The economics of veganism: eradicating perfectionism

***Quick update (7/26) — one of my favorite vegan YouTubers, Kalel, just uploaded a video about this! If you are interested in the topic, please check it out to hear another perspective!***

If you’ve glanced at my blog, you probably know that I am pretty passionate about living a plant-based lifestyle. But, that doesn’t mean I’m perfect. It doesn’t mean I never crave wings or wish I could just order a regular Domino’s pizza or that I no longer own any leather or non-vegan beauty products. It doesn’t mean I have been 100% vegan ever since the day I decided I wanted to be. It just means that I try, and today I wanted to write about why simply trying is enough. Warning: this is going to be a long one.

I ate cheese two days ago.

Yes I did. I accidentally ordered the nachos instead of the vegan nachos at Busboys and Poets (one of the best restaurants for plant-based options, FYI). Why am I telling you this? Well since it is a sin, I have to confess. Kidding. I’m making a point. I mean, I scraped the cheese off, because when you don’t eat dairy for a while and then you do, it’s kind of a disaster for your stomach. But that’s not my point.

When I first went vegan, I thought that I had to completely avoid all animal products, not only from an ethical perspective but also to maintain some kind of purity. I was afraid that if I accidentally ate something with dairy or certain derivatives in it, I would no longer be vegan and I would have to give up on this entire journey because I would be a hypocrite. This is a common mindset that many people new to a plant-based lifestyle adopt. When you first internalize the reality of the cruelty and harm caused by the meat and dairy industries, it is hard to moderate your views. It is natural to feel very strongly about things, which often causes people to adopt some pretty extreme views.

However, that kind of mindset is emotionally exhausting, and is only sustainable for so long before you have to find a way to reconcile the two separate realities you’re faced with. One: you know that the meat and dairy industries are unnecessarily harmful, you feel passionate about it, and you want to do whatever you can to help rid the world of this problem. You are proud of yourself for educating yourself about the topic, working through your own cognitive dissonance, and taking the actionable steps to live a life that aligns with what you know to be right in your heart. Two: the world hasn’t been on this same journey with you. The people around you haven’t seen the documentaries or read about the consequences of their actions. The world– restaurants, cafes, parties, visiting friends, etc– is not friendly to vegans. Even if there is an option for you as a vegan, you need to exercise so much self-discipline to maintain a vegan diet when the food is not the most appealing, PLUS it is discouraging to know that no matter how many extreme changes you have made to your own lifestyle, it barely puts a dent in the problem that everybody around you seems to be contributing to.

So how could anybody feel inspired to make vegan choices under those conditions?

I believe that this topic can be understood very well from an economic perspective. In other words, what rational person would opt for a vegan diet, and how would they pursue it? 

Rationality and Our Choices

Rationality is defined as the “quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic.” In economic terms, rational behavior is “based on making choices that result in the most optimal level of benefit or utility for the individual.” Before this discussion, it is important to understand utility at the most basic level. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, a simple way to think about it, as taught by one of my favorite economics professors, is as a synonym for happiness. When somebody gains utility, they gain happiness.

There are some prerequisites for applying rational behavior expectations to the concept of veganism. Under normal circumstances, it is quite rational for a person not to pursue a vegan diet. Here are some potential reasons why (a far from exhaustive list).

  • Maybe an individual is uninformed about the harms associated with animal agriculture and they see no reason to pursue a vegan diet in the first place
  • Perhaps they are informed, but due to convenience, social stigma, or preference alone, they decide not to change their actions (they do not individually internalize the negative consequences of their actions, so there is no incentive for them personally to change)
  • Maybe an individual is ill-informed about the topic in general. Perhaps they heard somebody erroneously say that being vegan is more expensive, that it could hurt their health, etc.
  • Perhaps a person rationalizes the consumption of animals and their by-products through religious justifications
  • They see their friends make fun of vegans and they don’t want to be ostracized in a similar way. Put more simply, maybe they just don’t want to be different
  • They have had personal encounters with aggressive or rude people who follow a vegan lifestyle, and they don’t want to be associated with that
  • Maybe they just like meat and dairy products, and don’t want to change

On the other hand, here are some reasons why a person might rationally pursue a vegan lifestyle. It goes without saying that not all of these need apply in order for veganism to emerge as the rational option for somebody. Whether a person subscribes to one or more of these reasons depends upon their individual preferences and priorities.

