Simple and straightforward: does "cruelty-free" mean the same as "vegan"?
Speaking only for my own locale - the UK - in general yes, but since it's open to interpretation, I ask to be sure.
In my experience the term "cruelty-free" is most likely to be used for non-food items such as cosmetics, or non-leather shoes and bags. It is intended to express the fact that no animals have been harmed in making the item; it does not contain animal products, and has not been tested on animals. This would have the same meaning as "vegan" in this context. Occasionally, the term may also be used on food products and in restaurants, usually alongside the word "vegan"
However, while interpretations and opinions vary, "vegan" is a fairly well-defined term in my country, and The Vegan Society, to name one key organisation, produces reference materials and gives guidance on what is and is not considered to be vegan. If you find a product containing honey that the manufacturer claims is vegan, you can call them to account with the backing of the Vegan Society, documetation in hand. There is no such definition or documentation for "cruelty-free", so you had better trust the person who uses the term, and if you don't, ask if it's "vegan" for a less ambiguous answer.
Looking at it from another perspective, I think there is an intent behind the use of the phrase "cruelty-free" that is less applicable to the term "vegan". To say that something involves "cruelty" is an explicit moral judgement on the maker of the product (or supplier of the service, perhaps). Thus, If "cruelty-free" is used, it suggests the person promoting the product as such is trying to make an emotional connection with the buyer on the basis of shared values, genuinely or not. "Vegan" is also a term with ethical underpinnings, but if it can be taken to imply judgement, it is far more implicit and subtle than "cruelty free".
I'm very careful with those type of labels as there are plenty of them and industries are likely to divert the real meaning of "cruelty-free" words on packaging.
Fortunately, some organisations created more or less strict labels and to inform at best the consumer.
Some of them certify that products are just not tested on animals, but don't guarantee that the products don't contain animal-based ingredients. Some others authenticate vegan products.
Here are a non-exhaustive list of cruelty-free labels:
- Vegan Society
Certifies products (not brand) as vegan
First label certify the brand was never located in a country that requires tests on animals and that the ingredients were never tested on animals.
The second one adds to the first a vegan certification.
- HCS or Leaping Bunny
Certifies the product and its ingredients were never tested on animals at every levels.
Certifies that no animal are involved in tests and production at every levels.