Going vegan: WHY versus HOW

This post is also available in: Italiano

It seems quite natural for vegan advocates to mainly talk to people about the reasons to go vegan. Veg organizations devote quite some time and space in their outreach materials to vegan arguments and theory (mainly philosophical, but also some environmental and health info). Too often, I see the “how” being treated as some kind of afterthought. The message sounds like: here’s why, now you figure it out.

how to go vegan

That is, of course, a bit of a simplification, and there are many organizations that do a good job of explaining what people can do to apply the vegan idea in their life, and to actually stop consuming animal products and go vegan. Still, I believe that the “how” merits more attention in our outreach than it is getting.

Many non-vegans by now know about the reasons why they should eat less or no animal products. I often see vegans saying things like “oh, if everyone just knew, the world would go vegan in a heartbeat.” Or there’s the eternal “If slaughterhouses had glass walls” line.

I don’t believe that the main thing that’s stopping people from going vegan is a lack of information or insight into how problematic animal products are. Of course, we have to go on raising awareness, as we call it. But I believe the biggest part of the problem is that people don’t have an idea of how to do it, and that it is still not easy enough for them. From research on ex-vegs, we also know that many of them slid back because they had insufficient knowledge of veg nutrition.

One reason we’re often not focused enough on the how is that many vegans think that today going vegan is easy enough. This is a mistake that can be attributed to not sufficiently taking our target audience’s perspective. People lack cooking skills, product knowledge, nutritional information, etc. It’s this information that they are looking for most of all. Ask any webmaster of a vegan site what are the most visited pages, and they’ll tell you it’s the recipe section (if the site has a recipe section, of course). In my years working for an organization, I have always experienced that our practical materials, e.g., maps of cities, listings of veg friendly restaurants, and recipe booklets are way more popular than the “why” publications. One thing we did in subsequent editions of one of our booklets was to put recipes first  and only talked about the why later in the booklet. This also may avoid the impression that we are trying to convince people of something.

Another reason why we focus so much on the arguments for veganism rather than the how-to is that our movement wants people not just to do the right thing (being vegan), but to do the right thing for the right reason (for the animals). As regular readers of this blog may know, I don’t think we should require this, as attitude change can follow behavior change.

Finally, another reason that some advocates don’t focus enough on the how is that simply, to them, the how is not an issue: you just do it, right here, right now, and steps or strategies are not allowed. I believe that this is a mistake, and that the best thing we can do is to offer people programs, structures, and plans to change step by step. This is how change usually happens.

So, following my own advice: how can you focus more on the how? Here are some ideas:

  • check your materials and communication for how info: do you devote enough space and time to recipes, nutritional info, product info?
  • if you already provide this info, make sure it occupies a prominent place on your website and in your materials.
  • does your organization offer cooking courses, or provide information on where to find cooking courses?
  • temporary vegan pledges or challenges (21 or 30 days are typical) are great ways to send how-to information to people on a daily basis.
  • in one-on-one conversations, experiment with focusing on the how: tell people about the practical steps they can take, rather than overloading them with arguments. Invite people not just to read a book or brochure on the problems with animal products, but invite them to go shopping together, or to cook together.

Have other ideas for focusing on the how? Let me know!





19 thoughts on “Going vegan: WHY versus HOW

  1. Two things I think should be emphasized more:
    1. The general public thinks that veganism is impossible and that vegans are annoying.
    2. The vast vast majority of people who go veg go back to eating animals, all while badmouthing the mere idea of going veg.

    1. 1) Veganism is impossible and vegans are annoying.
      A) I don’t think the general public thinks veganism is impossible for everyone, but they probably think it isn’t for everyone – and they probably have good reasons to think that.
      B) Vegans do have a poor image.

      2) Recidivism and ex-vegan bad mouthing
      A) 70% vegan recidivism.
      B) Surely the majority of recidivists don’t actually say much. Those who do – are they always “bad mouthing” or just critical? If veganism was just a diet, it wouldn’t get such stick. But it is presented as not only the indisputably moral thing to do but also the answer to climate change, feeding the world and human health. It promotes individualist consumerism and basically ignores social and socio-economic and political-economic complexity. What do you expect when people see that the Emperor is actually naked?

  2. I totally agree. Too often I see organisations being proud to “focus on the animals” and saying that they are not cooking instructors. When you reveal an issue, the best thing is to offer a solution.
    Marketers and salers know that well:
    Problem: your TV is too small -> Solution: we have a great offer on that giant screen

  3. I think Meatout Monday is one the greatest ideas for getting non-vegs to try out vegetarianism and veganism. Once they’ve dipped their toes in the “veg waters” & realize how nice the water there can be, and that they won’t be eating twigs & bark, MM can act as a bridge and catalyst for further exploration into the veg lifestyle, cooking, nutrition, etc.

    1. What reason is there to believe this is how it would work out?

      Also the average person eats vegetarian meals and/or snacks all the time and it certainly hasn’t lead to people changing their diets.

