A champion for the rights of vegans in the workplace, Jordi Casamitjana talks about how his path to plant-based enlightenment wasn’t always linear.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the man who forced UK workplaces to view ethical veganism as a belief system has always been a plant-based campaigner. The truth is a little less straightforward and a whole lot more interesting and personal. That’s why it was such a privilege to have the man himself, Jordi Casamitjana, tell me about his journey.
Late last year, he released his book Ethical Vegan. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his book for us to review, so what did I think?
Firstly, it’s important to know that I am a long-term ethical vegan. I started, as many of us do, by switching my eating habits and material choices, and from there, things snowballed. I don’t support unethical companies with my money, I raise a child within a fully vegan household and take the time to think about how I can lessen my impact on the world while actively rejecting all forms of animal exploitation.
Reading Ethical Vegan felt like an educational experience, a movie script and a hug all at once. It was fascinating to read a little more about the roots of veganism and the philosophy it is built on, and getting those personal insights into the court case I followed? It added so much weight to the whole thing.
I read the book in one sitting and would feel happy recommending it to friends and family members who are curious, as well as anybody who could use a little knowledge top-up. Perhaps the most telling revelation is that, when she’s old enough, I’d be delighted for my daughter to read it.
Inclusive, informative, personal and motivational, Ethical Vegan has earned a place on my ‘read again’ shelf. And I don’t say that lightly.
Amy Buxton: Hey Jordi. Before we get into the way you’ve shaped the vegan landscape here in the UK, can we talk a little about how you became vegan? Have the principles always been a guiding force for you?
Jordi Casamitjana: For sure. I think that my journey to veganism started when I was born and will carry on for the rest of my life, as I think it’s a process that never ends. However, there have been particular events when issues became more explicit. One of the earliest highlights, for example, was in the early 70s, when my realisation that my birth nation (Catalonia) was being oppressed by another (the Spanish fascist regime of General Franco). Awakening my first experiences of victimhood from supremacist ideologies and oppressive attitudes, my first desires to change the world started to manifest.
Then, while I was doing my degree in zoology — in Barcelona, in the 80s — a dramatic encounter with a wise wasp awoke me to the insight that all animals, even those that look vastly different to us, are far more akin to humans than most people think. Through my wildlife study visits to the countryside, I witnessed other events that made me understand the terrible ways that humans abuse other animals, which made me want to divert my zoologist vocation to animal protection. I left Catalonia in the early 90s and, after wandering through several countries, I eventually settled in the UK.
AB: Were you vegan when you arrived in the UK or did something happen here that gave you the final push?
JC: It wasn’t until I was living with a colony of Amazonian woolly monkeys, in Cornwall, that I met my first vegan person face-to-face. Still, though, this interaction was not enough for me to adopt the philosophy of veganism. Working in animal protection, focussing on issues such as the primate pet trade and wild animals in zoos exposed me to more animal suffering, but as with so many people, my cognitive dissonances still prevented me from turning vegan.
AB: I feel like there’s something dramatic in your history that finally made you take the plunge. I’m on the actual edge of my seat, waiting to find out what it was.
JC: Well. I took a knock to my head during an accident in 2001. Afterwards, I spent a few weeks in solitude on a Scottish island. I wrote my first novel there, The Demons’ Trial, which presented me with a unique opportunity to confront my rationalisations and inconsistencies. I returned from isolation as an ethical vegan. That was almost 19 years ago, but it took me a few months more to be proficient in the art of rejecting animal exploitation in all aspects of my life, beyond just food.
AB: This actually sounds like the plot of a film I would want to watch. Did you return to your animal protection career after you came back from Scotland?
JC: I did carry on working in animal protection, trying to help as many animals as possible but in a variety of different guises. Sometimes as an undercover investigator, a researcher or as a campaigner. I alternated working freelance and as an employee of organisations such as the Born Free Foundation, the League Against Cruel Sports, CAS International, IFAW, and PETA UK. While trying to help zoo animals, hunted foxes, culled badgers, or tortured bulls, I was also actively trying to get better at avoiding animal exploitation activities. I still am. The journey never ends.
AB: And then came your landmark court case. You spoke up when you discovered how your employer was investing funds and were immediately suspended. How did you find the strength to see such an emotive case through to completion and groundbreaking success? Also, could you feel the weight of thousands of fellow ethical vegans giving you their support and love?
JC: Yes, I could and I feel very lucky because of it. As part of my disciplinary process for speaking with colleagues about my discovery regarding my (now former) employer’s pension fund being invested in companies that experiment on animals, I was suspended for a month. I was also forbidden to communicate with anyone connected to the organisation. That left me in a very lonely place. Only after I was fired, I began getting in touch with friends, without knowing the implications of talking about my case. I only communicated with a few, such as my dear friend Joe Hashman, who also had been involved in landmark legal cases related to animal protection.
AB: Having been dismissed and knowing that you wanted to press for legal action, were you worried about the potential cost of taking your former employer to court?
