With William Sitwell's Waitrose Resignation, Have Anti-Vegan Jokes Had Their Last Laugh?

Even vegan comedians want to be taken more seriously.

Every plant-eating person in Britain must be tired of hearing the gag: “How do you know if someone is a vegan? Don’t worry they’ll tell you.”

But with the resignation this week of Waitrose Food’s magazine editor over his controversial comments about “killing vegans” in a work email, have anti-vegan jokes finally had their last laugh?

In communication seen by Buzzfeed, William Sitwell responded to an email pitch from a freelance journalist, saying: “How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?”

Sitwell’s comments sparked outrage among the vegan community – which the Vegan Society estimates at 600,000 people in the UK – and he later apologised before stepping down on Wednesday.

William Sitwell, former editor of Waitrose magazine.
William Sitwell, former editor of Waitrose magazine.

Whether or not you agree with Sitwell’s departure – The Times food critic Giles Coren wrote on Twitter that his comments should not have been a “career-ender” – Waitrose’s decision to side with the vegan community rather than the influential editor of its customer magazine is a significant outcome.

The cynic might just say it makes financial sense for a supermarket making a big push into the vegan market: there are currently hundreds of items listed as vegan on its website, including pies, ready meals, pizza, curry and even a vegan Christmas meal stocked for 2018.

But as well as being a financially-savvy decision for Waitrose, the decision goes against the tide of a society that treats veganism (and the people who choose to pursue this lifestyle choice) as totally acceptable joke-fodder.

This is all too familiar to comedian Romesh Ranganathan, who has written about finding himself the butt of the joke at the dinner table.

“I visited a friend who was staying with his parents,” he said. His father asked if I fancied some of the chicken curry, at which point my friend told him I was vegan. To which his dad replied, ‘Let him have water then’.” For the next year, Romesh writes, his friends would offer him water and fall about laughing.

It isn’t just seasonal banter. Only last month during Vegan Week on ‘The Great British Bake Off’, viewers mocked and derided the theme. One Twitter user quipped: “Vegan cake... otherwise known as flour.” And during the show itself, judge Paul Hollywood even scoffed at the idea of writing a vegan cookbook, despite there being shelves of them in bookshops.

So what made the difference in Sitwell’s comments? Was this internet-outrage reaching its inevitable conclusion? Or is it a watershed moment that forces us to acknowledge the vitriol that vegans experience on a daily basis.

Dominika Piasecka, a spokesperson for The Vegan Society, says she hopes the Sitwell case will set a precedent that it’s not acceptable to mock people’s lifestyle choices. However, she doesn’t think it marks a huge turning point.

“The problem here was that these comments were made in a professional capacity and they don’t align with what Waitrose believes in,” says Piasecka. “Anyone can tell the remarks were meant as a joke which wouldn’t have been [taken as seriously] if they were made in a personal capacity.”

Carrie Eddins, from the West Midlands, who has been following a vegan diet for nearly three years, says that she also thinks this is less about a wholesale shift and more about the context in which the comments were made.

“No-one likes to bullied: vegan, meat-eaters, veggies, no-one, nor their opinion forced on them. Both parties need to be heard,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I did not like his jokes but surely a way forward is to find some way of working together.”

Vegan Amy Blair, from Manchester, says it wasn’t Sitwell talking about vegans that she found problematic so much as his violent language used so casually in an email exchange. “Speaking about violence like that about any group of people, vegan or not, should definitely have had the same outcome,” she says.

Kevin Walter, who has been a vegan for 10 years, is more optimistic that things could be changing for vegans. There is more accountability these days, he believes, as brands want to – or need to be seen to – back vegan customers.

This is partially because the numbers of vegans are growing faster than ever before and only set to increase in the future: a new survey found at least 9 per cent of the UK general public who are not currently vegan are likely to become so and 57 per cent of the population think veganism is on the rise.

Not to mention Generation Z, who are spending more than ever on ‘ethical’ produce. This shift in attitudes means more people are likely to have a friend or family member who is vegan, even if they don’t follow the diet themselves.

Walter also says that with the pressures of climate change and the carbon impact of mass-meat production, it is becoming harder for meat-eaters to disagree with what vegans stand for – even if they won’t ditch the steak.

So what should we read into Sitwell’s departure? Rather than a green new era where vegan jokes have become outdated and politically incorrect, most people we spoke believe it was using the language of violence in a professional context that, ironically, led Sitwell to fall on his sword.