"Part-Time" Vegans Are on the Rise — and "Real" Vegans Are Mad About It
"Which documentary did you watch?" is the first thing I'd ask upon discovering an acquaintance decided to go vegetarian or vegan. It's the perfect retort — both a gentle roast of my bandwagoner friends, as well as a way to discover which buzzy specials I'd need to avoid at all costs in order to continue eating bacon guilt-free. Ignorance (and bacon) is bliss!
Perhaps inevitably, I watched one such documentary earlier this year. Unlike those animal-ethics movies which had so often been cited by friends (What the Health, Food Inc.), the one that got me was Game Changers, the Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Cameron, and Jackie Chan-produced Netflix documentary that digs into the ways animal products can affect the body. In it, producer and former MMA fighter James Wilks claims that when ingested, even the most organic, antibiotic- and hormone-free, non-GMO, free-range, socially liberal, marijuana smoking, college-educated chicken can impact everything from energy levels to cholesterol to sex drive. As a former athlete, the appeal of a diet that could possibly improve my rec soccer league performance was too promising to resist. And if a bunch of NFL dudes could do it … well, I immediately cut meat out of my diet.
Eggs and dairy products, however, proved more difficult to dismiss. I tried to swap my bleu cheese crumbles for faux cheese crumbles, my scrambled eggs for scrambled seitan. Ultimately, I decided to cut myself some slack. I decided to become a "part-time" vegan, making small changes to my diet in hopes of seeing small improvements in my energy, my recovery time after a game, and maybe even my digestion. It was only then that I learned of the backlash against part-time vegans.
What do you mean by "part-time" vegan?
A bit of research alerted me to the fact that "part-time vegan" is not an uncommon label, with writers and influencers everywhere from Salon to High Snobiety, and even on NBC News, blogging about their attempts to cut animal products from their lives on a "part-time" basis. They spoke of a clearer conscious and clearer skin, more energy and more sleep. And though it was hard, as any transition away from lifelong habits is, they all said it was worth it.
Veganism — the whole-hog variety — is also on the rise, growing both in the U.S. and abroad in recent years. In the U.S., the number of vegans has risen from about 2% of the population in 2012 to about 3% in 2018, according to Gallup polling, and recent trend reports predict that number will only continue to rise. According to BBC, there was a 400% increase in self-identified vegans in the U.K. between 2006 and 2018 (though the number of vegans in the population still hovers around 1%). In my Brooklyn neighborhood, there are four vegan restaurant options within a 2-mile radius, so the demand must be here as well.
Veganism: so hot right now.
Veganism has also become trendy in pop culture — in no small part thanks to vocally vegan celebrities (looking at you, Joaquin Phoenix), and young millennial and Gen Z consumers who want to eat cleanly, feel good, and do good for the environment, all at the same time. (The VSCO girl aesthetic is often associated with veganism, even if in performative ways.)
And that environmental reasoning bears out: A 2017 study that compared a vegan diet and a Mediterranean diet found the latter to have double the global warming potential, with three times the impact on regional biodiversity due to the massive amount of land needed to grow the livestock feed. It was these environmental impacts that made me consider a change in my eating habits (you know, along with wanting to kick ass on the soccer field). And since I wasn't doing so out of some moral imperative to save the cows, I felt any step toward reducing my impact was a step in the right direction.
There's an obvious distinction between a part-time and a "real" vegan, and I was ready to go for the part-time commitment. In addition to the fact that I regularly consume dairy products (I love you, cheese), I have not made sure that all of the goods I own are devoid of animal products. I have not retired my leather jacket and boots, nor bought makeup that's without even the slightest hint of beeswax. I did not base my choice on ethics, and I did not uproot my lifestyle. I thought that was just fine, but some hardcore vegans think it very much is not.
Why are some vegans upset?
Some in the vegan community have taken issue with the fact that the word "vegan" is used by us part-timers at all. Those who self-identify as part-time vegans are beginning to lift their voices in ever larger numbers — and they're being attacked by a small, angry faction of vegans who believe that anyone who isn't wholly committed to the lifestyle has no business associating themselves with veganism. Period.
"There is definitely a problem with 'part-time' vegans," a YouTube vlogger who goes by "Freelee the Banana Girl" tells InStyle. She's a raw vegan and part of the faction that isn't onboard with this trend.
