To understand what it means to be vegan, it is vital to reflect on the historical roots and origin of the word. Many people think of the term "vegan" and its associated lifestyle as something new, faddish, insurgent, or radical. In many ways, just the opposite is true.
The word "vegan" was coined in England by Donald Watson in 1944. He, along with several other members of the Vegetarian Society in Leicester, England, wanted to form an alliance of nondairy vegetarians as a subgroup of the society. When their proposal was rejected, they ventured to start their own organization. They prospected what to call themselves and, after evaluating a range of ingenious possibilities, agreed that “vegan” (decisively pronounced VEE-gn, with a long E and hard G) was best. It was derived from the word “vegetarian” by taking the first three letters (veg) and the last two letters (an) because, as Donald Watson explained, “veganism starts with vegetarianism and carries it through to its logical conclusion.”
In late 1944, The Vegan Society was established, followed shortly thereafter by the creation of a manifesto describing the society's unified mission and perspective. Although the group advocated a totally plant-based diet excluding flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, and animal-derived milk, butter, and cheese, they also encouraged the manufacture and use of alternatives to animal commodities, including clothing, shoes, and other apparel. In addition, the group acknowledged that the elimination of exploitation of any kind was necessary in order to bring about a more reasonable and humane society and emancipate both humans and animals.
The vegetarian movement in the United States, which had peaked several decades earlier and by that time was declining, was founded strictly on health considerations. In contrast, the British Vegan Society was forged from deeply held ethical convictions and what Albert Schweitzer termed “Reverence for Life.”
In 1960 the American Vegan Society was born in the United States, founded by Jay Dinshah. It wholly embraced, and continues to embrace, the principles of its British predecessor, advocating a strictly plant-based diet and lifestyle free of animal products. In addition, the American Vegan Society promotes the philosophy of ahimsa, a Sanskrit word interpreted as “dynamic harmlessness,” along with advocating service to humanity, nature, and creation. In other words, in order to practice veganism it's not sufficient to simply avoid specific foods and products; it's necessary to actively participate in beneficial selfless action as well.
When we understand the origin of the term "vegan" and the guiding principles established by the founders of the vegan movement, we see that, although inspired by vegetarianism, vegan living encompasses far more than one’s diet. In fact, previously to be a full member of the American Vegan Society, it was required that you not only were vegan in diet but also excluded animal products from your clothing, cosmetics, toiletries, household goods, and everyday commodities. Today membership is open to both vegans and those who simply are vegan-curious. Contrary to popular belief, people who eliminate all animal-based foods from their diets but continue to wear nonvegan clothing or use nonvegan products are technically not vegan; they are total vegetarians.
Omitting animal products from one’s life is a passive action. It does not necessitate doing anything; it merely involves avoidance. In order to actually implement and realize the principles of ahimsa, we must engage the “dynamic” part of “dynamic harmlessness.” Therefore, to fully apply the vegan ethic, not only are vegans compelled to do the least harm, but they are also obliged to do the most good.
Being vegan is at once complex, challenging, and rewarding because each element of a vegan’s life is chosen with conscious awareness; all options are weighed in terms of achieving the highest good possible. This is not to say that vegans are “perfect” or that “perfection” is even an attainable or desirable goal. This is an imperfect world, and we are an imperfect species. However, aspiring to do our best, to ceaselessly reach for compassionate solutions, to strive to attain justice for all life (human and nonhuman), to live honestly and respectfully, and to lovingly care for our planet are far more realistic and reasonable pursuits than dwelling on impractical concerns over perfection.
When people choose veganism, they make an ethical commitment to bettering themselves and the world around them. This is a pledge not to be taken lightly, as it requires us to seriously examine all facets of ours lives. Certainly, animal-free food, clothing, and cosmetic choices are a paramount part of becoming vegan. However, when we delve more deeply into its essence, we see that a vegan outlook extends far beyond the material and tangible. Vegan perspectives permeate our relationships, spiritual beliefs, occupations, and pastimes. Consequently, there are few areas of life that the vegan ethic doesn’t touch or influence to one degree or another.
Becoming vegan is a process; rarely does someone convert to total veganism overnight. More typically, people transition to a vegan lifestyle, generally altering their diets first and then gradually replacing their clothing, cosmetics, and incongruous habits with more serene, compassionate choices. Some vegans eventually change jobs in order to align their vocations with their beliefs. Others become activists on behalf of animals, social justice, peace, and/or the environment. Still others do volunteer work, adopt or foster children, take in homeless animals, reduce their material consumption, or any number of other positive, beneficent acts.
In truth, there is no end to the vegan journey. We are perpetually challenged to do more, to strive higher, to see and understand more clearly, to be more loving and humble. This is the gift of veganism. It is a guide for compassionate living. It is the path of honoring our roots, our planet, all life, and ourselves.