The Vegan Revolution: How Big Business Took Over A Niche Lifestyle Choice

Have companies hijacked veganism – and sold it back to us?
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“I remember the days where a jacket potato and beans was as good as it got,” says Collette Gray as she peruses the groaning shelves of Waitrose’s vegan aisle. In 20 years of being a vegan, she has never encountered anything like this kind of choice at the supermarket – from jackfruit and kidney bean chilli sauce, to porcini and spinach ravioli, beet wellington and three different types of vegan pizza. “When I was first vegan, you had to source information through word of mouth or through research and leaflets out on demonstrations,” she reflects. “So I’m delighted and really excited by seeing it all.”

We are in the grip of a vegan revolution: a transformation of veganism from niche lifestyle choice for those who care about animal welfare and the environment, to a mainstream movement represented through more than 80m posts on Instagram; a rainbow stream of juicy “burgers” and bowls bursting with colour. And business is reaping the benefit of our compulsion to share our food habit online.

Veganism has exploded into a social-media fuelled wellness phenomenon and the UK is right at the centre. Adverts for vegan products jump from magazine pages and fill your timeline; everywhere there are new products to try. According to Mintel, an insights company that tracks supermarkets, more new products (by percentage) were labelled vegan in British supermarkets last year than anywhere else in the world. One in six products launched in the UK in 2018 carried a vegan or animal products claim, it says: a figure that’s doubled since 2015.

The Vegan Society says there were 600,000 vegans in the UK in 2018 – four times as many as in 2014. And when even Greggs, famous for its cheap sausage rolls and steak bakes, gets in on the act – its vegan sausage roll was reportedly its fastest-selling launch in six years – it’s clear that both retailers and consumers think the future might be (at least partly) meat-free.

In Waitrose, Gray appreciates the choice she now has when shopping. “This is quite a good shortcut to being a vegan and having a bit of a social life as well because it used to be so much more painstaking,” she says. But for all that the ready-to-eat meals Waitrose has concocted sound delicious, Gray rarely buys them. She avoids heavily processed foods, she explains, because her decision to become vegan was, in part, about rejecting that way of eating. And she also finds it too pricey.

Price is an interesting point in the growth of vegan retailing. Supermarkets are betting big on veganism and have ploughed huge amounts of cash into developing fancy, new vegan products – which often come with price points to match. That can sometimes be tricky to fathom: you might presume that ingredient costs would make plant-based products cheaper than their meat-and-dairy filled equivalents. But the consumer also pays for the costs of product development, packaging and marketing.

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And there is a lot of marketing – some of it for products that have always been vegan, but are now more explicit about being plant-based foods. Shreddies and Shredded Wheat, for example, added a vegan badge at the end of 2018, while Ryvita has a marketing campaign featuring Davina McCall and a bunch of enticing vegan topping ideas – from coconut yoghurt and mango to smashed avocado, tomatoes and chilli flakes.

Adding a new label can of course be a good thing, as it helps us to identify what we’re looking for. But others have reservations about what brands hope to say about their products by using a vegan label.

In the vegan section of Marks & Spencer’s food hall I chat to Karen Hughes, 49, who is somewhat sceptical about the growth of vegan-labelled products. “I think it’s all just to do with money,” she says, pointing to products that would previously not have been labelled as vegan. “It’s food we already knew was vegan – you don’t have to just label everything. Everything is either fried or processed – and there’s all of those mock meats that are just full of junk, and I don’t know how healthy they are.”

Not all meat alternatives are unhealthy – there are plenty of good choices you can make. But you shouldn’t think that vegan meat alternatives are automatically “guilt-free” products. Some meat-free bacon, sausages and burgers were found last year to contain “more salt than seawater” by campaigning group Action on Salt. Vegan marketing, however, often gives the impression that we’re somehow buying into something healthier and more ethical, even when the reality can sometimes be a bit more blurry.

Felix Dickinson is a development consultant who has worked with food brands to create vegan menu items. Long-time vegans are already “speed readers” of food labels, he says, so they tend to know what’s vegan and what isn’t. But brands are trying to tap into the psyche of the general public, who are dabbling with veganism, flexitarianism and reductionism in the belief that doing so will be healthier for them.

The question of whether people reducing their intake of meat and dairy produce will prove a short-lived trend or is evidence of a significant change in attitudes toward health, environment and animal welfare is as yet unclear. And there is some tension around the idea of veganism as just another lifestyle choice to opt in and out of.

Brands used to run focus groups in order to work out how they could flog their wares; now they look increasingly to social media, the great free directory of public opinions. Rachel Emms, director of Verbalisation – a consultancy that has analysed the motivations of consumers recently attracted to the idea of veganism – found that health was by far our number one priority, with concerns about how our everyday habits impact the environment secondary. In M&S, I chat to Susan Digweed, browsing the vegan meals. Her daughter became a vegan a year ago, has lost weight and reduced her cholesterol – inspiring Susan and her partner to go meat-free two days a week too, for the health benefits.

Dickinson, who became a vegan when he was 15 and was attracted to the lifestyle via the punk rock scene, is relaxed about the explosion in veganism and people’s motivations for embracing it. “I applaud the rise and popularity in it as it brings completely new light to what was seen as odd to so many people. I’m very happy with the idea of people adopting a plant-based diet,” he says.

But some vegans are less accepting of the belated interest of brands and mainstream consumers. They are concerned about what they see as a “misappropriation” of true veganism – which is generally a lot stricter than a plant-based diet and means shunning all animal derived products, including leather, wool, and honey – and find it cynical that major brands are now ploughing so much money into creating sometimes highly-processed vegan foods.

