The year 2021 is shaping up to be another record-breaker for veganism, with the Veganuary campaign, which asks people to commit to a month-long vegan pledge, already reporting over half a million sign-ups worldwide, 125,000 of which are coming from the UK.
This adds to the evidence that veganism has grown in popularity throughout 2020, continuing a trend that saw the number of vegans in the UK quadruple between 2014 and 2019, according to polling conducted by Ipsos MORI for The Vegan Society.
Public bodies, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UK Committee on Climate Change, have warned of the impacts of animal agriculture and have increasingly made dietary change central to their recommendations in responding to the climate emergency.
Meanwhile environmental NGOs, such as WWF and Greenpeace, have run high profile campaigns that encourage more plant-based eating. While these have fallen short of asking people to commit to vegan diets, this contrasts with the approach NGOs have taken in the past, with most being hesitant to prioritise diets as a campaigning issue.
Retailers have also recognised the potential for vegan products to reduce the environmental impact of their supply chains. Examples of this in 2020 include Tesco, which is aiming for a 300 per cent increase in sales of vegan alternatives by 2025 compared with 2018, as part of a sustainability drive. This is also true of restaurant chains such as Wagamama, which has just introduced more plant-based options, citing climate change as a key driver.
Over the last few years, we have witnessed the rise of the term ‘plant-based’ as a way of marketing new products. This has been favoured by some food manufacturers as a way of reaching consumers who do not identify as vegan.
There are some concerns that ‘plant-based’ lacks a clear definition, and could lead to confusion. But, alongside the impressive growth in veganism, the number of new ‘plant-based’ alternatives, fuelled by strong demand, is a promising sign that a wider section of the public sees animal products as something to be avoided.
Research from the University of Bath last year confirmed this, finding that 73 per cent of meat eaters surveyed considered veganism to be ‘ethical’, while 70 per cent said it was good for the environment. This suggests that the public has ‘got the message’ on sustainability and vegan diets.
Other barriers, such as the perceived cost, taste, and convenience of vegan food, are also coming down. Recent research conducted by Kantar, commissioned by the Veganuary campaign, found that vegan meals prepared at home are 40 per cent cheaper, and quicker to prepare, than those containing animal products.
Signs of changing perceptions can be seen in the world of politics too, with 11 Conservative MPs publicly signing up to Veganuary after the launch of the Vegan Conservatives group, which would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.
But how should the environmental movement respond to these changes? Now is the time for environmental groups to embrace the vegan movement as a positive agent of change and publicly recognise the role vegans have played in creating lower impact food supply chains. While some negative stereotypes about veganism persist, it has become much more normalised, and environmental groups should stand up for the science on sustainable diets without feeling the need to distance themselves from veganism.
One thing that environmentalists can do (those who are not already vegan) is to try a vegan diet and encourage others to do the same. Getting involved in this year’s Veganuary campaign is a great way to do that and you can sign up through The Vegan Society’s partner page.
Tim Thorpe is the Campaigns and Policy Officer for The Vegan Society