The vegan entree at the 73rd Golden Globes Menu Preview at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. Picture: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/ALBERTO E RODRIGUEZ
The vegan entree at the 73rd Golden Globes Menu Preview at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. Picture: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/ALBERTO E RODRIGUEZ

It has been an eventful “Veganuary”, replete with legal claims relating to ethical veganism; fast food chains jumping on the vegan bandwagon; retailers venturing beyond meat; and, perhaps inevitably, heartbroken vegans accidentally biting into meat mislabelled as vegan.

The increased interest in veganism has unfortunately been accompanied by ways of speaking about and treating veganism that miss the point. The culmination of this conceptual misdirection is the ruling by a British employment tribunal earlier this month that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief that qualifies for legal protection against discrimination under the UK Equality Act.

The ruling effectively puts the practice of refraining from consuming animal products on a par with religious beliefs. Just as one cannot discriminate against someone for being Catholic or Muslim (or gay or old), the tribunal found that ethical vegans have the right not to be targeted on the grounds of their vegan beliefs. While this may appear to vindicate vegans and to elevate the status of their beliefs, it is a mistake and a step backwards for the vegan cause.

What some have been calling a “landmark” case is closer to an own goal scored by team vegan.

Some context is important here. The tribunal’s ruling forms part of a larger labour claim in which a UK employee alleges that he was fired for being an ethical vegan. His employment was terminated, so he claims, after he alerted his employer and his work colleagues that the organisation’s pension fund was invested in companies that conducted animal testing.

The employee ... even prefers to walk rather than taking public transport, because the lives of thousands of insects end annually against the windscreens of the buses we take to work

To decide this claim, judge Robin Postle chose first to consider whether ethical veganism meets the requirements for being a “protected characteristic” — a feature or property that cannot be used as the basis for discrimination in the workplace. Other (more established) protected characteristics include age, race, sexual orientation and religious belief. His conclusion was that ethical veganism qualifies. 

But what does this mean? First, the ruling relates to ethical veganism. This variant of veganism represents more than a mere dietary preference. Instead, at its core it is the far-reaching moral belief that it is wrong to harm or exploit non-human animals. In the extension of this belief, ethical vegans do not eat animal products (including dairy and eggs), refrain from wearing wool or leather, and are careful not to buy or use products tested on animals.

The employee at the centre of the workplace discrimination claim even prefers to walk rather than taking public transport, because the lives of thousands of insects end annually against the windscreens of the buses we take to work.

It is this belief (and the concomitant lifestyle) that was found by the tribunal to be “worthy of respect in a democratic society”, cogent, serious, cohesive and important, and a “weighty and substantial aspect of human life”. Put differently, it is an important and worthy belief that has a significant impact on the life and conduct of one who holds it. And given these considerations, ethical veganism enjoys protection under the UK Equality Act of 2010.

So how could this be a mistake, or a step backward for the vegan cause? While workplace discrimination based on a person’s vegan beliefs is clearly problematic from the perspective of human rights and equality before the law, the ruling achieves something different — an attitude or categorisation that is also detectable in the way veganism is framed in media articles, and in the informal attitudes of (and about) vegans.

In effect, the ruling privatises veganism.

It turns the moral choice not to eat or exploit animals into a matter of meaning within the individual’s private sphere. Veganism becomes one available avenue to achieve individual moral purity. Kabbalah, Hinduism, Veganism, Christianity and Buddhism are just so many ways of achieving a meaningful life or attaining private salvation. We should tolerate and respect it, but need not take it seriously or act on it ourselves.

In line with this reasoning or legal framing, vegan concerns are treated in the same way as, for instance, Muslim concerns. In the first week of January, the UK media ran two almost identical stories. The headline of the first read “Muslim man ‘devastated’  after McDonald’s served pork sausage breakfast muffin in error”. The article in The Mirror goes on to explain that the man is a practising Muslim who has avoided eating pork his entire life, and that he no longer trusts McDonald’s.

The glaring mistake here is that veganism is not about vegans, it is about the undeniable cruelty that forms part of the meat industry and factory farming

Four days later, a similar story ran in The Daily Star, with the headline “Vegan heartbroken after eating ‘meat-free’ KFC burger filled with chicken”. Much like the first article, the reporter goes on to explain that the unlucky patron had been a vegan for five  years, and can no longer trust KFC. In the most telling part of the article, the “victim” is described as a “devout vegan” (although she denies being a “militant vegan”, a term that reveals a potential underlying public fear of a dangerous or radical veganism).

If veganism is a religion, such as Islam, the proper moral response is to respect vegans and to allow them the freedom to live according to their beliefs (as long as their vegan practices are compatible with the rights and freedoms of others). In effect, then, veganism is about vegans, and how they are treated. The glaring mistake here is that veganism is not about vegans, it is about the undeniable cruelty that forms part of the meat industry and factory farming.

It is also about the contribution of the meat industry to our climate crisis. To quote Greta Thunberg’s response to the singer Meat Loaf after he claimed that she has been brainwashed into believing there is a climate crisis: “It’s not about Meat Loaf. It’s not about me. It’s all about scientific facts.” In this case, we could say “It’s not about vegans. It’s about animals. It’s about the planet.”

This is something vegans themselves must still learn. It speaks to the impact vegans are having on public discourse that one can buy a novelty coffee mug that reads “In case I haven’t told you today, I’m a vegan”. But it is not a victory when the efforts of vegans lead to respect for vegans, instead of for animals and the planet.

Worse still, to the extent that veganism’s religious status robs it of its public persuasive force, this victory could be seen as a step backwards. One could not justify policy in parliament, a court of law or in public debate by citing the Bible, the Koran or the Torah. In a modern, liberal and democratic societies, the metaphysical claims and moral injunctions contained in these texts only apply to those who choose to adopt the religion.

Treating veganism as a religion could have the same effect, turning the strong ethical claims underpinning it effete. These claims are about our collective moral responsibilities towards non-human animals, the green virtues of “harmony with nature”, and the planetary debt we bequeath future generations. They do not only apply to those who sign up for a spiritual vegan experience.

Focusing on the legal rights of vegans and individual moral purity will, at best, result in employers being forced to offer a vegan option alongside its kosher, halaal and meat meals. Many animals (and the planet) are still harmed in the making of this concession.

• Engelbrecht is a research associate at the Centre for Applied Ethics at Stellenbosch University.