  • They hope to benefit from improved health outcomes or weight loss
  • They care a lot about the environment, and they know that following a vegan diet is better for the environment, so they gain a lot of utility from doing so
  • They feel morally superior to others for doing so
  • They were raised vegan and meat and dairy never appealed to them in the first place
  • They learned about the process in which meat and dairy products make it to their kitchen, and were emotionally repulsed by participation in that industry

I’m not casting any judgment on people who subscribe to any of the above reasons for their course of action. This is purely a discussion of why people may act the way they do.

It should be noted that although rationality provides a useful basis for making projections about human behavior, people do not always act rationally. Therefore, people may irrationally choose to or not to follow a vegan lifestyle, and none of the above explanations would apply in such a case. It should also be noted, however, that what we consider to be rational often does not align with what we consider to be moral, just, or “right”– a topic for another day.

In Practice

This is where I tell you why it doesn’t matter that I ate cheese. In fact, here is a list of the non-vegan things that I have consumed since I decided in June of 2016 that I wanted to begin following a vegan lifestyle. Chicken, fish, cheese, yogurt, various dressings, trace ingredients in candy and packaged food… Probably more that I can’t remember. Most of these were one-time instances, and I can talk more in a future post about why there were lapses in my veganism (for suspected health problems) if that is of interest to people. Here, I’m just interested in discussing why I still confidently follow this lifestyle even though I’ve already proven to do so imperfectly. In short, it comes down to supply and demand.

 

This is an oversimplification, but it should help those unfamiliar with economics to understand, at the most basic level, the impact of a vegan diet when pursued both by individuals and/or by society at large. I will discuss how supply and demand interact, with an emphasis on the market for non-vegan goods, from three perspectives: understanding the market for an individual good, understanding the impact of the choices of one individual, and understanding changes in the market overall.

An individual good. 

Let’s take milk as an example. In the diagram above, D1 represents the quantity of milk demanded by consumers at various price levels. S represents the supply of milk, or how much milk producers are willing to provide at various price levels. Where S and D1 meet is “equilibrium,” or the amount of milk that we actually expect to be purchased by customers/ sold by producers, and the relevant price.

If demand for milk decreases among consumers, the demand line will shift to the left — to D2. In this situation, the amount of milk that people want (the quantity demanded) is lower than what it originally was. At the same time, the price decreases. Here, we can simply see that if demand for milk decreases (if fewer consumers choose to purchase milk), less milk will be exchanged. Rather than thinking only about the immediate impact — e.g., wasting some milk that has already been produced — we also need to consider the likely long-term impact of this kind of trend, which is a shift in supply. This would mean that supply would decrease in the future to meet the appropriate demand, as producers do not want to waste resources producing an item that doesn’t get sold.

Actions of an individual person.

If I, as an individual person, want to make a positive change by pursuing more “vegan” actions, how should I go about it? The most important thing to do is to decrease one’s consumption of the big things. Meat, dairy, eggs, etc. Knowing what we now know about the interaction of supply and demand for milk, we can apply this to understand the impact of an individual focusing on decreasing their consumption of milk, for example, versus completely eliminating the consumption of any kind of ingredient derived from animal products.

Here I will introduce another example: Honey Bunches of Oats with Strawberries. (Let’s ignore the honey factor for now, as that is a subject of controversy in and of itself.) I have loved this cereal since I was a child. I was VERY DISTRAUGHT when I learned that it contained whey, a derivative of milk, after I decided to go vegan. I was faced with the decision: should I stop consuming the cereal? After all, consuming the cereal would not be a vegan thing to do if it contained a non-vegan ingredient.

