of our current, inequitable system.

In its purity however, veganism does take the absolute stance that it is unacceptable to cause undue harm to another and is therefore uncompromising – I would never advocate for any behaviour that does involve unnecessary harm. To drive the practice of veganism, we must have a vision of the endpoint. What could it look like to live in a world without speciesism? And what could it look like to be vegan within a compromised system in the meantime?

It is naturally harder to empathise with the experience of a farmed chicken or a fish taken from the sea than with our best friend or neighbour. Our experience of the world is much further from that of a silkworm than that of a human and there are complicated communication barriers between us. However, beyond overcoming our biological differences, there is also a dense layer of psychological and societal relations that form a barrier to our empathy for other species. We have years of internalised and institutionalised power relations to navigate.

It is time to unlearn the lessons we have internalised as citizens in a carnist world and re-learn to see other animals as sentient, social beings with wants and needs that are just as complex and valid as our own, even if harder for us to understand.

The Psychology of Power | removing the blinders

Animals are commodified to use for our own gain. Completely normalised practice. Pencil and colour sketch

In seeing veganism in its full, as a social justice movement, we must recognise the patterns and behaviours that uphold the status quo. As a minority (albeit growing) belief system, veganism must fight against the dominant system of speciesism that maintains the power dynamic of humans over non-humans.

Melanie Joy is a psychologist who works to uncover the thinking and processes behind the way we relate to others. Her latest book ‘Powerarchy’, takes an intersectional look at the psychological processes that underlie all forms of oppression, blocking our natural empathy for others.

Systems of oppression are relational, playing out in the ways we interact with ourselves and others. Melanie Joy recognises their operation at three simultaneous and intersecting levels – the collective, the interpersonal and the intrapersonal.

At the collective level, beliefs and power dynamics are held by society as a whole and are institutionalised, shaping laws, traditions and cultural practice. They are upheld both implicitly, via the roles we conform to, and explicitly, via rules. At the interpersonal level, power relations play out in our interactions, giving a greater capacity for influence to some over others. Members of the dominant group relate from places of physical and psychological power that block a truly empathic response, such as refusing to listen to others, narrating their experience for them or physically compromising their space and needs. The intrapersonal level refers to the way we view ourselves and our own power. It is not something we are literate at recognising, so we rarely feel privileged or powerful (Joy, 2019).

The cumulative effect of these unbalanced interpersonal relations, fuelled by our internalised beliefs and assumptions creates societies of domination and oppression, which then further shape us as individuals through institutionalised and culturally normalised practice. The difficulty in feeling privilege, in recognising implicit roles and accessing our empathy all serve to render power structures invisible, protecting the status quo, naturalising inequality and suffocating counter-systems.

Power and privilege are not always damaging processes however. Power can be used to further our interests at the cost of others, but it can also be used to meet multiple needs at once. The difference between these can be referred to as power-with as opposed to power-over. Power-over dynamics are individualistic rather than relational, characterised by competition and comparison.

Although once necessary for biological survival, the evolution of complex social organisation and generational intelligence means that power-over dynamics are largely dysfunctional in today's societies. We no longer rely on the use of other animals to feed ourselves, to compete for the best farming practice or to keep us warm, leaving us able to make conscious choices for the long-term, bigger picture. In fact our collective planetary, human and non-human well-being depends upon this kind of conscious choice, best met via a power-with model.

Power-over dynamics are self-perpetuating, following their own rules and roles and reinforcing their own legitimacy. This maintenance of power can be recognised via three processes – cognitive distortions, narratives of power and the power of privilege.

Cognitive distortions act both to prop up the existing dominant power system and simultaneously to invalidate the counter-system. The status quo is normalised, naturalised and necessitated. Drinking the milk of another species into our adulthood is sold as a natural, essential component of our nutrition, forming barriers to alternatives and concealing the full story of the production of dairy. We blindly accept the thousands of places selling chicken's breasts, legs or 'pieces', becoming acustomed to visualising a chicken's wing as part of a meal. Without visibility, the full damage remains unseen and those with privilege, agency and choice remain ignorant. Oppression is perpetuated and the power imbalance deepened.

