By Jody McCutcheon
Veganism is more than a dietary choice; it is a way of living, which is often thought to be one of the most eco-friendly choices a person in the modern world can make. Vegans are often caring, nurturing people and express their collective identity through their choices in two key areas: food and fashion. Vegan products in here must contain no animals or animal byproducts, and should be sustainably produced. Yet within those two words—“sustainably produced”—lies the catch.
A closer examination of the production methods of common vegan foods and goods reveals some extremely unsustainable practices, however. The question, then, is: knowing the realities, how can earth-loving vegans adapt their diets and behaviour to become more planet friendly?
Palm Oil: Good for vegans, disastrous for animals
Palm oil is found in most processed foods that we all eat, vegan or not. It’s in confections, nut butters, frozen foods, crackers, crisps, as well as many cosmetics, detergents and plastics. It’s also used for biodiesel fuel. While palm oil may be a healthy alternative to hydrogenated oil (trans fat), its production process is terrible on the environment.
The whopping demand for palm oil means that 30,000 square miles of Malaysian and Indonesian rain- and peat- forests has been razed (17,400 square miles in the last decade alone) and replaced mainly with monoculture oil palm. The elimination of all those trees leads to additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; but more significantly, the burning of felled peat forests releases carbon that’s been stored in the ground for centuries. One study suggests the razing of peat-lands releases 660 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, while the burning of them releases 1.5 billion tonnes(7). Hello global warming!
And if that’s not bad enough, Malaysia and Indonesia’s clear-cutting bonanzas have placed several creatures on the brink of extinction, including already gravely endangered Sumatran tigers and orang-utans. The number of wild Sumatran tigers is down to about 400, from a 1978 census of approximately 1000, while fewer than 7,000 Sumatran orang-utans remain in the wild. And there is absolutely no doubt that oil palm plantations signify the greatest threat to Sumatran orang-utans. In Tripa, on Aceh’s west coast, for example, they could be extinct in just a couple years. Protected areas, which historically have offered a modicum of safety for endangered animals, are now also being clear-cut for oil palm plantations due to high demand for the product. And a recent moratorium on deforestation in Indonesia has been undermined by weak legislation and lack of enforcement.
By 2020, palm-oil demand is expected to double, to 40.5 million tonnes. With Malaysia largely tapped, Indonesia—and its many endangered species—will bear the brunt of further deforestation. The easiest way for vegan consumers to avoid palm oil is to avoid processed foods altogether. If this is impractical, be aware that ‘sodium palmate’, ‘vegetable oil’ and ‘palm kernel oil’ on labels all mean palm oil has been used.
Shockingly, some beauty brands that dare market themselves as ‘eco friendly’ contain loads of palm oil. These brands include Jason, Avalon, Origins and Aveda. The latter two are owned by one of the worst chemical offenders in the beauty world: Estee Lauder, whose La Mer, Clinique and other brands rank amongst the world’s least ethical.
Worldwide demand for soy is massive—it feeds not only vegetarian and Asian diets, but is fodder for livestock too. In short, it feeds the world, and it should be added that it’s also fuelling cars that run on ‘biofuel’.
Yet its production wreaks ecological havoc. As dictated by the tenets of industrial agriculture, soybean is grown as a monoculture crop, meaning it is the only crop planted over a large area, for many consecutive years. To create space for it, huge swaths of rainforest are clear-cut, which, as in the case of palm oil plantations, destroys habitats, species and biodiversity, and contributes to climate change and displacement (or worse) of indigenous peoples.
Soy may be native to East Asia, but Brazil will probably pass the US this year as the world’s leading soy producer. Brazil owns the largest expanse of Amazon rainforest—two million square miles—and as of last year, 17% of it had been clear-cut, legally or otherwise, for cattle ranches and soy plantations. Put together, that’s an area the entire size of Brazil’s northern neighbour, Venezuela. In 2004 alone, a Haiti-sized 10,723 square miles of rainforest was cleared.
Moreover, monoculture crop maintenance for both soy and palm oil employs heavy pesticides, like paraquat (3.3 million litres deployed throughout Brazilian rain forests in 2009), which contaminate ground soil and water of formerly pristine rain forest areas.
Since 2004, attempts to reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon have partially succeeded, through levied fines and business embargoes. But food capitalists are again pushing the envelope, especially as soy prices rise and food grows scarce through drought and adverse weather patterns. With strong demand from the biofuel and livestock feed industries, unfortunately for the rainforest, the rewards for producing soy are greater than the penalties.
While many vegans try to avoid buying produce polluted by pesticide, they should take note– monoculture is growing more and more synonymous with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the growth of which can lead to the development of resistant super weeds and super pests, uncontrollable cross-contamination of crops, and multiple human health problems, including infertility, birth defects and cancer. As of 2007, more than half the planet’s soybean crops (58.6%) were genetically modified, and that number has grown today to mean that virtually all soya grown in and exported from the USA, Brazil, China and Argentina is GMO (4).
The solution? Eating only organic soy is a must, but trying to avoid soy altogether is best. Almond latte, anyone? If you simply can’t live without your soya latte or tofu burger, ensure the soy based product you buy is rain forest friendly. Warning: these are hard to find, but most organic brands are ok.
Thanks largely to the petroleum industry, vegans can indulge in traditionally animal-based fashion luxuries like leather and fur without suffering any of the guilt—or so they think.
Do a little digging and you’ll discover that, while vegan clothing may contain no animal products or byproducts, it’s not exactly eco-friendly. The production processes for vegan leather and faux fur create toxic discharges that contaminate local air, water and soil. And since the plastic-derived products themselves don’t fully biodegrade, they end up clogging landfills, or worse, being incinerated. Garments that avoid incineration eventually break down as far as their non-biodegradable composition permits, and the resulting micro-particles eventually are consumed by marine and land animals, whence plastic enters the food chain.
Most vegan leather is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The manufacture and incineration of PVC-based synthetics release dioxins into the atmosphere—toxic chemicals that stunt development and increase cancer risks tenfold. Due to the proliferation of PVC and PVC-based “pleather,” dioxins are found in the bloodstreams of most humans and many other animals, even Arctic polar bears(12). Another problem with PVC is its use of phthalates as a softening agent; these are released into the food chain and the atmosphere once the PVC breaks down. Living cells don’t take kindly to these chemicals– phthalates cause breast cancer, hormonal disruptions, birth defects and breathing problems.
Some vegan leather comes from textile-polymer composite microfibers. Predictably, synthetic microfiber production incorporates noxious chemicals like acetic acid, which can cause skin and eye damage, and carcinogens like dimethylformamide. A few companies are trying to be more eco-friendly, making leather-esque items from fish and eel skins, which otherwise are disposed of during the food production process, but these are still taboo for vegans.
Faux fur is no better, and it might even be harder on the planet than real fur. Consider that an estimated gallon of petroleum oil is used for every three jackets. Definitely not a sustainable alternative! And the production process for nylon, which constitutes many faux-fur garments, is responsible for over 50% of the UK’s nitrous oxide emissions, which contribute to acid rain and ozone depletion. Furthermore, synthetics take more energy to be produced than do natural materials: three times more is required to produce a kilo of nylon than a kilo of cotton, for example. Vegans need to take these realities into consideration before filling their wardrobes with clothing that potentially destroys more life than it saves.
Veganism may indeed be one of the most sustainable lifestyle choices people can make, but vegans mustn’t rest on their laurels: animal-free may not mean animal-friendly. Animal and Earth loving vegans must therefore be careful to read labels and seek additional information about the products they buy.
Fashion pictures of the model in the coat: Vaute Couture vegan fashion