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Vegan Myths: A vegan lifestyle is cruelty-free (part 1)

Often vegans will describe their food, clothing and other items as 'cruelty free'.  However, something that is vegan is not necessarily free from cruelty.  It may still be made using exploitative means.  It may also still result in animal deaths.   It may even contribute to harming the environment.  It may cause the displacement or death of indigenous peoples, or disturb the ecosystem.  The following items (cocoa, palm oil and diamonds) are considered 'vegan' because they don't exploit animals or contain animal products.  However, I would personally not consider them to be 'cruelty-free'.  Many of the vegans whom I have the privilege and pleasure of knowing also consider human rights and the environment in their consumption choices.  I'm only going to give you an overview of each of these items but there are links to more resources and I hope that you find this post informative.   I am doing this piece in 2-3 parts because it is so long and there are many vegan food and other items that involve exploitation of humans, destruction of the environment and killing of animals.  Part 1 covers cocoa, palm oil and diamonds.  Part 2 will cover coffee, plastic and tantalum.  If I get some more suggestions I will do more posts.

Cacao_beans_by_chrissCacao beans by chriss

Chocolate/cocoa/cacao

Vegan chocolate seems like a delicious treat that we can have every now and again for a job well done, right? Surely there's nothing wrong with something that tastes so good? I'm sorry guys, I'm really sorry to do this, but the truth is that there is a lot wrong with chocolate.

Cocoa farmers often face unfair prices and lack the education to diversify their crops and increase their security.  Fairtrade Australia works to certify products from around the world where farmers are getting fair prices, no child labour is used, sustainability practices are employed and more.  Fairtrade certification has been accused of not being accurate, with some people claiming that children are working on farms even though they are certified as fairtrade. 

Children are often used as slaves or labour on cocoa farms.   I first became aware of this problem thanks to the documentary film 'The Dark Side of Chocolate'.  Children are told that there is good pay, or are misled by adults they know and end up working on plantations with nowhere else to go, with either money going to other family members or no money being paid at all (slavery).  The working conditions are dangerous and there are often injuries due to the use of machettes and other dangerous practices.  Some people even use whips and abuse their slaves and workers.  Children employed on cocoa farms are unable to attend school and miss out on many opportunities because of this.

Cocoa farms can also negatively impact the environment.  Deforestation, decreased biodiversity, loss of top soil and more are associated with the increase in cocoa farms, which are spurred by an increased demand for cocoa.  The Rainforest Alliance works to certify cocoa that is produced in a sustainable way.  They help them to learn how to be more efficient with resources, increase productivity and protect the environment.  The certification seems to also have a positive effect on how much money the farmers get.

There are many Fairtrade certified brands available in many stores across Australia. World Vision has put together a list available here (.pdf) and The Ethical Shopping Guide can also help you to find fairtrade chocolate.  There is even chocolate available that is grown in Australia; Daintree Estates (the dark chocolate appears to be vegan).

by_Rainforest_Action_NetworkPhoto by Rainforest Action Network

Palm Oil

Palm oil is a plant product; it is made from the fruit of a tree.  Technically, because of this, it's vegan. Palm oil is, however, destructive.  It is because of the production of palm oil that large amounts of deforestation have occurred, leading to the loss of habitat for many already endangered species and the displacement and exploitation of indigenous peoples.

There is an organisation called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) whose aim it is to certify and ensure that palm oil production is carried out in a way that is environmentally responsible and within the law, with no exploitation of workers.  There are 122 certified oil palm growers listed on their website when you do a search and approximately 14% of palm oil produced globally is RSPO certified.   The RSPO are not without criticisms however.  Greenpeace wrote in September 2013 that “RSPO standards are not prohibiting deforestation and peatland destruction”.  The Forest Peoples Programme released a report about the palm oil industry in October 2013, with a corresponding press release stating that “Members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are violating the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities in the forests and peatlands of tropical nations worldwide”.  Take from that what you will.

