It is quite a lifestyle change to minimize the animal products in your life. It is particularly challenging because we live in a society that takes the use of animal bodies for food, clothing, entertainment, testing, etc. as normal and part of “that is just the way it is.” People who try to live compassionately towards animals often feel socially isolated (only 1 – 3% of the US population are estimated to be vegan), although they report feeling that they are living with integrity and in line with their values. While impossible to eliminate all animal products from your life (after all, there can be animal byproducts in automobile tires, asphalt, and even dry wall in your house), most vegans view this as a journey and take the attitude that “best is the enemy of better; I may not be able to eliminate all animal products, but I will do the best I can.”
Safe Haven volunteer Kelsey Steele wrote her thesis for the University of Vermont on The Vegan Journey. Kelsey interviewed 17 vegans to determine why they chose to change their diets and what challenges they faced along the way. Her findings can help you know what happens as your transition to a cruelty-free diet.
All of the study participants agreed that becoming vegan is a journey rather than a destination. You can read her entire thesis at the UVM library. Below are some excerpts.
There are important benefits to society when people adapt a vegan lifestyle. Many researchers have shown reduced environmental degradation, positive health benefits and reduced medical costs, and less animal and human suffering from consuming less livestock. Despite these benefits, a very small percentage of people choose this lifestyle. If we understand how vegans come to live by their values then we can better understand how people in general come to live in ways that honor their values. This information may prove to be helpful toward anyone wishing to adopt or encourage any ethically, environmentally, or health conscious lifestyle choice.
The purpose of this study was to determine participants become and remained vegan. I wanted to explore the vegan journey, which Donald Watson said was the last step in someone’s vegetarian journey (Larsson, Ronnbund, Johansson & Dahlgen, 2001). I wanted to better understand the act of bridging the gap between what one believes and what one does.
The Stages of the Vegan Journey
There was a common pattern among the participants. They went through four stages on their vegan journey: Readiness, Spark, Learning & Telling, and the Continuing Journey stage. This is shown in the figure below.
Fox and Ward (Health, ethics, and the environment, 2008) wrote about a trajectory although they did not specify the steps that took place along the trajectory. My research now defines the specific steps in the vegan journey based upon the interview responses from the seventeen participants.
Stage 1: Readiness
The Readiness Stage is when participants are introduced to the idea of veganism or vegetarianism. It ultimately prepares the participant for their decision to become vegan. This stage happens gradually and involves any combination of influential people, documentaries, books, events, and health issues.
In this stage, the participant often thinks about the prospect of becoming vegan or vegetarian or they may decide to be vegetarian or mostly vegetarian. This stage usually involves the person being around vegans and/or vegetarians. For example, one participant said that before she decided to become vegan, she worked at a Whole Foods. There she met vegans and tried vegan foods that she had never had before. Another participant had a friend in high school that was a vegetarian and made the practice of a plant-based diet look do-able. This stage often involves a person becoming aware of the option to refrain from eating animal products.
The participants may also learn some information in this stage about the health, environmental, and ethical reasons of becoming vegan. The person may also see some part of their values or lifestyles that resonate with the vegan philosophy or lifestyle. As an example, one of the participants was allergic to dairy and found that he could eat everything at vegan restaurants. Other examples are people who love animals, such as the participant who was raised with goats as a child and who learned about the vegetarian and vegan-life style because she liked the idea of not eating animals who could be friends. This repeated exposure to an idea or behavior and its effect on a person’s behavior was also explored by psychologists Zimbardo and Leippe (1991). They found that the more someone was exposed to an idea, the more they liked and accepted it. This was the case with the participants in the readiness stage of my study about veganism.
The Readiness Stage is when the person is thinking about veganism/vegetarianism, but has not yet made the plunge into veganism. This stage prepares the individual for the spark stage, which is when the individual decides to practice a vegan lifestyle.
Stage 2: The Spark
The Spark is a single event that also involves influential people, documentaries, books, events, and health issues. The main difference between the Spark Stage and the Readiness Stage is that the Spark Stage stimulates a change in behavior. The sparks were ignited in different ways, depending on the reasons for which the participant was drawn to veganism in the readiness stage. The reasons are ethical, health, and/or environmental.
Among the participants in this study, some spark events included:
- People: Partner decides to go vegan, friend who is vegan
- Books: Skinny Bitch, The Face on Your Plate, Why We Eat What We Eat
- Documentaries: Earthlings, Food Inc.
- Events: PETA event on vivisection, PETA table at Punk rock concerts, Yoga cleanse
- Health Issue: Family member has heart problem, Participant diagnosed with multiple sclerosis
Several of the sparks for the ethical vegans produced strong emotions of sadness and guilt, particularly the film Earthlings, the PETA event on vivisection, The Face on Your Plate and Skinny Bitch. After the participants experienced these events and emotions, they decided to practice a vegan lifestyle. Strong emotions were also shown to influence people into veganism in McDonald’s study on veganism in 2000.
The health vegans in this study had been looking for a solution to their health concerns, which were part of their Readiness Stage. The spark came from the participant actively looking for a solution to their health concerns. In contrast, the ethical vegans had simply come across the spark through friends’ suggestions, or browsing the library, or attending some event.
One of the health vegan participants had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and another had been concerned about heart disease because several members of her family had experienced heart problems. The participant who had multiple sclerosis found her spark at a yoga convention where everyone was practicing a raw vegan diet and talking about how it could help with chronic diseases. The participant concerned about heart problems gained her spark through reading books about how a healthy vegan diet could help reduce the risks of heart disease after her father had a heart attack.
