At a recent party a friend of mine asked what physical changes I’ve noticed since going vegan. I’ve always struggled with how to answer this question. I know some folks who cite specific things: better sleep, more energy, clearer skin, a general “lightness.” And there are hosts of professional athletes, such as David Carter and Wilson Chandler, who initially went vegan because they noticed better recovery times, fewer injuries, or changes in their performance. But for me, the biggest change I experienced wasn’t physical; it’s that living my values feels good, in my body, in my mind, in my heart. Living my beliefs through my actions roots me in the choices I make, which means that I’m living each day with awareness and conviction. Some of the most mundane things, like washing my face, putting on shoes, and grocery shopping now feel purposeful beyond just myself.
"Living my beliefs through my actions roots me in the choices I make, which means that I’m living each day with awareness and conviction."
Like many folks, I’ve claimed to love animals for as long as I can remember. I grew up with adopted cats and dogs. I loved seeing raccoons, possums, and deer back home in rural Ohio, and I was upset whenever I saw their bodies on the road. I always thought of animals as people, but it wasn’t until I went vegan that I realized I’d spent the majority of my life engaging in practices that don’t treat them as such: consuming meat and dairy, visiting zoos and aquariums, wearing leather and wool; even the makeup, lip balm, and shampoo I used were tested on animals and contained animal derivatives. The way I’d been living was in conflict with my love of animals.
I initially went vegan after I started dating a vegan. As a lazy cook and a former vegetarian who had been generally grossed out by meat for a long time, it seemed fairly easy to forego animal products and animal byproducts, and it felt right and made sense to me. But it wasn’t until I was already vegan that I started to gain new knowledge and wrestle with it. It had never occurred to me that dairy is not a harmless process. It had never occurred to me to find out if eggs sold as “free range” were actually less harmful than other eggs. The more I read and watched, the more rooted I felt in a way to live, and the more rooted I felt, the easier it was to make more changes. As my supply of shampoo, face wash, and makeup ran out, I researched vegan options. When I needed new clothes, I checked labels to make sure there was no wool or silk. I learned that some lip balms contain lanolin, and I found amazing ones that didn’t, and that didn’t test on animals, either. It wasn’t the sheer amount of change I was making that made me feel better – it was that I was reconsidering my habits and actions with purpose and intention. Once I started doing this in regards to veganism, it opened the gate to living my values in other ways too.
"I always thought of animals as people, but it wasn’t until I went vegan that I realized I’d spent the majority of my life engaging in practices that don’t treat them as such: consuming meat and dairy, visiting zoos and aquariums, wearing leather and wool; even the makeup, lip balm, and shampoo I used were tested on animals and contained animal derivatives. The way I’d been living was in conflict with my love of animals."
A couple years after going vegan, I read The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. It’s the incredible non-fiction account of the disappearance of Grant Hadwin, a former logger who became an anti-logging activist and cut down a unique and protected tree in protest. It’s also the history of the logging industry, and it woke me up to another way in which I’d been living on autopilot. Vaillant writes that logging leaves behind “landscapes we take for granted, though they bear scant resemblance to their pre-agricultural states.” He says that as little as two hundred years ago, aerial photographs of North America would have looked to us like Dark Age Europe, or even the Amazon, a drastic change from the checkerboard of brown and green we now think of as normal. “With the exception of the Great Plains and the desert southwest” he writes, “the continent would have presented a virtually unbroken carpet of forest that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska.” The image was startling. I used paper towels for everything. For cleaning, as napkins, for wiping up the piles of drool my adopted pup, Link, produced when it was time for dinner. I used them without regard or thought. Growing up, it was what we used to wipe down the dinner table, and I never before considered that there was an alternative.
Now I have designated cloth “floor towels” that I use to wipe up after my pups, and I use rags or eco-friendly sponges to clean everything but the toilet. (I haven’t yet been able to mentally get on board with that, though I’m trying.) I know that I’ll always be able to do better, and accepting that I’m never going to be the perfect vegan, that in fact this doesn’t exist, has been helpful for me to stop focusing on what I’m not doing (in regards to the environment, to animal and human welfare, to social injustice) and continue focusing on what else I can do. Which is a lot. I CAN stop buying reusable plastic containers that I know will eventually lose their integrity and invest in long-lasting ball jars instead. I can invest more upfront to buy clothes and shoes that are made well, and made ethically, and I can repurpose things as much as possible. Empty jam and pasta sauce jars work well for storing leftovers, or for holding all my kitchen tools that don’t fit in drawers. Clothing that can’t be recycled can be used for cleaning, or even for a tug-toy for my dogs (knotted up strips of old jeans are actually great for this).
Our culture is not geared toward minimalism, but veganism has helped me re-orient myself in that regard too. I’ve found that having a limited number of options at the grocery store is actually a relief. And it makes those times when there are a plethora of options more exciting and special. Finding new clothes, shoes, or eyeshadow is the same. And now I look first for companies that are doing good work—that are values-centered first and foremost, and then I see if their products are a match for me. Often what they have is something more incredible than I would have found otherwise. Like the vegan lip balm I order online from Hurraw! Balm, which is oval shaped instead of round, so I can leave one on every surface at home without them rolling away. Or the vegan eyeshadow I buy from Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics, who are known for being gender-inclusive. Or the amazing shoes from Nicora, a woman-run and proudly eco-feminist company. Yes, it took some time and research and sometimes trial and error to find these companies that I now love and trust. But buying from them feels like an investment rather than a transaction.
Our society makes it easy to not think about all the unseen thing our actions are supporting, but leading a life separate from our values is like watching a show we don’t actually care about just to see how it will end, or eating fast food because it’s the easiest option. It can be satisfying, sure, but it doesn’t compare to the excitement and richness that come with intention and care. Living our values means that intention and care are at the core of so many daily actions, and it feels profound.