JC: Yes! After my solicitor Peter Daly advised me that, due to my circumstances, the only way I could cover his fees would be to crowdfund, I went public and approached all my friends, transparently asking for help. That is when I felt the full weight of support from the vegan community, as in just a few days, I reached my initial crowdfunding target, which allowed me to send my claim to the Employment Tribunal on time.
In my mind, I translated that support into responsibility to win the case for everyone. Especially after I discovered that I was the first person to claim in an employment tribunal that I had been discriminated against for being vegan, and therefore, the judge had to look at whether ethical veganism was a protected belief system or not.
I had to overcome several obstacles along the way, which meant I needed more support. Between delays and unexpected twists, my litigation ended up lasting more than two years and because of that, the costs just kept growing. Although I managed to remain employed for three months, I was unemployed for the rest. I have to admit that a public statement from my former employer saying that I had been “fired for gross misconduct” did not help me find a job.
I was surviving on my savings, but they were rapidly depleting and that’s when the Vegan Society stepped in and offered me generous economic support for the pre-hearing. This turned out to be critical, as without its support, I may not have been able to cover the costs to get to that all-important verdict of ethical veganism being a belief system protected by employment law.
AB: Did that result spur you on to keep pressing ahead? Victory against your dismissal must have been in sight at that point, surely?
JC: Yes, I was able to continue into my hearing at the end of February. It was set up to determine if I had been unlawfully discriminated against and, ultimately, dismissed, because of my now-protected philosophical belief. However, I still was quite short of funds and the Vegan Society could not support me for that part of my case. Living in rented accommodation in London, my savings eventually ran out and I had no option but to claim Universal Credit (although it was insufficient to cover my living costs, never mind a court case).
In a desperate position, I once again appealed to the vegan community and it responded with further donations that allowed me to carry on. In the end, I managed to secure a favourable verdict, including financial compensation with which I could pay for all the remaining outstanding legal fees. It was all thanks to the hundreds of people who supported me. I felt that we all won, and that something good could grow from the seeds of my misfortune.
AB: When you won, it felt like a real cultural shift starting to happen. Some of us used your momentum to focus on working for vegan companies true to their ethics and others simply looked into making their beliefs known in their workplaces. What was extra exciting was the release of your book. How did you come to the decision to write it?
JC: The genesis of my book Ethical Vegan is twofold, and my legal case was definitely one of the folds. The other comes from my long-held desire to write a book about veganism, as I realised that the books I wanted to read didn’t exist. I couldn’t find a comprehensive book about the history of the philosophy, or the different types of vegans, or even how the future vegan world could look. I wondered if I could write about such things, but I never tried. Then, after being successful in my legal case and attracting so much media attention all over the world, I was approached by the editor of September Publishing with the possibility of telling my story.
I knew a book about the case may have been what people wanted to read, but I thought I could use this opportunity to write a book on veganism in general. I looked for something to ‘join’ these two potentially separate books together and I found it in the story of my life. I thought that the three stories (vegan philosophy, my journey and the legal battle) told simultaneously could do the job and the publisher agreed. However, the goal was to publish something by Christmas, and three books in one seemed too ambitious to achieve by then.
AB: That’s a huge task for anybody. How did you overcome the timescale difficulties? Did you have to edit heavily?
JC: Interestingly, coronavirus came to the rescue. When I still was in discussions with the publisher, the first UK lockdown began and this provided me with a good opportunity to dedicate enough time and energy to the project. Writing an average of ten hours a day, standing in my living room and doing nothing else, I eventually managed to write the book in four months and, as planned, it was published in December 2020.
AB: It’s an incredible feat and one you must be so proud of. What has the reception been like for Ethical Vegan?
JC: The reaction has been very positive so far. I have had very good reviews from many people I greatly respect within the vegan movement. Despite the fact that I wrote about several controversial issues and grey areas (such as intersectionality, lab-grown meat, vaccines, transport, etc.), I still have not received any harsh criticism. Although I am prepared that some will come when more people read it.
It was a challenge to write for different audiences at the same time, such as new vegans, plant-based eaters who may be considering going further, people interested in my legal case, long-term ethical vegans and curious omnivores. I talk about very serious and deep issues but it seems that the intertwining of my three stories and using very clear language have managed to not put people off, as readers are responding very positively. Many say it’s comprehensive but also an easy read. It’s always very satisfying when people tell me that they went through the entire book in a single sitting.
AB: And finally, what are you doing now? Are you actively looking for new roles in the animal protection industry? It sounds as though that was more of a calling than a job for you.
JC: Regarding my professional life, well, it’s still ‘on pause’ due to the pandemic. I spent 2020 working on my book and the beginning of 2021 promoting it, which hasn’t given me any time to do much else. However, due to Covid-19, which has, of course, affected the charity sector considerably, the opportunities to find paid work in animal protection or vegan campaigning are extremely limited at the moment.
I will have to wait a bit more to decide what I will do next, although I am enjoying my new writing profession. It would have been difficult for me to write and promote the book if I had been employed full-time, so in this regard, I am thankful for everything that has happened.
Ethical Vegan is available directly from September Publishing and at other retailers for RRP £12.99.