      How about you get people to eat vegetarian dishes without thinking about them being vegetarian? You know….like their morning cereal which nobody would refer to as a “vegetarian breakfast” but instead “breakfast”.

  4. While I don’t think vegan organizations really address the “why” in any serious and systematic way……I agree that the “how” is rather important if your goal is to actually get people to change their behavior.

    But addressing the “how” is complex……and even when people try to address the “how” they largely ignore the complexity. For example the “how” is going to hinge on a particular persons socio-economic background, their ethnicity, their home country, their sex, etc. That is to say….. the market is very segmented and your information needs to be well matched to the group you’re trying to instruct. There is also the issue of nutrition…..recommendations need to be nutritionally sound yet most people have a poor understanding of nutrition. Not to mention all the pseudo-science in the vegan community results in all sorts of mixed messages.

    So the “how” is really hard to address given social realities and the nature of the vegan community.

    Of course……..these issues largely vanish when one stops promoting veganism and instead starts encouraging people to eat more plant heavy dishes and snacks.

    1. I agree with what Mr Toad says about how each person’s situation is unique. Here in Singapore, we have a PlantForward group for those starting on diet change and a mentor program so that people can get individualized advice.

    2. “… socio-economic background, their ethnicity, their home country, their sex, etc. ”

      Well, you know, what is (still) really lurking in a lot of mainstream vegan advocacy is the unconscious assumption of white, middle-class, first world people.

      Tobias refers to lack of nutritional information. I think people who do not have a reliable, decent income should not be encouraged to become vegan in the first place. These people need to make the best of what is accessible to them, *everything* that is accessible to them. For example, organ meat is usually relatively cheap and is nutritious. Liver once a week would provide a good whack of Vitamin A, instead of carefully making sure you are eating enough carrots and other good vegetable souces of betacarotene (and assuming your body is good at converting betacarotene to Vit A – apparently bodies vary).

      I suggest that before vegan advocates focus on how well they are addressing the “how”, they address the issue of who exactly they think they are going to be talking to, and what assumptions they are making about what resources and choices different people have.

      They might also like to address the issue of the sex of the person. Why is veganism more female than male? Is nutritional information and cooking courses going to reach those reluctant males.

      Mr Toad, you suggest focussing on promoting “plant-heavy” eating and dropping veganism. But vegans aren’t actually interested in promoting “plant-heavy” eating, they are interested in promoting veganism, and reducetarianism, or whatever, is just a means to that end. Tobias’ aim is vegan critical mass, and vegan critical mass is meant to be the key to a completely vegan society. However accommodating of individuals who are less than 100% vegan, the objective is, nevertheless, 100% vegan society. But once a vegan sees that that goal is not feasible, they are on the path to becoming a true post-vegan (rather than a mere reformist).

      1. I don’t think income is the real issue…..just that its usually a proxy for socio-economic status. With the right knowledge you could eat a plant-based diet on a low budget……and this is something vegans correctly note. But what they entirely ignore is that many people don’t have the time and/or background knowledge to obtain this knowledge. Though some other aspects of veganism (cosmetics, clothing, etc) could be an issue price wise.

        Informally I think vegan groups have decided who they are talking to and it is as you note, namely, middle-class whites. That is why college campuses are such a popular place for vegan advocacy.

        But the funny thing here is that I think the “why” of veganism is just as immature as the “how”. Nobody is really out making an intellectual case for veganism….even the very few philosophers that argue for “animal rights” or “animal liberation” are unable to provide an intellectual base for veganism. The problem here is that veganism touches on a variety of very contentious philosophic issues and demands that one answers them in very particular ways. For example holding a view of animal sentience that differs from the naive one often touted by vegans will result in a difference in views even if one agrees on the same moral framework.

        I find the attitude of vegans to philosophic issues to be rather amusing, basically they seem to assert that they aren’t important to address because nobody makes choices on philosophic arguments (which is largely true) and that one should instead focus on effective advocacy……but that is just a way of holding your doctrine as given and failing to address criticisms. Though I think some do realize, at least to a degree, just how contentious the issues are and would rather “not go there” for fear that it may dilute the vegan message. As such veganism really has become an end in itself and hopefully it will just fizzle out over time.

        1. Mr Toad,

          Socio-economic status *is* the thing. But many vegans reduce the issue to how much food items cost (the beans and rice are cheap mantra). They either have no understanding of, or are willingfully ignoring, or just don’t care about all the other issues that come with low socio-economic status, and which impact on all aspects of people’s lives including the food they eat.

          I think you are absolutely right that many vegan groups have tacitly decided who they are talking to, and it is the middle class, often white. By doing so, they entrench veganism as a political issue – a class issue, a race issue. When gentrification comes to town and drives people out of the town, and they associate veganism with the middle-class and white middle-class who are displacing them, it doesn’t do much to turn them on to veganism. But I don’t think many vegans care about such issues, ‘though it will be interesting to see if the embracing of intersectionalism by some vegans makes any difference.