At the same time, veganism as a counter-system is invalidated as a mere trend. Stereotyping and belittling the movement, it ties the actions to another (often also oppressed) group, in this case diverting attention from the full envisioning of veganism to obsess over the dietary ‘whims’ of the (teenage female) human and the products they put into their body. This both further reinforces the oppression of young people and women as lesser than, subject to emotional sentimentality and overly concerned with their appearance; but also diverts the conversation away from those it needs to centre – the non-humans who are exploitated for their body parts, company or cuteness.

Non-Human Animals Beyond Food | the impacts of commodification

In order to move on from where we are now, with other animals commodified, (ab)used and killed in their trillions each day, we must learn to see beyond the first glance of flesh and body parts on a plate.

cows milk, sheeps wool, beeswax, chicken wings are not for us but are part of the animal

As identified in the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism, animals are highly commodified not only by our dietary choices, but to make clothes, beauty products, cleaning products, even for pure entertainment.

Dominant power systems normalise, naturalise and glamourise the use of animal products within fashion, concealing the harm this causes to other animals, both human and non-human, highly successfully. There is still great ignorance of the costs of gleaning ‘natural’ animal fibres. Within conscious creation, I therefore reject the use of the term ‘natural’ in regards to wool, silk, leather or the many other fibres and materials derived from animals and only use materials that are derived from plants.

Veganism rejects the use of other animals as a commodity for our benefit, recognising their rights and agency regardless of ‘how bad’ or inhumane the process of their use is. In many ways, it is besides the point that industrialised farming is so horrific, the answer not being nicer ways to slaughter but preventing the need for using other animals at all. However, as a step to revealing the processes of their oppression, I feel it is important to open our eyes to the impacts of the system and our behavioural choices in their full today.


To produce wool for human use, sheep have been domesticated and bred to overproduce their fleece to the point that they now need to be sheared every year. For the majority of sheep this is done through an industrialised process driven by maximising profits, paying shearers by the sheep rather than by the hour and therefore encouraging fast, careless work. The sheep is fully awake and highly distressed by the process and, with little care for their welfare, they are often injured, from nicks to the skin to complete amputation of their udders, ears, penises or other body parts (Peta, 2012). As a side effect of the breeding process, their skin also grows unnaturally beyond their needs, forming wrinkles that gather dirt and moisture, attracting parasitic infections such as flystrike. Rather than investing in treating this, ‘mulesing’ and tail docking are standard practices of the industry – barbaric procedures that remove large chunks of skin, flesh and the entire tail, again mostly in a rush and without anaesthetic.

Commodifying sheep as producers for human gain is an open gateway into multiple forms of use and the wool industry is inseparable from the meat and milk industries. Sheep, goats, alpacas and other mammals used for their coats are often also subjected to traumatic processes of artificial insemination, repeat pregnancies, separation at birth and early slaughter due to exhaustion and ‘unproductivity’, aged just five.

Sheep would not choose to spend their entire life living in just a handful of fields, often with no shelter from the elements, no entertainment and without their natural social group or family structure. Likewise, the huge areas of rolling fields that form our concept of the countryside are not 'natural'. Diverse landscapes, habitats and indigenous lands have been converted into monocultured pastureland - environmentally impoverished landscapes of production. These practices are not natural, normal or necessary and our acceptance of them as such is a prime example of cognitive distortion under a system of power.

Goats, Alpaca, rabbits and camels are also caught up in farming for their coats. Be aware of fabrics made using alpaca, angora, camel, cashmere, guanaco, llama, mohair, nutria, vicuna, felts or other familiar animal's names.


Silk is derived from silkworms, therefore their use in the production of a posh dress goes against animal ethics. The silk industry, despite its portrayal as a luxury commodity, is another example of a barbaric industrial process, where silkworms are raised intensively in farms, factories and labs until the cocoon stage. Special silkworms are kept apart for breeding, before being killed and thrown away as soon as the mating is done (males) or eggs are laid (females). At this point they are sorted according to size, shape and colour before being boiled alive in huge numbers to extract the thin strands of silk – over 1500 worms per metre of cloth, which means between 70 billion and 2 trillion are killed each year in the industry.

