How Vegans Can Be Even Eco-Friendlier

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 usually 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.

Click here  or here for more tips to avoid palm oil, and a list of common products that contain it.

Unsustainable Soy

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.

The brown patches show just how scarred the Amazon has been by soy production. Image: Wikicommons

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.


Fashion Faux-Pas

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.

Some vegan shoes, made from canvas and rubber, for example, can indeed be eco friendly.

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.

 Works Cited
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Fashion pictures of the model in the coat: Vaute Couture vegan fashion

Jody McCutcheon
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21 thoughts on “How Vegans Can Be Even Eco-Friendlier”

  1. you added sustainably produced. although it would be nice to have everything sustainably produced its unrealistic in the world we live in today. me and most vegans i know are vegans because we don’t want to live our lives off the suffering of other animals. everything else is bonus.

    valid story, false intro

  2. I have another couple of relevant comments here too. If you compare a whole food eating vegan to a whole food eating animal eater, environmentally vegans are way in front – plus we don’t kill anyone.
    Leather production (aside from the cruelty and death) is highly toxic to the environment also. Your article would have more authority if you referenced sources as UN environment program (UNEP), UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO), Worldwatch, or the myriad of other reputable, science based research organisations.
    Your sources also include Dr Mercola, a well know soy basher (amongst other contentious ideas) with his own online program sales, and who is on the advisory board of the Weston A Price Foundation. WAPF if you don’t know exists to promote animal agriculture and increased consumption of saturated animal fats.
    On Dr Mercola: | |

    1. Just wondering, is this the Colleen that I think it is? If so, I want you to know that you are an absolute hero and a wonderful human being. You’ve changed my life and taught me how to effectively plant the seeds to change others lives as well.

  3. Although you offer some good points – everyone (not just vegans) must start being mindful of several aspects of their consumption, such as food miles and processing – but none of this negates the positives of a vegan lifestyle, and some points were rather misleading.

    Soy, as with most commercially grown crops these days, is pretty much always mono-culture. An important fact missing from your piece is the fact that around 75% of the soy grown in the Amazon is to feed cattle – not vegos.

    Regarding GMO, well this depends on which country you live in. I’m Australian and we do not have GMO soy grown in this country. Imported products that contain GMO products must by law be labelled.

    Palm oil is arguably more of a consumer issue for non-vegans due to its ubiquitous use in pretty much everything. Vegan brands are far more likely to be aware and act on the ethical issues and those who use it are either phasing it out (thanks to lobbying by their ethical customer base) or don’t use it at all. I know many ethical vegans who actively seek out palm oil free products and campaign to manufacturers to stop using it or to guarantee RSPO certification.

    Fur and faux, well personally I think both suck. The former is undeniably cruel and unnecessary (and before anyone cranks up, I’ll add the caveat ‘unless you’re a traditionally living Inuit’, in which case it is still cruel but arguably a necessity), and the latter is to be discouraged because it perpetuates the myth that fur looks better on anyone other than the creature it belongs to.

    BTW some facts on climate and environmental issues:
    ~ Animal agriculture is the worst sector for emission of methane, which is around 25% worse for the atmosphere than carbon.
    ~ Animal agriculture is the second worst sector for carbon emissions (after energy but before all transportation).
    ~ The leading cause of species extinction is land conversion and clearing. The leading cause of land conversion and clearing is animal agriculture.

    There is no doubt it is nearly impossible in this consumer and dollar-driven world to lead a completely sustainable and cruelty free lifestyle. Everyone has some level of impact, but when we can make easy choices to NOT inflict suffering and kill needlessly, while drastically minimising our carbon and methane footprint (my footprint if I was a ‘typical’ Australian flesh eater would be around 7x more than it is) and fresh water consumption – why the hell wouldn’t you?

    Despite the fact there is no ‘perfect solution’ I know that veganism is a damn good place to start. As a vegan I know that I am not taking the lives of thousands of animals in my lifetime – they are not mine (or anyone else’s) to take. Nor am I supporting industries that actively engage in inflicting immense and unimaginable suffering to billions of beings globally every year. Conservative records indicate somewhere around 60 BILLION land animals – and an unknown but likely even higher count of sea animals – are exploited and butchered every year.

    Environmentally, the UN continually points toward the need for a shift to a global plant based diet – call me a stickler but I’ll continue to place their decade or so of science and research reports ahead of fashion blogs and pro-animal-farmer opinions.

    So, I’ll stick to living as kindly as I can in this imperfect world, while trying to share information about vegan options with people who are open to minimising their impact and harm on others.

  4. If eating soy and other monocultured plants is a problem, it must be even worse to eat products from the majority of food animals are even more of this?

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