As a social movement that seeks to radically transform the structure of society, veganism requires forethought, reflection, and critical thinking. When "accidental" or "accidentally" is added to "vegan" it misrepresents veganism as a mindless act; it disregards the moral, social, and political substance of veganism.
In her cookbook, The Accidental Vegan, Devra Gartenstein writes, "Over time I drew a considerable vegan clientele and saw that the more dairy-free choices I offered, the more food I sold." She openly admits that her decision to prepare only animal-free food was "mercenary" – that is, motivated by a desire for monetary gain – as opposed to being based on vegan principles.
I'm sure this seems unproblematic to many people. After all, she's not using animal-derived ingredients in her recipes, right? Well, if she just called it "animal-free" cooking I might feel the same, but I think it's careless to label something "vegan" just because it's animal-free, especially if it's only "accidental." The problem has to do with how veganism is reduced from an active social movement working to produce social change to a passive consumer base that is dependent on markets.
This is more explicit with PETA's "accidentally vegan" website. It starts with an introduction that argues how vegans can easily assimilate into existing consumer patterns and includes this a disclaimer:
Items listed may contain trace amounts of animal-derived ingredients. While PETA supports a strict adherence to veganism, we put the task of vigorously reducing animal suffering ahead of personal purity. Boycotting products that are 99.9 percent vegan sends the message to manufacturers that there is no market for this food, which ends up hurting more animals.
This site is yet another example of the neoliberal assault on veganism. We're told that unless we assimilate to the marketplace and become careless consumers who don't read labels, ask questions, or make a fuss, we'll "end up hurting more animals." Ironically, PETA blames individual vegans who refuse to cooperate with the systemic exploitation of nonhuman animals for "hurting" those animals. Implicit in their claim is that the multinational corporations listed on their website, all of which are major exploiters of nonhuman (and human) animals, are the saviors of those same animals.
PETA's entire premise is completely absurd. It is silly to claim that not purchasing "accidentally vegan" products (which in fact are not even really animal-free) "sends the message to manufacturers that there is no market for this food." First, how can not buying products not even intentionally marketed as animal-free send the message that there isn't a market for animal-free products? And second, if we did buy these products when they aren't even 100 percent animal-free, wouldn't that just send the message that we don't really desire products that are 100 percent animal-free?
Of course, my problem is that I'm interested in the vegan ideal of non-exploitation, and PETA is obviously more concerned about the capitalist ideal of "free" markets. So we're talking about two different things. Rather than promoting social change, PETA wants us to conform and assimilate to the existing social order.
The vegan ideal is not going to be realized by accident or by the "invisible hand" of "free" markets. Eliminating exploitation is going to require us to consciously challenge and transform the structure of our society. Capitalism is part of the problem, not the solution.