There are many reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle (or, to be more direct, becoming a vegan), from the straight-up rejection by ethical vegans of the use of animals for any purpose, to the dietary and environmental vegans - and everyone else in between. For many, a label is neither necessary, nor even considered; it was the decision to change their way of life that mattered most.
It is the act of making that choice that I'd like to reflect on. It is such a moment of significance, and one that is as individual as the person making it: perhaps it was an overnight snap decision, the result of a fantastic campaign like Veganuary or a slower awakening. Maybe a foray into Meat Free Monday.
For some, as soon as the decision to become vegan has been grabbed and internalised, they have the strength and dedication to immediately adopt a fully plant-based diet, replace all of their household cleaning and cosmetic products; as well as all of their wool, silk and leather clothes, shoes and carpets. I whole-heartedly applaud those people, it's an incredible achievement. But for many, it might be more than likely that the transition to a vegan life takes place one step at a time; and I think that should be ok.
Everyone has their own 'story' as to how they came to be vegan. I was an on and off-again vegetarian for much of my adolescence and twenties, and tried out a vegan diet pretty much on a whim three years ago. It took me a while to become aware of (or perhaps, want to become aware of) the non-dietary aspects of veganism, and I took my time in learning about precisely why wearing leather and wool was an issue. I wanted to know the why behind my choices.
Once I had researched the why, I stopped buying those items and started looking into the alternatives. Furthermore, it took me even longer to cotton on to all of the other things I was buying that might not be vegan - things that had never even occurred to me! One by one, as household products ran out, I did some research to replace them with vegan, not tested on animals, environmentally friendly alternatives.
But it doesn't stop there, either. The more I learned about the impact on animals and the environment of the products I had been buying, I became aware of the side effects on my health of products that - although vegan and cruelty-free - might contain harmful chemicals. This all took time to unravel because for me, this is a process. It is a continual change in the right direction, not a demand that has been placed on me.
But demands are what I am seeing more and more of: an all-or-nothing approach, which can feel confrontational to those who are curious; who want to make a change but are unsure about whether they can. Let me give you a couple of examples:
"A famous celebrity shouldn't launch a vegan food business because they're not 'officially' vegan and don't have the 'correct' outlook on why they're doing it."
"People who describe themselves as plant-based aren't relevant because they're not vegan, they only care about their diet."
Now, I am by no means going to suggest that these views are 'wrong'. We are all individuals, we are lucky to be able to share, debate and express our beliefs and values. It is essential. However, what I would like to advocate for is seeing the above examples as evidence of a fantastically positive step towards embracing veganism. An interest. A first step. A growth in knowledge and understanding. Not to mention that adopting a plant-based, vegan diet can be one of the best things you can do to improve your whole-body health.
Photo © 2015 Laura Hemmington.
But what does all of this mean for those of us who are already vegan and want to share a positive message? How do we present veganism to the world?
From my perspective, this means providing people with information, patience, positive ideas and support that can help the vegan life become more accepted, prevalent and part of the mainstream of our society. Something people aren't scared of. Something they are not forced to accept overnight.
If you look around, there is already such a great precedent for this: from dedicated magazines and blogs to guidance on social media showing people how they can make little changes in their daily lives - a food substitution here, a link to some understanding there. All of this supports people to build up a picture of knowledge and compassion. It generates interest and authority in a new way of thinking, acting and interacting. It's about talking to people from a positive standpoint. It's not insistent, but persuasive.
Ultimately, as vegans we share the same goal. But the ways to effect the change we want to see can be positive, as well as active and strong. What we can all offer is an open invitation to learn, adapt and change, because even the smallest change can make a difference.