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From the brain of the Cruelty-Free Copywriter

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Vegan, Plant-based or Cruelty-Free? Which Word Should I Use?

Updated: Apr 29

Not sure which term will resonate with your customers? Here's a vegan digital marketer's take on the topic.

When it comes to your marketing, the words you choose can either resonate with customers or completely turn them off. While one brand can say “tomato” and another pronounces it “tomahhto” which can either connect with a customer’s psyche and desires or it can repel them. The same can be said for the terms “plant-based”, “vegan” and “cruelty-free”. 

As a digital marketer situated at the intersection of cruelty-free and vegan products, I’ve seen these terms used interchangeably across industries and products. But that’s not an approach I’d recommend. One or a couple of these words can either resonate with your customers greatly or confuse them completely. 

Here’s an overview of each term, what it means, what customers associate with that term, and what industries or types of products would benefit most from using it. 


I see a lot of brands using the word “plant-based” on their sustainable fashion lines or food products. In some cases, this term can be confusing, rather than clarifying for customers. 

What “plant-based” means

By definition, “plant-based” means a product or food that is derived primarily from a plant. It could be 10% plant-based or 100% plant-based. As long as a plant was the basis of the product, you can claim it’s “plant-based”. However, for certain consumers, the ambiguity of whether it’s 100% plant-based or not can make a huge difference. 

What customers associate with the word “plant-based”

When customers read the words “plant-based” they think: “natural”, “less processed”, and “healthy”. Some consumers even associate the term with “vegan” which isn’t necessarily true and can cause some customers to be dissatisfied and disappointed. When it comes to the word “plant-based” it’s important to clarify how much of the product is made of plants and/or of which plant the product is derived from. 

Which industries or products would benefit from using the term “plant-based”

Since plant-based can mean a ton of things, from purely made of plants to just having plant-derived parts, I think the following industries would benefit from using it: 

  • Sustainable fashion 

  • Clean beauty 

I left out “food” in this list for a couple of reasons. One, when a consumer is looking for animal-free food alternatives, they don’t want to see “plant-based” because they don’t know if the product still contains some eggs or milk. Consumers know a product can be labeled “plant-based” but still contain animal products. For vegans or those wanting to avoid animal products, “plant-based” can be a confusing term that can can hurt the trust consumers have for your business. A recent survey found that 74% of shoppers preferred the word “vegan” compared to “plant-based” because they find the latter confusing.  If your CPG brand wants to use the term, “plant-based", it’s recommended to clarify with other terms how much of the product is plant-based (10% or 100%) but also whether it’s vegan or animal-free. 


In the past, the “v” word or “vegan” was considered a dirty word by many brands. They were afraid “vegan” would alienate customers who were veg-curious or simply eating a product because it was “healthy” but didn’t mind if it was vegan or not. Now, more and more brands are catching onto how the word “vegan” can be clarifying and trust-building for customers. 

What “vegan” means

By definition, “vegan” means any product that is free of or contains absolutely no animal-derived ingredients. This definition can include the ingredients in a clean beauty product or what material a purse is made of. The word “vegan” creates a sense of clarity for consumers who are avoiding animal products and who are confused by the ambiguity of the term “plant-based”.  

What customers associate with the word “vegan”

When customers read the words “vegan”, they think: “animal-free”, “made of plants”, and “cruelty-free”. Notice how I didn’t say “healthy” or “sustainable”. Consumers don’t necessarily associate the word “vegan” with “healthy”. Those who identify as vegans often decide to drop animal products in the name of animal rights and freedom. So “health” isn’t a top reason for doing what they did. With that, they don’t expect “vegan” to mean “healthy”, rather, they expect it to mean “free of animal suffering” or “cruelty-free”. 

Which industries or products would benefit from using the term “vegan”

Since vegan is a very clarifying term, customers will immediately know and trust products with the label. I suggest that the following industries use the word “vegan”:

  • Sustainable fashion 

  • Clean beauty 

  • Plant-based CPG

The term “vegan” can be trust-building for sustainable fashion because consumers would know that there is absolutely no leather, fur, wool, or other animal-derived products in their purses, accessories, or clothing items. They can purchase with confidence and their values in mind.

The word “vegan” can be a clarifying term for clean beauty products as well because consumers would know no cruelty or animal suffering was involved in the making of the product and the association with “plant-based” and “natural” comes into focus. 

Finally, “vegan” can be a clarifying term for plant-based CPG products because consumers would know that when a brand says their food product is “vegan” they would know it’s 100% plant-based without the fear of finding eggs, milk, or other animal products in it.


“Cruelty-free” has become a more popular word for consumers as of late. As the exposure to animal cruelty videos and the dark secrets of the animal agriculture industry have come to light by way of social media and advocacy groups, more and more consumers are opting for “cruelty-free” products.  

What “cruelty-free” means

By definition, “cruelty-free” means a manufacturing process and/or product that did not harm, kill, or test on animals. This is particularly relevant to methods of developing products versus “vegan” and “plant-based” which talk about the content of the product versus the process by which it was created. 

What customers associate with the word “cruelty-free” 

When customers read the words “cruelty-free”, they think: “ethical”, “vegan”, and “animal rights”. This term is most attractive to vegans but vegetarians and others who care about animal rights and reducing harm and unnecessary cruelty in the world will also resonate with this word. Recent data reported that “34% of consumers believe it is important for makeup brands to be socially responsible. Furthermore, about 80% of consumers reference vegan, cruelty-free, and natural ingredients in online reviews.” With that, customers are looking for brands to be transparent about their manufacturing practices while overwhelming supporting “cruelty-free” products.

Which industries or products would benefit from using the term “cruelty-free”

Since “cruelty-free” is a term used to describe the manufacturing or development process of a product, I think the following industries would benefit most from using this term: 

  • Clean beauty

  • Sustainable fashion

The word “cruelty-free” can be trust-building for clean beauty brands because of the consumer awareness around animal testing. Several renowned beauty brands have been exposed over the years for using animals for testing purposes and consumers caught wind of it. The exposure resulted in several movements at the grassroots and institutional levels to ban animal testing in the beauty industry. Thus, the phrase “cruelty-free” has come to resonate with some consumers as the most “ethical” way to develop beauty products. 

“Cruelty-free” also resonates with fashion lovers. Sustainable fashion brands or brands who omit animal products can use the term “cruelty-free” to show that their products don’t contain animal products or haven’t been created using cruel methods like killing animals for their skin or fur. Similar to the clean beauty movement, social media became an instrument for exposing how animal skin and furs were created and consumers have demanded brands reduce or eliminate animal products. 


While it might seem like semantics, it’s anything but. The words “plant-based”, “vegan”, and “cruelty-free” have power and influence. They can either clarify what a brand’s product contains and how it’s made or it can confuse customers and sew distrust. Clean beauty, sustainable fashion, and plant-based CPG brands should pay special attention to the labels they use so they can provide clarity and build trust with new and returning customers for years to come.


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