Vegan vs. Cruelty Free

UPDATED ON December 5th, 2017

Is Cruelty-Free the same as Vegan? No!

“Cruelty-Free” can be misleading

The popular term “cruelty-free” has come to describe a product that was not tested on animals. The phrase itself can be misleading. Consider that a product can be called “cruelty-free” even if it uses ingredients from animals who were treated cruelly and/or killed, just as long as the product wasn’t then tested on animals.

Even if the phrase “cruelty-free” is not ideal, hundreds of thousands of animals suffer and die each year in cruel and unnecessary animal tests. Efforts to differentiate products that were tested on animals from those that weren’t are hugely important. There’s a long way to go, but companies are listening to consumers who want so-called “cruelty-free” products.

There are some established organizations that certify whether products were tested on animals. These organizations audit the whole supply chain to make sure third party tests are not being performed. Check out our guide to vegan and “cruelty-free” certifications. Not all “cruelty-free” certified products are vegan, but all products certified vegan by the listed organizations are “cruelty-free.”

Vegan defined, and some issues when we take a step back

In its narrowest sense, the word “vegan” describes a product that does not contain ingredients or materials from living or killed animals. For example, a vegan food item would not contain cow’s milk, and a vegan pillow would not contain feathers.

But it’s important to remember that “vegan” relates to veganism, a philosophy where one seeks as much as possible to avoid exploiting and causing harm to animals. If “vegan” only had to do with allergens or diet, then we wouldn’t need to look beyond a list of ingredients or materials. But whether animals were exploited in the process of making a product relates to whether that product is really vegan. That’s why “accidentally vegan” products (anything that happens to have no animal ingredients but that wasn’t necessarily the maker’s intention) might not be vegan in a wider sense. Animals including humans might have been exploited further back in the production process.

Perfection is impossible

Veganism, as defined by the Vegan Society in 1979, includes the phrase “as far as is possible and practicable.” This is for good reason. Perfection is impossible, but it’s better to do as much as one can to reduce suffering, then to do nothing at all. The truck carrying those fair-trade bananas to the grocery store probably killed some bugs – that’s a fact of life. But those bugs are being killed by every truck regardless of whether it’s delivering vegan or non-vegan items. We might as well choose the option where less animals suffer by buying the vegan items. It’s also hard for consumers to know everything that happened leading up to a product being on a shelf, but consumers are demanding more transparency in the manufacturing process.

Watch out for these examples of animal exploitation that won’t be listed on the ingredients

Animal Testing
A product may not contain any ingredients derived from an animal, but the ingredients still may be cruelly tested on captive animals who are often killed after tests. That’s why on Double Check Vegan, I only list brands as vegan when they also do not test on animals, because testing on animals is exploitation, and vegan means avoiding animal exploitation. Almost all ingredients were tested on animals at some point in the past, but companies can choose to use products that do not need to be tested again or at all.

Animal Ingredients Used in the Manufacturing Process
Sometimes ingredients from living or killed animals used in manufacturing processes do not show up in the final ingredients list. For example, Isinglass from the bladders of slaughtered fish is used as a clarifying agent in the production of some wines, but will not be listed on the label. And, bone char from slaughtered animals is often used in sugar manufacturing in the United States but will not show up on an ingredient list. Barnivore is a great resource for finding out whether an alcoholic beverage is vegan.You can also contact a company to find out more about animal ingredients in the manufacturing process.

Unfair Wages and Bad Working Conditions
Humans are animals, and vegans seek to avoid exploiting all animals. Child slavery is a serious issue in the chocolate industry and child labor is an issue especially in coffee production. Agricultural workers are often subjected to unsafe chemicals. And the banana industry has a history of unfairly treating workers. The Food Empowerment Project is a great resource for learning about issues related to food production and Equal Exchange can help you find fair trade produce.

Habitat Destruction
Clearing land for crop production can have devastating effects on local human and non-human animal populations. Take palm oil, a popular ingredient in vegan and non-vegan foods. Clearing land for palm oil production has led to the forced removal of humans from their homes, the slaughter of orangutans, and mass deforestation among other serious issues. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was created to address consumer concerns but much of the promises have to do with changing practices years in the future or buying off-sets. Several of the links detailing requirements for companies to be certified are broken or out of date.

Taking it all in

It may seem like there are a lot of problems with vegan foods, but there are probably more with non-vegan foods even beyond the direct suffering of animals.

Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gases including C02 and methane, as well as one of the biggest causes of loss of biodiversity due to clearing land for pasturing and growing feed. One thing to keep in mind is that a huge percentage of the crops grown in the world is actually fed to animals which are then slaughtered for human consumption. This inefficient system uses more resources including water. And, if you hear someone say that field mice will be killed when harvesting grains, well, less field mice would be killed if the grains were just directly fed to humans.

Slaughterhouse workers may also be some of the most exploited workers in the United States. They have a high rate of physical injury and suffer from post-dramatic stress disorder. Slaughterhouses are located in low-income communities and have devastating effects on air quality for local residents. Studies have also found that rates of domestic violence rise around slaughterhouses.

In the end, being vegan is about using common sense to avoid animal suffering. If you have two choices and neither is perfect, choose the better choice.