Vegetarianism has gotten a lot of press lately, but in yesterday's Times, Gary Steiner argued that being truly ethical involves eschewing far more than meat — and this kind of abstemiousness may be falling out of favor.
Steiner argues that even "free range" chickens may lead miserable lives, and that the only truly moral response to widespread cruelty to animals is "to forswear the consumption of animal products of all kinds." But, he writes,
You just haven't lived until you've tried to function as a strict vegan in a meat-crazed society. [...] To be a really strict vegan is to strive to avoid all animal products, and this includes materials like leather, silk and wool, as well as a panoply of cosmetics and medications. The more you dig, the more you learn about products you would never stop to think might contain or involve animal products in their production - like wine and beer (isinglass, a kind of gelatin derived from fish bladders, is often used to "fine," or purify, these beverages), refined sugar (bone char is sometimes used to bleach it) or Band-Aids (animal products in the adhesive). Just last week I was told that those little comfort strips on most razor blades contain animal fat.
In his expression of how difficult it is to lead a truly ethical life, he has an unlikely companion: designer Todd Lynn, who has used fur in his collections. Lynn says,
I don't have a problem with people following their principles, but what bugs me is when people pick and choose. People are really misinformed about the products they wear. Nobody argues with the pesticides used on cotton plants that will kill wildlife. To think that silk or cotton doesn't do damage to the environment is a lie.
The difference between the two men is that Steiner views the sheer difficulty of a vegan lifestyle as a problem with society, while Lynn seems to be excusing fur on the grounds that other products are just as bad. But both underscore the fact that if you want to be a truly ethical consumer, it's extremely difficult to live in the modern world. It's an argument I used to hear all the time when I was a strict vegetarian — that soy cultivation was just as toxic to the environment as livestock, and that if I really wanted to be consistent I would have to eat only unprocessed, unpackaged, organically grown foods. Of course, this argument conflates environmental degradation with morality — if what you really care about is animal welfare, then it doesn't really matter if soy farms use a lot of petroleum. On the other hand, it's absolutely true that if you want your eating and buying habits to be both morally correct and healthy for the planet, your life will be very, very hard.
There are a number of possible solutions to this problem. One is to throw up your hands and not worry about ethics, which The Observer's Elizabeth Day, who interviewed Lynn, says more people are now doing with respect to fur. She points out that former PETA supporter Naomi Campbell now stars in an ad campaign for a furrier. And she quotes a spokesman for a fur trading group who says,
Fur has never been more popular. From 1998 to 2008 there has been year-on-year growth in global sales for fur. People now are more comfortable showing their love of fur.
Given the economic climate, though, fur-love may not be the biggest obstacle to ethical consumption. Rather, many of us may be too cash-strapped and stressed out to consider the larger implications of what we're buying, eating, and wearing. Steiner's solution to the difficulty of living morally — sucking it up, potentially losing friends, and making your life a rebuke to a system that thoughtlessly exploits animals and the earth — is the most ideologically consistent one. But it's also the most difficult one to sell to people who already have a lot of problems. We may need voices like Steiner's to remind us of the problems of consumption, but when it comes to advice for living, we might require a softer touch.
The question of whether radicalism or moderation is better at effecting social change is an age-old one. But in the case of our personal habits, swift, radical change on a large scale may be an unachievable goal. Steiner seems to disdain a dining companion who says, "I'm really a vegetarian - I don't eat red meat at home." This position can be annoying for vegetarians, as it leads them to be served chicken at dinner parties or pressured to eat "just a little" meat. At the same time, people who give up red meat do reduce their carbon footprints, as do people who avoid all meat one or two days a week. For those who believe meat is murder, giving it up sometimes probably doesn't seem like much of a compromise. But people who do so have given some thought to their consumption practices, and may be open to more. They may be the early adopters of a system which, while not perfect, cares more about animal welfare and environmental conservation than the old one that put animal fat in razors. Strict vegans might do well to treat these occasional vegetarians not as enemies, but as allies.