When I was at Mercy For Animals we put this together and I feel it explains it best. So, here it is:

The “V” Word: A Note about Terminology

Let us go on record for a moment – Mercy For Animals always has, and always will, unapologetically encourage people to adopt a lifestyle free of meat, dairy and eggs, based on cruelty-free, plant-based alternatives. We’re proud to say that all of our websites and print materials include 100% animal-free recipes, tips, and information. They always have, and they always will. It’s that simple.

Many people ask us why we sometimes use the word vegetarian instead of vegan. While MFA certainly uses the word vegan frequently, we sometimes use the word vegetarian when advocating to certain audiences as part of a carefully considered strategy to move as many people as possible toward a compassionate lifestyle. When we use the word vegetarian, we are using it in the purest form – meaning a lifestyle free of all animal products – essentially a vegan diet.

So, if we are advocating veganism, why not always use the word vegan? Here is our reasoning:

  1. Numerous terms have been used to describe a cruelty-free lifestyle – veganpure vegetarianplant-basedplant-strongherbivore, or just plain ethical. The word vegetarian, in its purest form, denotes the exclusion of meat and other animal products from the diet. In fact, vegetarian is commonly defined as: “relating to the exclusion of meat or other animal products from the diet.”

    Over time, the word vegetarian has been misused or used with qualifiers such as “ovo-lacto” to indicate a mostly plant-based diet that includes some animal products such as dairy or eggs. Some people even claim to be vegetarian while eating chicken or fish. We believe that it is time to take the word vegetarian back and to help explain to people its noble roots as a word that indicates a commitment to a non-violent lifestyle.

  2. In our experience, the word vegetarian is more accessible to more people than the word vegan and can lead to more initial discussions about cruelty-free living. This is often particularly true for individuals living in smaller towns and cities where the term vegan is less familiar – if at all familiar. Once an initial conversation is started, we are in a better position to explain how dairy and eggs contribute to horrendous suffering and how transitioning to a healthy and humane vegan lifestyle is a simple but powerful way to help reduce the suffering of billions of animals.

    For example, using the phrase “Choose Vegetarian” in an advertisement often attracts more traffic to our website than the phrase “Choose Vegan.” Once at our website, people are able to learn about the cruelty inherent in dairy and egg production and find delicious vegan recipes and helpful tips on transitioning to a cruelty-free lifestyle. They are also able to view our powerful undercover investigation videos – the majority of which were conducted at dairy or egg facilities.

    The same analysis applies to our new [sic] “Ask Me Why I’m Vegetarian” t-shirt. We tested both vegan and vegetarian versions of the shirt and found that the vegetarian shirt led to more conversations and the distribution of more literature. Additionally, the conversations were much more positive and productive. With the vegan shirt, conversations generally focused on the seemingly endless list of obscure ingredients that are nearly impossible to avoid or how hard it seems to give up cheese or ice cream. When we wore the vegetarian shirt the discussions were focused on how interesting chickens are, how horrible slaughterhouses are and how empowering it is to live our values at every meal. Interestingly, we had far more constructive discussions of the dairy and egg industries when we wore the vegetarian shirt than when we wore the vegan shirt.

  3. In our outreach activities – which included over 700 events last year alone – we routinely encounter people new to these issues who find the word vegan daunting and unachievable, whereas vegetarianoften seems more acceptable and accessible. Ironically, we may end up convincing far fewer people to adopt a vegan lifestyle when we use the word vegan in our initial discussions versus when we use the word vegetarian.

    Certainly, using the word vegetarian doesn’t prevent us from talking about veganism. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Using the word vegetarian starts more conversations and leads to more opportunities to talk about veganism. Moreover, many, if not the vast majority of vegans first started their journey in a transitional way, often by removing animal flesh from their diets first.

    As a species, humans tend to have very “all or nothing” mindsets. Because they view veganism as impossibly difficult, they will often write off making any lifestyle changes at all. But when presented with the prospect of going vegetarian, people tend to be much more open-minded and will often take that initial step toward cruelty-free living. Once they’ve taken that first step, the next step is that much easier.

If veganism is about helping to end the needless suffering and exploitation of animals, then it makes sense to adopt strategies and tactics that help convince the greatest possible number of people to transition toward an animal-free lifestyle. While we never want to imply that eating or wearing animals is ever acceptable, it is important to meet people where they are and urge them to begin a transition toward cruelty-free living.

To read more about bringing effective strategies into your animal advocacy work, we highly recommend The Animal Activist’s Handbook by Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball, Change of Heart by Nick Cooney and by Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan.

Accessed 9/7/13.