I had obviously already stopped consuming milk, but at this point I also stopped buying Honey Bunches of Oats with Strawberries. If it were today, I would just buy the cereal. And here’s why. Making incremental changes to decrease suffering is what’s most important, and eliminating my consumption of milk was a much more significant step in decreasing my contributions to the demand for dairy products than the occasional box of Honey Bunches of Oats with Strawberries would ever be. This isn’t an excuse to purchase just anything that isn’t vegan. But in this case, there is obviously a line between trying to make a positive impact and, on the other hand, depriving oneself of a food with minimal amounts of trace ingredients in a martyr-like manner, simply to be able to say that one is vegan. Promoting this kind of thinking is a significant reason why many people choose not to go vegan. Instead of advocating for people to cut out products like this, we should be focusing on the big things.

Something to note that I think is completely overlooked by many members of the vegan community, is, again, the long-term impact of our actions. We can use the principle of aggregation to think about this abstractly. If everybody were to stop consuming Honey Bunches of Oats today, and never bought the cereal again, would it make a positive impact in terms of veganism? A little yes, but mostly no. It would marginally decrease the consumption of one product associated with animal agriculture, just as would be the case if we stopped eating malted milk balls. But, it doesn’t signal to producers that animal agriculture is what we are “fighting against” — instead it just makes the statement that, as consumers, we don’t want Honey Bunches of Oats with Strawberries anymore. Let’s avoid this — not only because it doesn’t help the vegan cause, but because Honey Bunches of Oats with Strawberries is a very fine cereal and I would hate to see it go.

Actions of society in the aggregate and the resultant changes in the market.

This is where we get into the big picture thinking. If you can, think about the graph above as a depiction of the demand and supply for all animal products in the world. Any shift from D1 closer to D2 indicates good things: less harm to the environment, lower consumption of foods with known association to health problems, and, most importantly to me, less suffering overall. If we think about the entire global market for food, an imperceptible shift downward in demand, and later in supply, for animal products, is a positive thing. Why anybody would encourage perfectionism over small positive changes, when those changes in the aggregate would lead to at least some lives saved and less suffering, is beyond me.

So in short, if what you are after is purity, or the ability to label yourself as 100% vegan, then sure… Avoid those trace ingredients in candy, cereals, etc. If what you’re after is effecting positive change, causing less suffering, and doing so in a way that is sustainable for your lifestyle, then consider actionable steps you can take to do so without regard to the “label” for your choices. Can you do Almond or Soy milk instead of dairy milk? Can you eat vegetarian for one day out of the week? Can you replace your chicken with tofu occasionally? Any and all of these options are great steps toward positive change.

What does this mean?

The good thing about this is that if you feel compelled to follow a plant-based diet or a vegan lifestyle, all you need to do is try your best. By cutting out the major contributors to animal agriculture, like meat and dairy products, you are already making a significant positive impact. What some might see as a downside is that, knowing this, you really have no excuse not to make better choices. There are, of course, instances in which strict veganism is not possible– for example, if one lives in a food desert or perhaps has certain health problems. (In reality I haven’t heard of any health issues that do interfere with following a vegan diet, or at least minimizing one’s consumption of certain ingredients, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt.)

But, one excuse that nobody should use is that of being unable to be a perfect vegan. You do not have to be a perfect vegan to make a positive impact, and any incremental change that you can make to decrease harm to animals and promote a healthier self and environment is amazing.

If you made it this far, thanks so much for reading. Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and please share any tips you have for striking a balance between promoting positive changes and maintaining a sustainable lifestyle!

Alex

One thought on “The economics of veganism: eradicating perfectionism

  1. Hi Alex, very well thought out as usual and I have a renewed desire to cut back further, Thank You!
    I appreciate your support and understanding for those of us that aren’t ready to go all out vegan. Loving cows as I do and always have, it’s incongruous to “ enjoy” their meat., so am reminded that there are perfectly good burger substitutes as I head to the grocery. Thanks for your inspiration! Xxoo

    Like

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