Veganism vs Sustainability (A Faintly Flexible Approach)

“Well-balanced and predominantly plant-based diets can lead to improved nutrient levels, reduce premature deaths from chronic diseases by more than 20%, and lower greenhouse gas emissions, fertilizer application, and cropland and freshwater use, globally and in most regions” — that’s what a 2018 report from researchers at Oxford University found, and I’m certainly not here to dispute it. Veganism has repeatedly, and rightly, been described as the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, with cutting out meat and dairy cited in the Oxford study as a straightforward way to cut your carbon footprint by around 73%.

So what am I going on about, with this provocative title? The answer is that after many years of veganism, I’ve come to the conclusion that while veganism is the answer 99.9% of the time (assuming you are blessed with the luxury of choice, and are free of diet-limiting health conditions) there are times where the most sustainable option is definitely not the perfectly vegan one.

And since I’m really fed up of militant, all-or-nothing vegans gobbing off at vegetarians, flexitarians, vegan-ish individuals and everyone else that’s trying to do their bit, for not doing it well enough, I decided I’d do some gobbing off on my own. Because it’s my blog and I’ll gob off if I want to.


“Give me two examples of a non-vegan thing that’s more sustainable, I’ll wait.”

Someone said that to me in a Facebook group once, seriously. So just for them, here are two things that are not vegan, that are more sustainable than the vegan alternative (and they’re probably things you’ve thought of, too):

  1. Wearing second-hand leather/wool instead of “pleather” and man-made fabrics.
  2. Eating eggs from your neighbour’s/friend’s/colleague’s chickens, instead of processed egg substitute in plastic packaging that’s been transported in a lorry/van/plane/ferry to reach you, or even scrambled tofu made with international beans that have been mechanically processed.

(I know not everyone reading this lives in a city surrounded by countryside where everyone seems to have a fricken chicken, like I do, but the point still stands)

I’m sorry Tabby, I thought this was a vegan blog, what are you on about leather for?

I’m not advocating that everyone starts taking up the purchase of new leather boots: emphasis on the second-hand here, folks. All second-hand clothing is more sustainable than brand new clothing, but some people get so caught up in the quest for plant-based perfection that it somehow becomes unthinkable to wear a second-hand item that is made with an animal product.

If you feel weird about leather because it’s literally the skin of a dead thing, that’s fine: I get it. It is weird as hell, when you think about it. But for the eco-conscious individual, it feels like a no-brainer to state that a single pair of leather shoes, or a leather bag, can long outlast numerous plastic or even fabric-based equivalents, and that therefore if you get the opportunity to go for a second-hand non-vegan thing, in this instance it’s the more planet-friendly move.

free range happy eggs faster lente llamas

How can an egg be more sustainable if the chicken needs feeding, though?

This is basically the only rebuttal other than “but it’s from a chicken ergo it’s gross” that I’ve had when mentioning the egg thing to Proper Vegans in recent years. Yes, back garden chickens are going to require feeding. Just like people’s cats and dogs and rabbits and guinea pigs and ferrets and snakes and whatever other pets you might have, need feeding. But they aren’t hoofing up food on the same scale as industrially farmed animals, and they’re having a considerably nicer time existing, too.

I’m not saying everyone should go get a chicken just so they can eat eggs, but if you’ve got a lil’ egg hook-up, or someone you know does, it’s my personal opinion that the planet is better off having you eat those eggs than it is having you eat a block of tofu made with South American soybeans that were processed in continental Europe and then shipped over to the UK. See also: processed egg replacer mixes.

Eggs are not for everyone. There are lots of things you can eat that are not eggs, at really any time of day. So why am I even talking about eggs? Answers come in twos, today, so:

  1. When people cut eggs out of their diet, they generally replace them with something else.
    To bake cakes and cookies you might then use an egg replacer ingredient, while for cooked breakfasts, shakshuka and other savoury dishes many people use tofu. If you don’t have a sneaky egg dealer who can hook you up with back garden eggs then yes, egg replacer and tofu are WAY more sustainable than eating shop-bought eggs! Ain’t no doubt about it, because factory farming is the worst. Keep on keepin’ on. But we’re talking about exceptions to rules here. So it’s back yard eggs I’m waffling on about.
  2. When you follow a vegan diet and live a busy life, getting all your nutrients can be a challenge, and you’ll often wind up supplementing with B12 and Omega 3 that you bought in a packet from a shop.

    Maybe you eat so much seaweed on a daily basis that you somehow don’t need to sneak your Omegas in from anywhere else, and you polish off a gallon of fortified soy milk and a jar of marmite each evening, so your B12 levels are doing okay too. But maybe not. I’m not going to judge anyone who’d rather get their nourishment from next door’s eggs than a plastic tub that’ll spend the next 200 years floating around in the ocean.

Side note, if you want to rescue some hens who’ve had a miserable life, and maybe even become the black market egg dealer for your local vegan-ish community, here are some great organisations to get in touch with:

But Tabby! You have picked oddly specific examples, and what if I can’t find the more sustainable versions of things because I live somewhere with limited choice?

People having a go at people who don’t have the luxury of choice is a big bugbear of mine. I believe that it’s up to each individual to make the choices that are right for their particular situation, ethics and priorities, which makes me quite unpopular in vegan Facebook groups where people believe that it’s better to starve than to shop in an ordinary supermarket full of non-vegan things.

If you can’t access the most sustainable option, then you shouldn’t be made to feel bad for buying or consuming things that aren’t the most eco-friendly possible thing in existence. We all have to live, and it would be nice if we could all have some semblance of happiness while doing that. I’ve been referring to myself as vegan-ish for a while now, and occasionally as a vegetarian with ideas above my station, and I firmly believe that when it comes to “living green” there are grey areas around the edges of veganism and sustainability that are up for discussion.

Yes, veganism on the whole is the most sustainable pick from the list of dietary choices and broader consumer lifestyles out there. But a militant outlook and a refusal to be flexible at times benefits no-one.

The two examples given here are just that: examples, but if you’re that way inclined, feel free to add other topics for discussion in the comments!

Leave a Reply