The Blog

The Rise Of The Flexitarian

I'm excited that a more sustainable food culture may be emerging throughout Europe and that eating for ethical, environmental or health reasons is no longer the behaviour of a niche of consumers.
Patrizia Savarese via Getty Images

This month sees both Vegans (World Vegan Day 1 November 2016) and politicians (COP 22 Marrakech 7-18 November) sharing the limelight for what some might say is the same intent and purpose - to improve the health of our planet and people.

These two events give me the perfect opportunity to write about something that both excites and inspires me - as a consumer, as a mother and as President of Foods in Unilever - the rise of the Flexitarian and the power this new consumer has to ignite change with brands and retailers.

There is a trend growing. It seems that wherever you go the signs are there. Groups of friends overheard in restaurants discussing how much meat they eat on an average week. The 'free-from' section in your local supermarket emerging from its old dark corner near aisle 25 and now existing as an aisle in its own right. Food bloggers gaining online followers - enough to make a living from their plant-based recipes. Major food chains opening exclusively vegetarian stores. Dairy-free. Sustainably sourced. Environmentally friendly.

This melting pot of discussion and action surrounding our consumption habits has created a new type of mainstream consumer; one that understands their role as a global citizen and the effect their actions - including what they buy and eat - have on the environment.

Meet the flexitarian; a consumer that is breaking down the stereotype of what it means to be an environmentalist. They are proof that you can make a difference - they are the people eating one less beef burger a week, to save the equivalent amount of water as not showering for 2 months.

Figures from consumer analyst Mintel indicate that 35% of people in Britain identify as 'semi-vegetarian' and the number of flexitarians is set to rise by 10% in 2016. In the UK meat is becoming less popular among a significant proportion of the population: 40% agree that 'These days I eat less meat than I used to do' - rising to 45% of women. A third of people are 'actively choosing to eat less meat' (39% of women) and 28% of 18-24 year olds and 27% of all women agree that 'by 2025, my diet will probably be mostly meat-free'.

Given that women remain the primary grocery shoppers in the majority of households, grocery retailers and suppliers will need to respond to the growing demand for diets richer in plants and lower in animal products.

And demand is growing. Plant-based diets are spreading throughout Europe, in different countries, at different rates, and with mixed receptive audiences. This emerging trend is seeing a culturally diverse Europe find ways to adapt traditional cuisine to a growing market of vegans. Unilever's plant-based spread Flora commissioned research from Counterpoint on how European countries were reacting to this trend. They found:

• Northern Europeans accept the rising trend with enthusiasm, and mainstream consumers are increasingly educating themselves with regard to plant-based eating.

• While vegans in the UK are eager to craft a mainstream image for the diet and export the Vegan Society stamp.

• Germany is revolutionizing plant-based shopping across the continent with all-vegan supermarkets.

• Southern Europe is witnessing a rise in flexitarians who do not espouse veganism entirely but show interest in plant-based products and reducing meat and dairy consumption.

The same picture is emerging in the US where annual meat consumption per person has fallen by 15% in the past 10 years and where 7.3 million people considered themselves vegetarian and an additional 22.8 million are considered flexitarian.

I'm excited that a more sustainable food culture may be emerging throughout Europe and that eating for ethical, environmental or health reasons is no longer the behaviour of a niche of consumers. The 'flexitarian' mindset has truly hit mainstream culture, proving you don't have to follow a strict vegan or even vegetarian diet to positively affect the health of the planet or your own.

Personally, I feel I'm benefitting from introducing more plant-based dishes to the dinner table. There are obvious moral drivers to reduce our meat consumption - animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of Amazon destruction and is the leading cause of water pollution, for example. But crucially, there is a good old-fashioned desire to eat food that tastes good. I am first-and-foremost a lover of food and the wealth of delicious vegetarian recipes I create or find on the Internet continues to excite me. You could call me a flexitarian and I wouldn't disagree with you, but it didn't happen overnight. It was, and still is, a gradual process that I think a large proportion of people now identify with. Everybody is on a journey to learn more about food and for me that is truly inspiring.

For us, this journey is centred on food that tastes good, does good, and doesn't cost the earth. Brands need to not only respond to but also influence consumer demand, by promoting plant-based foods. Perhaps more brands and companies should honestly evaluate the purpose of the products they offer or risk irrelevance in a time of conscious consumerism.