I recently found out that most brands of condoms and birth control pills are not vegan. They both contain animal products and are tested on animals. Sigh. One more way I will never be a perfect vegan. But I’m okay with that. I think focusing on vegan purism unhelpful, unrealistic and harmful. It is not an effective way to help animals.
Firstly, when you start cutting out animal products from your diet you quickly hit a point of diminishing returns in reduction of animal suffering. This is because of the lesser known animal products that vegans try to avoid like casein, cochineal, gelatin, isinglass, lanolin (thank you Wikipedia) are by-products of the meat industry. Factory farmers only make a fraction of their profits from these products, the majority comes from the more well know products like meat, eggs, and dairy. If no one ate these by-products*, there would still be factory farming, it would just be slightly less profitable meaning the meat would be more expensive and a smaller percentage of animals would be saved. If everyone stopped eating meat but continued to be fine eating by-products, factory farms only of making money would be by selling these by-products. This would mean there fixed costs would remain about the same, but there revenue would be much smaller, causing the by-products to be so expensive that cheaper non animals products alternatives would likely be used instead.
Secondly, and tying into the first point, it is completely unrealistic to be 100% pure vegan. Unfortunately, animal products or products that involved animal cruelty are everywhere. Sugar, orange juice, [more stuff here] wheat and harvested grain kill field mice and other wildlife, almost ever pharmaceutical drug or medical producer was at some point tested on animals.
The time requirements and reduction of quality of life to be 100% pure vegan is much higher than just not eating meat, dairy, and eggs. And while it makes me so happy that people are willing to work that hard to help animals, I don’t think it the most effective use of their altruistic budget. One way of helping animals that I think is extremely neglected in the vegan community is donating money to effective animal charities. An example would be Vegan Outreach that produces leaflets and coordinates their distribution by volunteers at university campuses. I have not yet researched the exact numbers, but it is entire possible that donating a few hundred dollars to an effective animal charity would cause the same reduction in animal suffering as being vegan for a year. So if your primary concern is reducing animal suffering, I think this is a much better path to go down than vegan purism.
Another reason to avoid purism is the risk of relapse. For psychological reason humans tend to have an all or nothing mentality to begin vegetarian or vegan. I don’t know anyone who only eats 3 meat meals a week. When my friend quit being vegetarian, she didn’t try having meat a few days of the week to see if she could manage that, she went straight back to full meat consumption. There are also terrifying statistics on vegetarian/vegan recidivism. According to a study done by the Humane Research Council “86% of people who go vegetarian lapse back into meat-eating, and 70% of those who go vegan lapse.” Even adjusting for people who go vegetarian for health reasons and then decide to stop, those are scary numbers. So if there is even a small chance that trying to be pure vegan will make you burnout and give up and go back to eating meat, then you shouldn’t do it. Long term thinking is important here, think about you impact over your whole life time not just this year.
The final reason why I think vegan purism is unproductive is how it effects the perceptions of meat eaters. Converting meat eaters to veganism should be a big priority for all vegans. If you convert one meat eater to being vegan for the rest of their life you have doubled the impact you have on animal welfare from being vegan yourself. So anything that makes the meat eaters in your life less interest in veganism, for example the vegans they know obsessing over minute traces of animal products or refusing to eat birthday cake at an office party, will probably do much more harm to animals than buying something with gelatine in it once a month.
I think the intentions of purist vegans are positive reinforcement worthy but I think they are mistaken that vegan purism is the best way to help animals and that it is in fact unproductive relative to a more relaxed form veganism. But different things work for different people so if you feel vegan purism is right for you than go for it. Just remember to focus on what will help animals, not what will make you personally feel better. Valuing the personal good feeling you get from vegan purism over animals lives isn’t that different to what meat eaters do.
* To avoid misinterpretation, I am not making a argument from universalizability. You should base your actions on their marginal effect rather than the hypothetical world where everyone does the same as you. I am talking about what would happen if everyone stopped eating animal by-products to illustrate the economic affect more clearly