Environmental vegans often found their sparks in a similar way to health vegans because they were also searching for ways to help the environment. One of the participants explained how she had wanted to reduce her carbon footprint because she drove an SUV a long distance to work each day (Readiness Stage). After searching for information about how to reduce her carbon footprint, she read Why We Eat What We Eat, which was the spark that led her to decide to become vegan.
Among all of the types of vegans that I interviewed, ethical, environmental, and health vegans, I found that the most common spark was actually not the strong emotions speculated upon by McDonald’s 2000 study for the ethical vegans or the books and events involved with the health and environmental vegans. The most common spark for the participants was the people surrounding the individual at the time that they became vegan.
Friends, partners, and community groups often inspired the participant to begin veganism. Many of the participants decided to become vegan with their partner after going through the Readiness Stage even though they had not yet fully developed their strong ethical, environmental, or health reasons to be vegan at the time. This finding is supportive of Feininger’s (1985) findings that people are more likely to bridge the gap between their behavior and belief if the person supporting the behavior is important or attractive to them.
Some of the participants did not start their vegan journey with their partner, but were influenced by their partner who was already vegan or vegetarian when they started dating. Many of the participants’ sparks were brought about by people in the Readiness Stage, vegan friends gave them books that were sparks or they had met vegans in their community who helped them to look for information that contained a spark.
The participants became vegan directly after experiencing their spark. Once the spark ignited the participant’s decision to become vegan, the participant entered the Learning and Telling phase.
Stage 3: Learning and Telling
All of the stages within the vegan journey involve the participants learning something about veganism and the ethical, environmental, and health reasons for following the vegan journey. However, in this stage the participant actively seeks out as much information as they can about how to be vegan. The participants read books, explored web sites, watched documentaries, and had long conversations with other vegans. The participants go through a period of learning as much as they can about the reasons and science behind a vegan lifestyle. This learning involves both theoretical knowledge, such as scientific studies, and pragmatic knowledge, such as how to prepare meals with no animal products. The learning stage supports psychologist Cohen’s (1964) discoveries that once people decide to behave in a way that supports their values, they will often “expose themselves to further information which is likely to justify the decision taken.”
In this stage, the participant is also learning how to be comfortable in their new identity as a vegan within a society that is primarily omnivores. It often involved the participant exploring other reasons to become vegan and sharing their newly found information with omnivores.
Sixteen out of the seventeen participants who had started out being vegan for one specific reason mentioned that they had evolved to incorporate at least one of the other three reasons to be vegan. For example, health vegans learned about the ethical and environmental reasons for this lifestyle; ethical vegans learned about the health and environmental reasons. In the Learning and Telling Stage, this research into other aspects of veganism reinforced the initial reason for adopting this lifestyle and added additional compelling reasons. This finding is significant because it may indicate that in order for the lifestyle to stick, it is helpful for the vegan to have more than one reason for practicing a vegan lifestyle.
During this stage, the participants learned how to make vegan meals. The participants said that they looked at numerous vegan cookbooks and often used the information listed at the beginning of the cookbooks to learn how to make everything they eat vegan. They also said that they learned where they could eat in restaurants and where to go and how to handle social situations as a vegan.
The participants struggled with interacting with non-vegans in this stage. Some of the participants said that they were self-conscious in restaurants and at friends’ houses because they had to bring up the fact that they were vegan when first starting out. One of the participants said that she originally felt awkward in restaurants at taking so long to decide what to order because there was nothing on the menu that was vegan.
The telling part of this stage comes from the participants who said that they felt they had obnoxiously preached to non-vegans about veganism when they had first become vegan. These participants said that they had originally tried to convert omnivores to veganism when they started the vegan journey. Several of these participants mentioned feeling frustrated at those who had the same values as them and agreed with the vegan philosophies, but remained omnivores. Other participants mentioned losing friendships and causing bad feelings among family members as they tried to “convert” their friends and families to veganism. As the participants moved beyond this stage, they learned to better manage their relationships with non-vegans and only spoke about their lifestyle decisions when directly questioned.
One of the participants, in particular, mentioned feeling angry that he was so aware of the suffering that eating animals represented while the people around him remained unaware and did not seem to care. He said that he learned to be okay with his anger and felt that other vegans also had to learn this as well.
The Learning and Telling Stage of veganism is when the participants were learning how to be vegan among non-vegans and in places that did not necessarily cater towards vegans. The participants learned how to prepare vegan foods, how to order food in restaurants and how to shop in grocery stores. They learned how to handle common problematic situations, such as traveling or participating in work events when all the served food contained animal foods. The participants also learned about all of the reasons that one would become vegans and most all of the participants made all of those reasons their own. For a few of the participants, one reason stood out more than the other two, but they still had knowledge of the other reasons.
Stage 4: Continuing Journey
The final stage in the vegan journey is the Continuing Journey Stage. This happens when the participant feels comfortable with and grounded in their identity as a vegan. The participant continues to learn about veganism, but not in the deliberate, energizing and going-out-of-their-way methods as in the Learning and Telling Stage. The participants have developed their rituals of what to cook and where to go out to eat. They know how to handle social situations and no longer wish to convert non-vegans into being vegan. Veganism is a part of the participants’ identities but it is not the participants’ only identity.
All of the participants said that they no longer brought up the fact that they were vegan until they were asked. The participants who had said they had been militant when they first started being vegan said that they felt that it was more effective for them to inspire others towards a vegan lifestyle by simply being vegan than by telling everyone that they should be vegan.
Fifteen of the seventeen participants expressed that they continued to be vegan because it was the right thing to do. They were also glad to be practicing veganism because it aligned with their values of compassion, justice, protecting the environment, and taking care of their own health.
Although Greenebaum (2012) did not talk about the Continuing Journey Stage, she wrote that ethical vegans found it easy to match their behavior to their values because they wanted to live with integrity and this lifestyle reflected their core values.