In this blog, Charlotte Farrell, employment law expert, looks at ethical veganism and its protection against discrimination.
Ethical veganism – the new “philosophical belief” in discrimination law. Just how far must someone go to prove they believe it?
For a few years now the concept of a “philosophical belief” under the Equality Act 2010 has been the subject of discussion and debate. Several attempts have been made to classify individual beliefs as philosophical beliefs under the Act to gain the protection that it offers against discrimination.
The most notable of these, and one that has been confirmed as meeting the requirements, is ethical veganism. When the case was first announced in 2021 the newspaper headlines were keen to turn the decision into a sensationalist story to shock the business world; however, once the initial interest faded away it has not fundamentally changed the way in which businesses operate on a day to day basis.
How to be considered a philosophical belief under the Equality Act
To be considered a philosophical belief under the Equality Act, the belief needs to:
- be genuinely held;
- be a belief rather than an opinion or viewpoint;
- be a belief on a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
- have a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion, and importance;
- be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity, and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others; and
- have a ‘similar status or cogency to a religious belief’ but need not ‘allude to a fully-fledged system of thought’.
However, the belief does not need to be shared by others. Beliefs may also be based on science or be part of a political doctrine, however mere support of a political party would not qualify.
The legal case for classing ethical veganism as a “philosophical belief”
In the case of Jordi Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports, the Tribunal dealt with the preliminary question of whether or not the Claimant’s belief in ethical veganism qualified as a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010 and whether the Claimant was entitled to protection against discrimination because of it.
At the time there were articles circulating claiming that all an employee had to do to gain protection was to stop eating meat products for a short period, claim they were a vegan and gain protection against undesirable decisions in the workplace. There was confusion between “ethical veganism” and “dietary veganism”, no doubt fuelled by heightened concerns about the environment and a push to encourage people to do their bit by eating less meat and going vegan for “Veganuary”.
Employment solicitors were obviously critical of this analysis and once the judgment was published it was clear that the Tribunal’s decision was much more specific.
What is ethical veganism?
The case examined the basis of ethical veganism from its roots in the ancient concept of Ahimsa from the ancient Indian religion of Jainism and came to the clear conclusion that it is capable of being a “philosophical belief” meeting the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.
Ethical veganism is a moral opposition to any action that exploits animals. It goes much deeper than just the foods that are eaten or a desire to help the environment by eating less meat. It looks at the relationship between humans and other animals and the way in which they are treated. The judgment confirms “it is not just about choices of diet, but about choices relating to what a person wears, what personal care products he or she uses, their hobbies, and the jobs he or she does. They are in fact people who have chosen to live, as far as possible, without the use of animal products”.
Ethical veganism is a moral viewpoint that affects every aspect of a person’s life.
Dietary vegans eat a plant-based diet but ethical vegans will try to exclude all forms of animal exploitation as far as possible. Dietary veganism is therefore incorporated into ethical veganism but not vice-versa.
How far must someone go to prove they are an ethical vegan?
Where the case is most useful is that it gives guidance on how much commitment a person must show to their belief, to give them the right to rely on it. I.e. how they can prove that their belief is “genuinely held”.
In this case it was clear that the Claimant had very strongly held views. For example, he:
- has a 100% vegan diet and avoids foods if he is unsure of their origin. He does not eat animal flesh including fish and seafood;
- does not consume any product that contains an animal product, including additives and will not keep them in his home;
- does not allow non-vegan food to be brought into his home by another person;
- contacts hotels and event hosts in advance to advise he is vegan;
- would rather go hungry than eat food derived from animals when travelling;
- will not consume food that he believes has any involvement with harming animals. For example, figs are grown with a symbiotic relationship to a microscopic wasp. As you can’t be sure whether all of the wasp lava has left the fig before it is picked he will not eat figs as they may not truly be vegan;
- does not wear clothes that contain animal products, has researched vegan clothing in detail and will not use products tested on animals;
- does not visit zoos, circuses, animal fights, animal races or animal related events;
- has only worked in the field of animal protection and has not had a pet since becoming a vegan;
- tries to avoid sitting on leather seats or holding leather straps or products;
- participates in marches focused on animal welfare and has given speeches at such events;
- will avoid gatherings where non-vegan food is served;
- will not date or co-habit, in any way, with a non-vegan;
- uses a vegan friendly electricity supplier, Ecotricity, which doesn’t use animal bi-products for fuel;
- will walk whenever possible rather than take the bus or public transport, to avoid accidental crashes with insects or birds;
- avoids using notes when paying for items as the new versions have been made using animal products.
Effects on the future of discrimination law
The Claimant was clearly very committed to his vegan beliefs. He lived and breathed the principles of ethical veganism. His situation could be argued to be at one end of the spectrum and the Tribunal did not give guidance on where the other end may lie. However, what they did make clear, was that it will not be enough to give lip service to ethical veganism. A claimant must be able to show their belief is truly genuine and where it comes to ethical veganism this will involve closely examining every aspect of their life. Whilst breaking the rules occasionally will not defeat their claim, they will need to be able to show that they live their life in a way that reflects their stated belief.
So, whilst the case leaves no doubt that ethical veganism itself is a “philosophical belief”, it is unlikely to open the floodgates to claims from employees.
It had previously been held that vegetarianism did not meet the requirements of a philosophical belief as it was found not to concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, and did not have the required level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion, and importance (Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd and others) and the reasoning from the Tribunal in this case doesn’t change that.
To rely on ethical veganism as a philosophical belief a claimant must be able to clearly evidence that they live by its principles and it pervades their lifestyle and whilst the number of people in that position is steadily increasing, it remains small for now.