There are many alternative options available that don’t rely on the use of other animals, from synthetic fibres such as satin to plant-based options such as banana silk, pineapple silk or cactus silk


The exploitation involved in the production of leather is perhaps more apparent and acknowledged, given that the use of other animals’ skin clearly relies upon their slaughter. However, there is still a commonly held idea that this is simply ‘making the best use of the full animal’ – leather as an unused by-product of the meat and dairy industries. However, not only is this is inaccurate but it is also simply untrue in a lot of cases, where cows and other animals are raised specifically for their skins. The selling of skins is often more profitable than meat, making it more realistic to view leather production as a subsidy, enabling the meat and dairy industries that do not otherwise make a profit.

Attempts to source high-quality, ‘ethical’ leather are not capable of avoiding the commodification and harm of the industry. In reality, at both ends of the scale lies incredible cruelty. Cheap leather is commonly produced in highly intensified factory conditions, relying on cheap labour from disadvantaged communities such as India and China. The industry relies on the exploitation of humans, non-humans and the environment alike, from birth to slaughter and even through to the toxic tanning process. On the other hand, attempts to avoid cheap labour in favour of high quality leather often means a call for softer, suppler leather, produced using the softer skin of young calves. It is another example of how commodifying other animals inherently objectifies them and denies their sentience, rights and needs. There is no way to do this without harm.

There has been a surge in the market for plant-based leather alternatives over the past decade, some more environmentally costly than others, but there are more and more options each day. Look out for alternatives such as pineapple leather, cactus leather, flower leather and even apple peel leather.


Once again, the seemingly simple idea of gathering feathers dropped during moulting is unrealistic and half-sighted in reality. A ‘natural’ down pillow is stuffed using the soft undercoating of geese, ducks and swans. It requires the feathers of over 75 birds to stuff just one pillow, so it is clear to see that waiting and gathering the down that is shed naturally would be a laborious and costly process.

Instead, the vast majority of down is gathered through the practice of live plucking, at great distress to the birds and frequently ripping their skin. Time pressures and repetitive, boring work mean that care is seldom taken even at this moment, with rips being crudely sewn up without anaesthetic before birds are tossed back to the floor of the factory.

For more valuable feathers, such as those from roosters, ostriches and peacocks, vast numbers of birds are raised in tightly packed sheds as fast as possible. As soon as tail feathers are matured, they are plucked and the birds slaughtered, no longer seen as profitable or worthy. It is hard to argue that this practice is natural or that feather bowers and hairpieces are necessary. There are many alternatives for us to choose.

Beauty, cosmetics, cleaning

Besides clothing and textiles, the use of other animals extends to beauty, cosmetics, cleaning products and medicine - both in their unnecessary use as ingredients and as test subjects for finished products. Awareness of animal testing has gained considerable attention over the past years and both availability of options and increased labelling has made it far easier to support sources which minimise the exploitation of other animals to produce these products, yet even products certified as not tested on animals are not always also labelled as suitable for vegans.

Beeswax, for example, is a common ingredient that is used under acclaim as a 'natural product'. However, despite their size, bees have brains, nervous systems, emotions and relationships just as we do. The practice of beekeeping for their honey or beeswax commodifies them and spreads the idea of surplus production that we can collect for ourselves. However, in reality the industry is as exploitative as for so many other farmed species, relying on artificial insemination, wing clipping, sale and postage of live bees online and highly inhumane methods of culling or depopulation over the 'unproductive' winter months. Conditions leave bees overworked, poorly insultated, poorly fed and vulnerable to parasites, further weakening their environment and health.

Sweet alternatives to honey are readily available, such as agave syrup, other syrups and sugars, whilst beeswax can be avoided by checking labelling for plant-based waxes such as soy wax, sunflower wax and rice bran wax. Linseed oil, danish oil and walnut oil all finish furniture beautifully and soy wax makes a great candle.

