Veganism is not cruelty free, and it’s important to acknowledge that from the outset. Veganism is defined as: “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.” The very definition of veganism contains an acknowledgement that all we can do is cause the least harm possible, but you cannot be a consumer and live a lifestyle completely free from causing any harm.
The term “cruelty free” is a marketing one; it is a label which is applied to particular products when they pass a certification from Cruelty Free International. It is not a claim that being vegan is literally being cruelty free, and nor should it be. What we as vegans are trying to do is to cause the least harm we can, while acknowledging that it is unreasonable to expect vegans to live off the grid, to grow all of their own food and to only purchase or replace those items which they absolutely need for survival. This would not only be completely impractical but it would be inaccessible to anyone who is not fortunate enough to be able to live in this way. The basic philosophy behind being vegan is that this is something we really can do to minimise the harm we cause, and if it’s possible and practical for us to do so, then we should.
The harm vegans will still contribute towards is no small thing, from deforestation to grow crops, worker exploitation of crop pickers and factory workers, to water, energy and plastic use, we will all have an impact on this world simply by existing in it. However, what is being argued here is essentially just that because we can’t live a lifestyle completely free from harm, we shouldn’t even try to reduce the harm we cause. This all or nothing mentality is not only bizarre but extremely harmful; it encourages the kind of consumer apathy that unethical companies depend on to make a profit. Vegans still need to exist and survive in a consumer driver society, and it is not our fault that capitalism forces us to compromise on some of our values in order to survive.
This argument could also be applied to almost any ethical issue- why bother avoiding sweatshops if you can’t buy 100% of your clothing ethically? Why bother buying fair trade whenever you can if you can’t do it for everything you buy? Why save one person if you can’t save them all? Morality is seldom all or nothing, most of the time it is about doing what we can to do the most good given the situation, and veganism is exactly the same way. It is incredibly cynical to berate someone for making an effort to live a lifestyle lifestyle which is as ethical as they can make it, especially if you are someone who is making no such effort.
This is not to say that vegans shouldn’t be actively trying to reduce the harm they cause in other areas besides animal products, whether it’s trying to support ethical brands or campaigning on other social justice issues, but the fact that we cannot be perfect is no excuse not to try. Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you should do nothing, and when it comes to trying to live an ethical lifestyle, there is no excuse not to try.