As we reach the halfway point of this year's Veganuary, it would be useful to discuss the ethical implications of an event that has helped accelerate veganism into the mainstream and contributed to an explosion of new plant-based brands and products.
By the 5th of January this year over 500,00 people had signed up to Veganuary, the campaign to go vegan for the month of January, with its co-founder claiming that Veganuary is now ‘bigger than Christmas’ for retailers. (1) In 2018, the UK launched more vegan products than any other nation. (2) By 2020 every one of the top UK supermarkets (by revenue) had their own vegan range and every top UK restaurant had vegan options. (3)A consequence of this is companies that would have previously been on any self respecting vegan/ethical consumer’s hate list are scrambling for a piece of the plant-based pie and attracting a wide new audience. Nestle, for example, one of the world’s most boycotted companies with a long history of human rights and environmental violations, is on a mission to dominate the vegan market (4)
Research by Veganuary, has highlighted three primary reasons why participants are motivated to take the Veganuary pledge. These are - for personal health, animal welfare, and the environment. (5) So if wider concerns about the social and environmental impact of our consumer choices form part of the main motivations to adopting a plant based diet, what are we to make of companies with a long legacy of exploitation capitalising on veganism’s rise in popularity?
Is it a positive step in the right direction? Veganuary seems to believe so. In their corporate engagement statement they boast that “over 600 large and medium sized food companies promoted Veganuary” and “launched new plant based ranges”.
Among them were fast-food and restaurant giants such as KFC, Subway, Burger King and McDonalds (6) Veganuary endorse such moves to push the plant based diet forwards.
But how ethical is this? Surely, a plethora of exciting new vegan products that make veganism easier and more accessible is a good thing?
While Veganuary seems to think so, Ethical Consumer magazine warns consumers to be wary of companies that still contribute to animal suffering. They argue that many vegan products are produced by companies whose practices are at odds with vegan lifestyles. (7)
This may not be of concern to individuals who are just dipping their toes into veganism for the month, but it does have wider implications for Veganism as it moves, or is pushed, further into the mainstream. Especially when, as highlighted previously, people are attracted to veganism because it is kinder for the planet and animal welfare.
Veganism is a philosophy rooted in social justice. Veganuary, with its celebrity endorsements and fast food tie-ins, aims to drive social change through consumerism and in doing so, is making money for the very corporations that social justice groups have historically fought against. (8)
“The bad news is that as the vegan revolution rolls on, we can expect many more companies who have no interest in ending animal exploitation scramble to get a slice of the Vegan market-
The good news is that there are many brands on the shelves that have no links to animal exploitation and have been championing vegan lifestyles for years”. (6)
While veganism extends beyond consumer lifestyles, Veganuary has sought to harness the collective power of consumer choices to progress social change. It was Spiderman who said, “with great power comes great responsibility”.
Maybe Veganuary could take the lead in promoting ways our consumer power can be used to support ethical companies that champion social justice and demand better of companies that don’t.
- Food and Living Vegan. Veganuary 2021 hits record-breaking 500,000 sign-ups.
- Mintel, UK overtakes Germany as world leader for Vegan food launches
- The Vegan Society, Veganism in the UK
- LiveKindly, Nestlé Wants to Own the Vegan Meat Market
- Eat this, Not that. What is Veganuary and why are so many people doing it?
- Veganuary Campaign 2020 review
- Independent, Vegans warned about choosing products linked to companies that also trade in ‘animal exploitation’.
- Writing Liberation, Veganuary and the caucus of Vegan MPs.