Palm oil is put into many foods that people buy, under names such as 'vegetable oil' so it can be quite hard to avoid it, especially if you don't have the time to do research and shop around, or the money to buy alternatives.  There are some resources available that list things as palm oil free, such as Palm Oil Free Products (an online store), Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia's shopping guide, and Palm Oil Action's shopping guideShop ethical lists all sorts of different criticisms of products and are a very useful guide.

To find out more about palm oil, check out the links below:

Diamonds_by_Kim_AlanizDiamonds by Kim Alaniz

Diamonds

Diamonds are a type of rock, treasured in many places for its social significance as a marker of class, wealth, prosperity and marriage.  As a rock, it can be hard to see how it might not be cruelty-free.  There are in fact a few problems with diamonds: exploitation of workers, funding of conflicts, the displacement and exploitation of indigenous peoples and environmental damage.   I'll only be giving an overview with a couple of examples, as there is a lot of information out there.   This is more just a starter before the main course that you can find by following links and utilising the power of the internet.

Many people who work in diamond mines in places around the world are exploited. In Sierra Leone, workers can go months without finding a diamond, and then only get a small amount of money for itMany of the workers are children, dropping out of school in order to try and get rich.  This exploitation is not confined to Sierra Leone, nor to mining.   Children are employed as diamond cutters in India due to their smaller hands and fingers, allowing them to cut smaller diamonds.

The money from diamonds was used previously to fund massive conflicts with death tolls reaching into the millions. While a large portion of these conflicts have ended, some diamond mines are still held by people using the profits to fund conflicts, in places such as Zimbabwe.  It's not all bad news though as some countries, such as Botswana, use the money from diamond mining to benefit their citizens (although the government in Botswana seems to be ignoring the rights of its Indigenous peoples).

In some countries, indigenous peoples have been forced to move from their homes so that diamonds could be mined.   One example of this are the Bushmen in Botswana, who were forcefully evicted from their homes and land in 1997, 2002 and 2005. Even Canada has experienced some criticism in regards to their treatment of indigenous peoples. Not all diamond mines operate like this; the Argyle mine in Australia states on their website that they have an agreement with the Traditional Owners of the land and pay local indigenous communities for access to the area (more information in this Native Title Report).  Then again, maybe I just didn't search around enough.

There are massive environmental consequences of mining as well; water pollution, transport of materials, moving of thousands of tonnes of rocks, dirt and sand, cutting down of trees, displacement of native wildlife and more.  Mines in Canada have had negative effects on fish habitats, water quality and caribou habits, as well as having a high contribution to greenhouse gases.  Diamond mines in Zimbabwe have been accused of poisoning the water, causing human and nonhuman animals to get sick.  Many companies now work to restore the land with money set aside from their profits once they are done mining for diamonds.

For those of you who can afford diamonds and enjoy them, there are more ethical choices available that can help you to avoid being involved in exploitation, environmental destruction and the displacement of indigenous people. The only thing to remember when buying these is that people looking at you won't know where you got it from, so you may be encouraging the 'fashion' and consumption of unethical diamonds.

Some ethical diamond sources include: Secondhand from places like Gumtree and Cash Converters, synthetic lab-made diamonds, Ethical Jewellery Australia, Utopian Creations and Brilliant Earth.

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Therefore, a vegan lifestyle is not inherently cruelty-free. Thankfully, nearly every vegan I know is aware of the problems with the above products and does their best to avoid them. However, it may be that people have no choice but to use them as they do not have the time or money to find alternatives.   In these cases it is up to the people with the opportunity to use those opportunities to purchase 'better' items, or boycott, petition or email the companies involved.

Part 2 is coming soon.

This article originally appeared on Keira's website.

Keira_Edwards-HuolohanKeira Edwards-Huolohan is a recent Sociology graduate.  In 2013, Keira completed their Honours thesis, titled "Consumption ethics and poverty: What do vegans do to maintain a commitment to veganism when financially challenged?". They've been vegan since January 2010.

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