Vegan Doesn't Necessarily Mean Ethical : 8 Problematic Foods and What You Can Do

This post originally appeared on The Ethical Unicorn, and was posted here with permission.


Before you start reading this, I just want to clarify something. This is not a post saying you shouldn’t be vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or whatever other type of diet you may choose. This is not a post to discuss the validity of dietary choices, or pit them against each other in order to discern which is the truly perfect one. This post is both for people who have become vegan (or have decided to reduce their meat/dairy intake) and those that haven’t. It’s about getting more information out there so that we can make more considered choices.

Diets are such a contentious issue, and I’m not planning to wade into those arguments right now. However, some foods that can often be staples in a vegan diet are problematic in ways that don’t get a lot of air time, and can be related to suffering and environmental destruction. This post is simply designed to discuss these facts so that we can evaluate and question our own habits, whatever they may be.

So, let’s talk about some problems we may see in certain foods.


I’ve featured this on the blog before, but there are issues with the avocados many of us may be eating. Avocado is a common choice among vegans and non-vegans alike, especially as its popularity has continued to grow in recent years. However, avocado farming is also linked to deforestation, drug cartels and drought.

In Michoacán, Mexico, farmers are illegally razing pine forests, a vital habitat for indigenous animal species, to plant avocado trees. These trees require a lot more water, diverting natural water sources from local animal species too. Avocados have also become a lucrative business for Mexico’s drug cartels. When the farmers refuse to pay the gangs, their orchards and processing plants are burned down, or worse.

Petorca, Chile, is another large avocado producer. Avocado farming there is exacerbating an acute water shortage in a country where water is already privatised. Avocado plantations install illegal pipes and wells to divert water from rivers to irrigate their crops, which forces local populations to survive on contaminated water brought in by trucks.

Californian Avocados also can’t be classified as a brilliant option, as the state is constantly dealing with the effects of droughts and wildfires. The avocado’s native environment is a tropical one, and considering just how much water they require, this thirsty crop isn’t helping Californians out either.

Beyond all of this, many avocados leave their farms in order to be transported thousands of miles away to the rest of America, Europe, and increasingly to Asian markets such as China, racking up a pretty large carbon footprint for such small food.

What to do about it

I’m not saying never eat avocado again, but perhaps consider having them occasionally rather than at every meal. Try to opt for organic, responsibly sourced options if you can, and avoid glorifying them online/on social media (even I have been guilty of this in the past!), in order to combat the hyperconsumerist culture that has led to their rapid expansion.

If you live in Europe you can also source avocados from Spain, the only country in Europe to export them, meaning they will have a smaller footprint and should be more regulated under EU farming law. However, avocado requires a lot of water wherever it is grown, so still try and consume mindfully and amongst a lot more locally grown produce.


Second only to peanuts in global consumption, cashews are incredibly popular in vegan cuisine and are often used to make dairy alternatives such as vegan cheeses. However, farmers and workers in the cashew supply chain are suffering every day due to low pay and awful working conditions.

Cashews are predominantly processed in India, where they are among the country’s top four agricultural exports, and Vietnam (often cashews are grown in African countries like the Ivory Coast or Ghana, but processed in Vietnam).

Millions of people are dependent on the industry, however, a 2007 ActionAid report highlighted how pressure from large retailers drives down prices. This is passed on to the most vulnerable in the supply chains, resulting in a rise of black market processing units in India where women only earn up to 30p per day. The deshelling process itself is also particularly dangerous. Cashews need to be processed by hand due to their uneven shape, but during deshelling the nuts produce a caustic liquid that burns the skin. In some cases protection is available, such as alkaline pot ash to counteract the acid, but workers have to pay for this themselves and often can’t afford it, suffering burns instead.

Additionally, in 2011 Human Rights Watch released a report detailing abuses in the Vietnamese cashew industry. The report found that many cashews are farmed and shelled by drug addicts who are forced to work as part of their rehabilitation, known as ‘labour therapy’. These addicts work 10-hour days for a few dollars per month (this is, by ILO’s definition, slave labour). The report also revealed incidents of beatings from truncheons, electric shocks from cattle prods and food and water deprivation for anyone who refused to work, which ‘constitutes torture under international law’.

In late 2018 Ethical Trading Initiative Norway released a study that stated that the use of drug detainees was now a marginal phenomenon but acknowledged ongoing issues with child labour, pesticide use, and water pollution. Additionally, the study only focused on five different processors and ten cashew farms, meaning there is still scope for error when it comes to labour exploitation in the overall industry.

What to do about it

Fairtrade cashews are available but, at this point, I’d still feel wary due to an overall lack of transparency on where the industry is actually at.

I would advise consuming consciously, and not in huge amounts, and contacting companies to ask about their cashew supply chains. This includes companies who make vegan cheeses and dairy alternatives; these items categorically aren’t cruelty-free if they’re produced by people who are enslaved or tortured in any way. You can direct them to organisations like IJM, who have collaborated with companies to clean up supply chains in the past and are experts in the field, or advise them to speak directly to Ethical Trading Initiative who are working on an action plan to improve the industry (contact details are at the bottom of the report for companies/suppliers to get in touch). When it comes to products such as milk, baking, or other options opt for oat products, which are far less harmful.

Read the rest at Ethical Unicorn.