Entertainment, pets, ownership

In seeing other animals as less than, for the uses they could have for ourselves, we frequently reduce them to commodities to own, breed, train and imprison. Speciesism treats individuals wildly differently depending on their species and what we deem useful about their traits. Whilst cows have been bred to produce vast quantities of milk, pigs fattened for maximising flesh, chickens' life-spans shortened to a profitable 40 day life; we want rabbits to be docile, furry pets with cute faces and tons of fur, horses to be strong and fast, to carry us, race and entertain us.

Once commodified for our own benefit, we blind ourselves to their needs and personhood alike, leading to the slippery slope of exploitation and removal of agency. Sentient beings become property, pets become reliant on us to eat, to go out, to socialise, even when and how they are touched. Animals are imprisoned just to be looked at, trained to perform tricks, dressed up to attract tourists, farmed for education programmes. Once commodified and owned, they are vulnerable to lives of huge exploitation and neglect, frequently caged in unacceptable conditions, separated from families and social groups, violently trained into submission and dying early deaths from trauma, neglect or unprofitability.

Shocking as the implications of commodification are at scale, for me the real value and importance of considering non-human animals beyond food is in learning to implement the basic principle of respecting their right to a free life and their own agency. Small-scale or industrial scale, local petting zoo or city aquarium, school incubation program or national horse races, the use of animals for our own entertainment is unnecessary and wrong and will always act under a power imbalance. It will always prioritise our needs at the cost of theirs, blinding us to their needs, pain, pleasure and personality and runs the risk of catapulting into the larger, more obvious and scary abuse seen via examples above.

Without looking beyond capitalist ways of relating, beyond animals as food and products, we cannot reach the fullness of veganism. Spotlighting the production processes that commodify them and seeking alternatives is just a step on the way.

HUMAN ANIMALS BEYOND FOOD | we are not what we eat

Ink line drawing with coloured pencil, people and personality beyond food products

Focussing on the health benefits to humans of a plant-based diet not only decentres the non-human victims but it invalidates those who champion the movement too. It turns the movement itself into a commodity and turns activists into stereotyped ‘vegan consumers’. Dominant power-over relations are recreated in the oppression of human animals, portraying vegans as overly sensitive, image obsessed dieters, or silly young females. As slim, White, affluent and radiant with health.

This stereotyping is highly dangerous, both to the movement itself and to anyone who doesn’t fit the mould. Veganism as an intersectional social justice issue that impacts us all is limited to a weakened, single issue idea for a narrowed and sidelined ‘vegan community’. The image of veganism becomes caught up in Whiteness, diet, health and capitalist consumption and the veganism in other cultures is glossed over, rendered invisible. Issues of food justice, lack of access to healthy food and limited choice for deprived communities are not addressed. Instead either people in poverty are themselves blamed, demonising fast-food and nutrient poor diets, or veganism is held accountable as flawed, exclusive and preachy .

Plant-based veganism, or a veganism that focuses solely on the diet, is sold for its benefits to the consumer’s health, still framing the non-human animal as a product (even if one to avoid) and simultaneously celebrating that stereotyped ‘acceptable’ vegan - a slim, White, vibrantly healthy young YouTuber who has cured her acne, found unlimited energy and never felt better. It is a highly ableist portrayal of veganism and excludes massive proportions of the population, creating an unsustainable and often (ironically) unhealthy idea of what it means to be vegan.

Although a vegan diet does, on average, have many health benefits to human individuals (and huge health benefits for non-human individuals and our collective environment!) in comparison to non-vegan diets, this is more a handy side-effect of the social justice movement and not a pre-requisite. Marketing veganism as a source of health for all is excluding for those who are uninterested or unable to follow a raw vegan intermittent fast, leading to classism and ableism alike. It further disables those who’s body will never achieve a set vision of ‘health’ and leads to health policing, dictating how we should care for our own body, what it should look like and what it should achieve.

