I’ve been an on-and-off vegetarian for many years.
Here is how things would usually go: I’d be a vegetarian for a while, say 8 months. Then some an event would result in me eating meat. Either it would be Christmas, and I’d end up eating the traditional Danish Christmas Duck, or I’d spend some time in a country in which it’s impossible to get anything vegetarian (I’m looking at you, China), or I’d simply end up at a restaurant that had no good veggie options. Either way, I’d cave, and end up eating something containing meat. Now, I’d make the mistake most people make when this sort of things happens: I’d say “well, I’ve broken the streak now, I’m no longer a vegetarian. I guess that didn’t work – maybe it’s too hard.” And go back to eating meat for a while.
Here is the problem: when we start treating things like eating meat, recycling, taking care of ourselves and the environment, almost as “purging” ourselves of sin, with any “relapse” seen as a failure, we set ourselves impossible standards. Just to be clear: I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a vegetarian, or a vegan, or to live a waste-free lifestyle – just that it’s difficult, it requires a lot of effort (at least at first), and it’s not something everyone has the time and energy to focus on every day.
Here is why I love flexitarianism: I personally hate the meat industry. I don’t like eating meat, and I love animals, and I hate the idea that they end up suffering so that I can have a snack. So I try to avoid eating meat. If I do end up eating meat, I do by best to buy top quality, free-range, organic. I only buy free-range eggs. I only buy organic dairy products. Why do I do these things? It’s certainly not because I want to cleanse my body of animal products. I’m sure plenty of vegans would be happy to have milk if it came from their pet cow that they looked after, and could go out and milk every day. The reason I do these things is perfectly rational: I simply want to reduce demand for meat products, and increase demand for high-welfare, organic, free-range dairy products. It’s all about supply and demand. And given that the meat industry literally thrives off the demand from individuals, each person that orders a vegetarian lunch or chooses to buy organic is directly making a difference to the way the meat industry works (albeit a small one). Whenever a food chain or restaurant runs out of a vegetarian meal, it makes me happy, as I know it’s sending a really strong signal that they should stock up on their veggie options. I tend to ask them as well if they have any more, just to hammer it home.
Flexitarians get a lot of shtick, primarily for “not sticking to their morals”, or “trying to act like they’re on a high horse when they can’t even commit to being a proper vegetarian”. Here’s the thing – to me, being a flexitarian is all about reducing meat consumption. It doesn’t matter if you eat meat once in a while, as long as the overall consumption levels go down. Two flexitarians are better than one vegetarian. And here’s the real winner: I’ve found, that for people who love meat (or for whatever reason don’t want to be vegetarian), the argument that maybe they could simply try to reduce their consumption a bit actually works. People want to reduce their meat consumption. People want to try to eat meat maybe max. once per day, if that. And as a result, you can actually reduce the overall meat consumption significantly more by making flexitarianism a thing.
As an example, the Danish side of my family has always been fairly strong on the meat-eating front (“we’re descendants of Vikings blah blah blah”), but I remember having a conversation with them specifically about reducing meat consumption, in which my cousin told me she was trying to go a couple days per week completely meat-free. This seemed revolutionary to me. And it annoyed me that when many people say things like this, others have a go at them for being “bad vegetarians”. Flexitarianism isn’t trying to be vegetarianism – it’s its own thing, and that’s okay. Most people I talk to who eat meat agree with me that factory farming is sickening – they just don’t like to think about it enough to become fully-fledged vegetarians. They think to themselves “I’ve got to be practical as well, I’ve got to make sure I make my life convenient”. That’s fair enough – so see if you can go organic, order the veggie option at a restaurant from time to time, or simply eat a bit less meat instead. And before you slate your vegetarian friend for having a burger that one time, ask yourself: are you making them completely give up on their ideals by doing that? Or is it better to try to do something good, and fail, than to not try at all?
Flexitarianism is a way of avoiding the divisive nature of so many of these topics, and finding middle ground that not only everyone can agree on and realistically achieve, but where everyone can actually make a difference as well. If you saw your friend recycling, you wouldn’t start having a go at them for not recycling all the time. The same goes for veggies, my flexitarian friend.