          I think the trajectory for veganism will be the same as for vegetarianism – it will have its day in the sun then stagnate. The numbers of people identifying as vegans seem to be increasing, but I think, in the end, the numbers will stick in the low singles, under 5%. It would be interesting to hear an argument as to why veganism should have a different fate from that of vegetarianism. I think the majority of people (over 90%) will continue to rumble around omnivorism. Shifts within omnivorism are the real question. But most vegans will take such shifts as the heralds of a 100% vegan future. You have asked whether vegans are actually interested in a real dialogue with reducetarians, but I sincerely question whether there is any point in talking to vegans.

          1. Leone Plane,

            Thank you for this. I don’t know how many times I hear fellow vegetarians say how cheap plant-based foods are over meat. This is crazy talk. While plant-based foods may be cheaper, I don’t think a vegetarian diet is all that cheap on the whole. Boca, Morning Star, Beyond Beef, Lightlife… this stuff is not cheap by a long shot.

            More broadly and in regards to the original post,

            The truth is there is very little time in most families’ evenings to prepare some complex, from-scratch vegetarian (or worse, vegan) recipe consisting of a bunch of items they don’t even carry at any normal grocery store. While a little elaboration on the “how” would be appreciated, it still doesn’t solve the ever shrinking window of table time allotted to the typical working class family.

            For me, it’s challenging enough raising three kids whilst maintaining a vegetarian diet. My oldest is a strict vegetarian by choice but the other two are mostly vegetarian just by proxy. I’ve no intention of pressuring them to stop eating meat completely. I know they eat far less meat than the average American and we’ve completely cut cow’s milk out of our diets. In short, I’d like to think we are doing good things for our health, the environment, and yes the animals. But if this isn’t enough for vegans I really don’t know what to tell ya.

      2. And, yes, the vegans that are supportive of reducetarianism are really only supportive of it because they see it as a form of incrementalism towards a “vegan world”. What the “reducetarians” think, etc…..is irrelevant to them and there are no attempts at actual dialogue. But because of this I don’t think vegans can really effectively promote meat, dairy, etc reduction…..for them its always a means to a vegan end and always seem insert the “go vegan” message at some point.

        1. You know, my friend and I were discussing this. We agreed that for various reasons people might cut down on meat – but veganism isn’t about cutting down on meat, it is no meat, no fish and seafood, no milk and dairy, no eggs (and no honey if you are strict). We couldn’t see how any population would embrace such a diet.

          I suspect vegans who welcome reducetarianism but don’t really care what reducetarians actually think do so because they assume that when reducetarians really start thinking they will embrace veganism. All roads lead to Rome…

    3. When Veganism becomes as easy as fast food. We’ll start making strides with your average person.

      Easy wins. Unfortunately, lazy wins. People sitting ten feet from a computer, which provides a superior internet experience, will often use their phones because it is already in their hands, and the computer is “all the way over there”. Easy wins. Expediency wins.

      Your average American has an interest in eating healthy, animal suffering and the environment, but ACTING on it requires more effort. Special cooking, reading labels in grocery stores, etc, that is all hard compared all other paths available to them.

      I am hoping that some of these lab grown meats actually become practical, because they’ll allow your average person to basically just do what they’re already doing from a diet standpoint. No thinking. No the same old routine. My fear is that people will reject lab grown meat…because it didn’t come dead animal. I hope people embrace it.

  5. Hey Tobias,

    Could you point me in the direction of what you consider to be some of the best “how to” materials/booklets/sites/etc. that are out there (for eating vegan). That is, in your opinion, who does this well?


  6. This is all so interesting, I’m loving this site and comments section. I’m in my late 20’s and it’s not hard to find vegans in my age group in the area I live. I went vegetarian a few years back, then sort of played with the idea of veganism the past summer, but more recently I’ve gone back to an omnivore diet. I want to get into that at some point, but a lot of the commenters here are touching on the issue. Going back to this article, I recall when i was trying the vegan thing a lot of the most enjoyable experience came from just trying to cook vegan dishes for my vegan friend. It was a fun, cool, challenging thing. I conveyed this feeling to said vegan friend, at some point later when we were arguing about my qualms with veganism(something I want to write about in the future), the response I got was something like “veganism is more than that, it’s a lifestyle, a solution to world problems, a spiritual thing etc.” And ever since that incident I’ve been carrying a bit of a grudge against popular vegan rhetoric. There’s a lot of good intentions, and FACTS, but there’s a not a lot of persuasion going down. Instead there’s a ton of self-aggrandizment. anyway I like what you’re doing. vegan strategizing is sorely needed. Factory farming is disgusting, but I view the problem as a structural thing and it seems like many of those that are already vegan are allergic to contemplating structures.

  7. I decided to become a vegan 6 months ago. My biggest battle with going vegan was trying to find enough of a variety of foods that are vegan to keep me happy. At the start I was very limited in knowledge about vegan food and cooking. I stumbled upon this resource and have found more than half of them to be really yummy. I was thinking there were others out there in the same boat so I wanted to recommend the following resource
    From Lauren

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