“[Life is] easier because products are listed as vegan so I have somewhere to start,” explains Michael James-Robinson, who has adopted a strict vegan approach for 30 years, reflecting on the greater choice available. But, he notes, it can also be more difficult when products labelled as “vegan” rather than “suitable for a vegan diet” fall short of being suitable for those who take a stricter approach.


“'Veganism has become a fashionable ideology. People aren't doing it for animal or ethical reasons."”

The issue is complicated because the food, fashion and wellness industries have picked up the term “vegan” and run with it – arguably changing its meaning in the process. “It’s one of those things that’s now become a fashionable ideology,” argues Karen Hughes, shopping in M&S. “People aren’t doing it for the ethical or animal welfare reasons – and I think most companies are just trying to cash in.” She points to her surroundings: “If you look at what’s next to this aisle, it’s meat on both sides. So who thought about that? Not a vegan.”

It’s not just food brands tapping into the vegan trend – retailers are launching vegan bag and shoes ranges, while consumer goods giant Unilever is moving into the vegan beauty market with a new range of shampoos, conditioners and body butters called Love Beauty And Planet. Even pineapple leather is now actually a thing.

In many respects the vegan craze mirrors past trends. Remember when we swore off fat? Ditched the carbs? Spiralised all our veg? Drank unlikely combinations of fruit and veg as lunchtime smoothies? Some see the current boom in veganism as just another wellness trend. Except this time, it photographs better on social media – which has acted as fuel to the flames.

“If you look back even five years ago veganism was probably considered a bit of joke,” explains Edward Bergen, global food and drink analyst at Mintel. Vegans were considered ethical but marginal – now, adopting a plant-based diet is seen as a really exciting lifestyle choice. That’s being led by social media, Bergen believes, both by influencers and by regular people sharing pictures of their own food choices. “Consumers listen to celebrities and influencers about what they do,” he notes. “People take notice and they listen – and that’s why we have faddy trends.”

The feeling that we share a connection with influencers and like-minded strangers on social platforms adds to the appeal of trends like veganism. It’s a way of being part of a new community or tribe – a way for people to define themselves online and be part of something.

Dickinson was inspired to kick his meat and dairy habit by leaflets he was handed at gigs that detailed the horrors of abattoirs. Back then decent vegan food wasn’t mainstream, and just as he relied on these leaflets for information about veganism, he also relied on word of mouth for new foods to check out.

Now, these launches are well-publicised: think the news of Greggs’ “sausage” roll travelling swiftly through social networks and becoming so popular it sold out. “Information [about new products] spreads like wildfire and if you’re part of any vegan community online – be it on Instagram or on Facebook, it’s viral instantly,” he says. “You can be sure people will be lining up to try these products because people are desperate to be part of the movement.”

For businesses, this compulsion to freely share the details of our shopping habits online is hugely useful. “When a conversation reaches critical mass it’s now really obvious [to brands],” says Rachel Emms, director of Verbalisation. “People who adopt a vegan lifestyle almost feel obliged to recruit other people… and whether they go fully vegan, or for half a week, they’re constantly telling you about it and encouraging others to do the same.”

Emms describes it as being close to an online recruitment operation – each person convincing more to join through the medium of perfect instagrammed dinners. And brands are jumping on this bandwagon and releasing vegan products that make them seem “modern, forward thinking, and doing their bit for the world.”

But are they? Some long-standing vegans are worried about the way in which marketers use the label ‘vegan’ to imply a product or brand has all kinds of appealing qualities beyond being plant-based. There is a suspicion that by stocking vegan lines, brands are seeking a halo effect that somehow makes them seem more ethical – when in other parts of their business they might be purchasing unsustainable palm oil, or creating un-recyclable packaging, for example.

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“Heavily branded vegan shampoos made by companies that test on animals confuse people"”

There are concerns around the extent to which beauty brands – mass purveyors of single-use plastics and animal-tested products, are genuinely ethical. “Bringing out heavily branded and promoted ‘vegan’ shampoos made by companies that test on animals confuses people into thinking they’re ok, and contradicts vegan ethics,“ says Amabel Darby, part of a HuffPost UK Facebook group about veganism. “I think there should be clear legal guidelines over when a product can be called vegan – and that incorporates cruelty-free.”

And, when it comes to fashion, Samantha Dover, a retail analyst at Mintel says, shoppers tend to believe vegan fabrics are more sustainable when that is not always the case. “I think one of the big challenges for brands and retailers going forward is ensuring they’re not only focused on animal welfare but ensuring that on top of that these are the more environmentally friendly options as well,” she says.

“Faux fur alternatives, for example, tend to be made out of plastic so they don’t biodegrade in the same way and lots of the vegan leathers take a high level of water to make, which is damaging to the environment. Brands need to be really careful when promoting these products as they may face a bit of backlash in the end.”

For now though, there is no sign of the veganism boom weakening. Browsing M&S’s Plant Kitchen section, Jan Bowden, 65, is taking advantage of the wider range of options. She’s come in store looking for a vegan burger, having been impressed when she sampled M&S’s vegan sausages, vegan coleslaw and a tikka masala dish. “I’ve been vegan for a few years now and was veggie before that,” she explains. “I love that they’re bringing out this stuff for vegans, it’s great – I already tried four of these products last week.”

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CORRECTION: We updated this article on 28 January to remove a reference to margarines being dairy free. Many UK margarines do include some dairy.