This health policing crosses into the dangerous territory of diet culture, clean eating and restriction, often meaning that vegan options are also marketed for a stereotyped consumer who is looking for low-calorie, ‘clean’ and ‘healthy’ foods. It offers one particular way to practice veganism and reinforces the idea that it is purely for skinny people. It encourages patterns of restriction, dieting and disordered eating and at the extreme end of the spectrum is highly damaging for those suffering with full eating disorders. Veganism often gets blamed for eating disorders, further intersecting with patriarchal stereotypes of a silly young girl – the impacts of which I explored earlier in relation to food, bodies and eating disorders. However, I don’t believe it is veganism itself that is at fault, but this side-lining of veganism purely as a diet and health argument. The worry that veganism is used as a cover up for restriction is enabled and accommodated by a market that commodifies the movement into another product to sell – a diet.

The diet industry is infamously money hungry, making billions each year out of selling the idea of weight-loss, health and wellness in whatever way they can make fit the zeitgeist of the moment. By stopping short and letting veganism be purely about the food we eat, it’s full potential as an alternative way to relate is reduced to a replication of capitalist relations, swapping one product for another, less damaging, product. Just as non-human animals are not limbs to eat, coats to shear and performers to clap at, vegans are not defined by our diet but by the ideology we follow and create. We are more than an individual, more than what we eat and more than a body that consumes.

CONCLUSIONS | unpicking, unpacking, re-packaging

Much as I agree that every swap of an animal-based product to a plant-based option helps, that fewer animals will be exploited by people reducing their meat consumption, whether to reduce their carbon footprint, to improve their sports performance or to reject the use of animals; until we address veganism in its full as a social justice movement, I don't believe we can fully engage with the work of deconstructing our speciesism, dismantling the intersectional power systems that oppress others and seeing the full, decommodified lives of others. By understanding the psychology of how we relate under power, we can reveal the patterns that reproduce these systems, surpressing and disempowering counter-movements such as veganism, sidelining and invisibilising both their advocates and their victims alike.

I am excited that the conversation feels ready to move beyond the debate of what we eat to consider other ways that non-human animals are caught up as products - how to avoid supporting industries that commodify them to use in fashion, clothing, beauty and entertainment. But buying different products is just a step on the way, a tool to navigate the commodification of the capitalist system we live under today. It is crucial that the present reality is exposed and rendered visible in order for us to understand and change, just lets be careful that we are not simply changing the packaging, instead buying the product of ‘veganism’.

By commodifying non-human animals as products to be consumed, human animals as either producers to provide or customers to consume and commodifying the movement itself as a trend, as a diet up for sale; the full picture is concealed. Commodification allows extreme exploitation to continue as though normal, natural and necessary, concealing and belittling any alternative. The full ideology of veganism therefore requires us to rise up against this, building new ways to live and finding more compassionate ways to relate that decommodify others and regrant sentience and agency.

As vegans we must be careful not to recreate the narrowed image of veganism that is set out by the status quo; to be inclusive, anti-ableist, anti-racist, anti-diet culture. To keep seeking that utopia and to unlearn the lessons that are built into our biology, psychology and society under systems of power and instead constantly question, empathise and include. The practice of veganism is not about perfectionism, superiority or preaching to others about what to do, but about each of us engaging in the personal and collective process of unlearning speciesism. To navigate the impacts we have on each other today and to move it beyond the capitalist framing of persons as products altogether, learning to co-habit, respect and communicate with the full person not the body – human and non-human.

Ink gestural drawing of human and non-human co-existence

On the production of non-vegan products: - on the implications of buying wool - for more information about silk - on the leather industry - the use of animals for feathers - on the impacts of beekeeping for honey and beeswax - on the ethical implications of animal captivity

On intersectional veganism:

Powerarchy by Dr Melanie Joy - on seeing and addressing the psychology of power systems

Aphro-ism by Aph and Syl Ko - on the intersection between speciesism and race

Beasts of Burden by Sunaura Taylor - on the intersection between speciesism and ableism/health

The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams - on the intersection between speciesism and sexism

Feminism Interrupted by Lola Olufemi - on the intersections between oppressions and systems of power Sistah Vegan by Dr A. 'Breeze' Harper - voices of black female vegans on food, identity and health

cover image, link on touch and non-human consent and tons of tireless work and inspiration by Vita Sleigh

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