Freelee, whose real name is Leanne Ratcliffe, has more than 784,000 YouTube subscribers, and has made a name for herself as one of the most outspoken members of the vegan vlogging community. In addition to sharing her meals and her "off-the-grid" lifestyle, Freelee regularly critiques other prominent vegans or diet vloggers. (Currently, the featured video on her YouTube page is about Alyse Parker, a former vegan influencer who gave up the lifestyle to begin a meat only diet.) Part-time vegans are one of her targets.
"There is no such thing as a 'part-time vegan,' hence the backlash," Freelee explained. "Veganism is about animals; we don't eat them, wear them, or use them. Period. Veganism is not a cuisine you just drop when the trend dies down. It's an ethical lifestyle for life focused on total animal liberation."
Chloe Coscarelli, a vegan chef and the author of Chloe's Flavor, believes the issue is really a matter of word choice, and knowing the difference between "plant-based," which is essentially a vegan diet without the vegan lifestyle, versus "vegan." But unlike Freelee, she doesn't have an issue with part-timers, even if she says they are exploiting the word "vegan" for clout.
"Personally, I don't have any judgment against that," she said, adding that people should come to veganism on their own terms — whatever that means. "I think if people want to eat vegan part-time, that's better than not eating vegan at all." Chloe's sentiments echo those of Ewelina Rosochowicz, founder The Vegan Warehouse, an online marketplace for everything from vegan handbags and tampons to food items.
"It just comes down to semantics," said Rosochowicz of the rift. "At the end of the day, what we really care about is saving the animals. Every choice that one makes at every meal really contributes to that. And there's also a huge environmental impact to consider."
She says that skipping meat for one day can save hundreds of gallons of water, and that's worth it even if it's not an everyday thing. "I think it's still a win for a person to skip meat for something like 'Meatless Mondays.'" In other words, if you tried Veganuary at the start of the year, you're A-okay in her book.
Freelee couldn't disagree more, which she expresses extremely bluntly. "Being a part-time vegan is like being a part-time slave-owner who also believes in freedom for all slaves, or a husband who is against domestic violence and prides himself on only beating his wife on the weekend," she says. "Part-time vegans are simply not a thing, they are plant-based poseurs, in it for themselves, nothing more."
What's in a name?
Freelee would describe individuals like myself as reducetarian or flexitarian — or, as she put it, "an individual who eats plants when they feel like it." According to the reducetarian website, the group defines themselves as individuals who are committed to reducing the number of animal products they consume — regardless of motivation. Flexitarians are similar in that they are primarily vegetarians, but occasionally consume meat. Both leave a little room for setting your own boundaries and comfort-level, and neither is acceptable to Freelee.
"[They are] self-entitled privileged humans who are too lazy to shop in a different section of the supermarket, individuals who put their convenience and taste buds above the lives of animals," she says, before sticking her landing: "No one needs to be eating animals and their secretions in 2020. Part-time, full time, any time."
Part-time vegans and flexitarians, says Freelee, are "damaging" to the vegan movement as a whole because they put too much of an emphasis on making the lifestyle look like a "trendy diet," and not enough on animal abuse.
In my case, I suppose I am guilty of attaching myself to veganism, declaring to my friends that I'm a vegan — "but like kind of" — because it was something that I found novel, interesting, and challenging.
I also lacked an education about the different food movements. While I'd never heard of reducetarians, for example, "vegan'' is a word I've known for my entire life, and had believed to mean only that there'd be no more meatball subs or mac n cheese. I failed to take it upon myself to do the legwork beyond watching one documentary, and, like many others, falsely equated plant-based diets with veganism.
"A lot of people come from different backgrounds, and have different familiarity with what veganism really is," said Rosochowicz. "Maybe you didn't know exact definitions, but you're still trying to make an active change. You're trying to make something positive. And receiving criticism from the community can be very discouraging."
Two months into a vegetarian and almost dairy-free diet, I can't say I've noticed major changes in my energy levels, my athletic performance, or my skin. But, though my body feels the same, my conscience feels lighter knowing that an intentional choice I've made is making a difference — however small — in the larger scheme of things, both for the animals and the environment. A rather passive person by nature, I wasn't expecting to find a moral silver lining.
Giving up meat after a lifetime of lazy mornings waking up to the smells and sounds of bacon sizzling on the stove isn't easy, and I don't expect it to get easier. Maybe I'll make it to real veganism, but maybe I won't — I don't have an issue rebranding my lifestyle to flexitarianism, or reducetarianism, or any other "ism" that crops up on my news feeds. The point is, I'm trying. And sometimes, a little bit of change can go a long way.