We all know a plant-based diet is good for the planet – in fact it’s one of the most impactful actions you can take as an individual (alongside greening your finances, and cutting out flying). BUT true veganism is more than just a diet.
“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.”The Vegan Society
For some areas of our lives this is easy – maybe you even already buy vegan cleaning products, and cruelty-free cosmetics. However, did you know you might be using animal products without even knowing about it? Read on to find out more…
By-product vs. Co-product
Industries often refer to the parts they use as ‘by-products’ of the meat and dairy industry, marketing it as a positive way to use parts of an animal that would otherwise be wasted. Rather than killing a cow just for the sake of a burger, why not make a pair of shoes while you’re at it?! And surely that’s a good thing, right? Reducing waste which would otherwise go to landfill where it would release harmful greenhouse gases.
However, these industries aren’t quite telling us the whole story… Many of the products being produced are as, or even more, profitable than the meat and dairy itself. This has led to the coining of the term “co-product” – that is, a product that actually subsidises the industry, keeping it profitable.
Handbags and Glad Rags
The most obvious, and well-known of these, is the leather industry. Companies often claim that the leather they use for their items is a by-product of the meat industry, but the hide of an animal can account for up to 10% of their value. A reduction in hide prices, or a drop in leather sales, has a direct impact on the profitability of the meat and dairy industries.
In 2022, the leather industry had a value of nearly $260 billion, and this is expected to continue to grow. Even worse, there is increasing demand for ‘high-quality’ leather, which often comes from calves – whilst appetite for veal has dropped, calves are still being reared and kept indoors in order to produce ‘blemish-free’ soft leather for luxury goods.
However, increased demand for ‘vegan’ leather alternatives has come hand-in-hand with the increase in the number of people following plant-based diets. Unfortunately, vegan leather is often made from fossil-fuel based plastics such as PU and PVC, which come with their own environmental problems. However, there are now a number of natural leather alternatives on the market, made out of anything from the waste leaves of pineapples to mushrooms!
Pigs might fly
A less obvious use of animal products is as biofuel for transport. This hit the headlines recently after the publishing of a report on so-called ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuel’ by campaign group Transport & Environment. Airlines are under increasing pressure to reduce their carbon emissions, and to date, the industry has been focused on achieving this through the use of ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuels’ (SAF’s) – essentially, adding a percentage of biofuel to traditional fossil fuels (cough*greenwashing*cough).
When most people hear the phrase “biofuel”, they think of plants, but it can actually come from any biological source. The use of animal fats in biodiesel has grown fortyfold since 2006 and transport is now the biggest user of these fats, consuming over 1 million tonnes a year. With the passing of the ReFuelEU legislation, demand for SAF’s and therefore animal fats will only increase. It is expected that animal fats will become the primary feedstock for biodiesel, and the increased demand from the transport and aviation industries is having a knock on effect…
Animal fats are used in many other industries, from pet food to cosmetics, and competing demand will force these industries to look elsewhere for alternatives which studies have found are likely to be less sustainable. For example, in areas such as soap production companies may switch to using palm oil, which is heavily linked to deforestation. Increased demand also means a resulting rise in prices, bringing us back to the question of when does a by-product become a co-product? We can’t afford to continue to subsidise animal agriculture, which is one of the most environmentally-destructive industries out there.
Another area where you may be surprised to find animal products is in your energy supply. Research estimates that around 1% of the UK’s electricity supply comes from animal sources, most commonly manure or slurry.
In this scenario, the products being used can genuinely be considered as a by-product, which would otherwise be wasted. In fact, finding a use for manure and slurry has a positive environmental impact – stored or left to landfill, they would produce damaging emissions including methane which is around 30 times more potent than CO2. Poor storage or misuse of these products also risks serious pollution incidents.
However ‘meat and bone meal’ from dead livestock or wild animals is also classed as a renewable energy source, and this may be harder for some to stomach. By buying energy from companies that use these animal by-products, how much are we indirectly supporting the cruel and environmentally-damaging meat and dairy industries? This really comes down to a question of personal ethics, but if you do want to ensure your energy is sourced animal-free, then Ecotricity is currently the only vegan-certified energy company who guarantees that its energy comes from renewable, animal-free sources.
Vegan, not-vegan, and everything in between!
So there you have it – it turns out that the hidden elephant in the room might actually be a pig in the aeroplane, or a cow in the radiator! If you want to go vegan, it’s important to remember it’s about more than just a diet. But the sad truth is, it can be hard to avoid animal products altogether in today’s world and the choice of whether to do so isn’t always so easy… For those aiming to end animal cruelty, the choice can be obvious, but if your motivation is saving the planet it’s not always so black and white. The important thing to remember is that as consumers, we have the power to create change, so do your research, make informed purchasing decisions, and put your money where your mouth is!
- Find out more about going vegan, including advice, recommendations, and recipes on The Vegan Society, Viva, and Veganuary websites.
- Read more about the environmental impacts of the leather industry and the pros and cons of ‘vegan’ leather alternatives
- Pledge to go Flight Free
- Write to your energy supplier to ask them about their energy mix, and recommend they invest in clean, renewable energy sources.