Why Our Soaps Aren't Vegan

Why Our Soaps Aren't Vegan

I spent ten years of my life living a vegan lifestyle. If you're unfamiliar, veganism means abstaining from any animal products: meat, milk, eggs - even honey. Did you know that some red food dyes are extracted from insects? You'd avoid those. It means not using animal products in what you wear (no leather, obviously, but also no wool). There was a lot of studying of ingredient and materials lists for any product I'd buy. Thankfully I was living in Portland, Oregon, at the time, and if it isn't the vegan capital of the US it's got to be close: there were even a handful of restaurants in the city that served a strictly vegan menu.

People have different reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle. Mine was avoidance of animal cruelty. I was a veterinary technician for many years, and it's unsurprising that a large number of veterinary workers - technicians, doctors, etc - are vegan or vegetarian. Our whole lives are dedicated to alleviating animal suffering. Separating pet animal wellbeing from the wellbeing of any other animal creates uncomfortable dissonance.

It's now been 13 years since I abandoned the vegan lifestyle. I didn't quit because it was hard. After ten years, it was a habit, and I didn't miss animal products anymore. I loved my tee shirts that said "herbivore" on them, with funny cartoons. I had an animal product-free wardrobe built over the years and a menu of foods I enjoyed. And I felt healthy. I was a distance runner, cyclist and swimmer, and even ran several marathons as a vegan! The strength of conviction got me through the tough first several months of being a vegan but after many years I no longer thought much about it. And I believe that for some people it is a sustainable lifestyle.

What changed? I met some farmers who weren't cruel to their animals, even when they were using them for food. Now I know for some people that statement will not make sense. Killing animals for food, to some people, IS animal cruelty. And yet...Temple Grandin makes a good point when she asks us to consider the fate of animals in nature. "Nature is cruel," she says. "We don't have to be." She has spent her professional life easing the pain of animals destined for consumption.
When I originally became vegan it was in response to images of factory farms: chickens housed in cages too small for them to move in, in close quarters with cage mates who had died, in closed chicken houses with no sunlight or air. And those were just egg layers - the fate of meat chickens seemed even worse. Then there were feedlot cattle, fed grain they weren't designed to digest and medications to remedy their bodies' response to that unnatural diet. Roughly handled, it seemed, all the way to their death - I couldn't erase the violent images from my mind. Now, these things do happen on farms across the US. And yet, you can rhetoricize anything, and from my perspective organizations like PETA spin facts to a drastic degree. They are still starting from the truth. Animal cruelty on some production farms is a fact of life.

For a more balanced view, however, one might listen to other farmers - people who know the industry well, who understand animal husbandry, and who care about their animals' wellfare. Too often animal advocates misunderstand the animals themselves - your backyard laying hens do not expect to live to see their grandchildren; in a natural setting a chicken's life isn't long. Farmers who are sustainably grazing their cows in a rotation paddock may not give them as much space as some people think necessary, but cows are herd animals and even on a hundred acres will often cluster in a small group. See Joel Salatin's books for thoughtful comments on how farmers can work with their animals in a manner that serves both nature and people.

The research is still out on whether veganism or animal consumption is more sustainable environmentally (or even whether veganism might lead to just as many animal deaths of a different kind - many small animals are killed in plant farming and palm oil used as a substitute for animal fats destroys orangutan habitat). I'd argue that on a practical level, however, the majority of western culture isn't going to give up meat tomorrow. Which leaves us with this problem: how to consume animal products in a way free of cruelty, and with care for the environment. There's a great sustainable agriculture movement in the US today. More farmers are learning to farm regeneratively, in a way that not only avoids damaging the environment, but actually supports and nurtures it.

There's a host of ideological reasons people embrace veganism - whole books are written about them. My choice to abandon veganism boiled down to an evolving understanding of natural systems (most human cultures have consumed animal products for millennia, and we are an omnivorous species), the realization that animal consumption can happen without cruelty (depending on your definition of cruelty, obviously), and that animal farming can happen with respect and care for the environment.

So, what does this have to do with soap? Many consumers are in search of vegan soap, not aware that it has its own impact on animals and the environment (see here). We use tallow and lard in our soap, because they are sustainable resources that are often otherwise wasted and because they are high quality moisturizing ingredients that nourish the skin (unsurprisingly, animal-sourced fats most closely mimic our own natural skin oils and are the best match for our skin). We raise goats for that skin-nurturing milk because they have light impact on our property - they eat down vegetation much in the same way that deer do, and at the same time they fertilize. We carefully consider how many goats our small property can support and we stay within that number. We use organic, non-GMO feed where possible and we avoid excessive use of pharmaceuticals (our goats are genetically parasite resistant). We source our winter hay supply locally to minimize carbon output. Regardless of political ideology, we believe in being good stewards of creation and personally, we like a clean place to live, so we work to reduce our impact.

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