Economics and the Environment: The Rise of Veganism

By Lucy Wright

Veganism is on the rise. In January 2020, record numbers worldwide signed up to the Veganuary movement – where participants pledge to cut out all animal products and derivatives from their diet for the first month of the year, and hopefully beyond. Founded in 2014, Veganuary is now the world’s largest vegan movement, offering meal plans, recipes and helpful tips for those embarking on a plant based lifestyle. In 2020, it became apparent that veganism had proliferated into the mainstream, as manufacturers, supermarkets and restaurants tapped into the rapidly growing vegan market, with hundreds of new plant based products launching across retailers and food-based industries.

Founder of Deliciously Ella and St Andrews alumna, Ella Woodward, marked a milestone this January as her vegan breakfast pots became available nationwide at Costa. On an Instagram post, Woodward describes how “something like this launch was quite literally impossible” when she started her plant based brand from her student house, because “vegan food was weird” and “niche”. Her plant based breakfasts are now to be found across all UK high streets, including St Andrews.

In January 2019, Greggs, the UK’s largest bakery chain, launched its famous vegan sausage roll, engaging in the horizontal integration witnessed by a number of food-based firms hoping to capitalise on the growing plant based market. The launch was so successful that in January 2020, the company rewarded their employees with a £7 million special bonus

KFC recently followed the trend. On 2nd January 2020, coinciding with veganuary, the fast food restaurant began selling their original recipe vegan burger, described by the firm as a “meat-free alternative to our classic chicken fillet burger, replacing the usual chicken breast fillet with a bespoke vegan Quorn™ fillet”. Yet, despite the increasing efforts of traditional food suppliers to cater to plant based diets, a recent poll conducted by Vegan Food & Living magazine, revealed that 57% of vegans stated that they would never eat at KFC. Sceptical of the firms incentives in introducing vegan options on their menu, many do not want to support the company due to the staggering number of animals they slaughter. This led to posts on social media calling people to boycott the fast food chain.

The inclusion of such plant based items as the vegan burger could be interpreted as a virtue signaling marketing strategy, employed by firms to appear more ethical than perhaps they truly are. It seems, in the case of the KFC vegan burger, that this conspicuous expression of moral value backfired with a core group of consumers.

It could, however, be argued that regardless of the motivation of such firms, making plant based alternatives more widely available is a tacit behavioural nudge in the right direction. Veganism is the subscription to a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives. Whilst the animal rights movement has been, and will always remain, a crucial foundation to veganism, the growing trend towards plant based lifestyles has, in part, been the manifestation of increased environmental awareness. 

A 2018 paper by Joseph Poore of Oxford University, proved to be a critical turning point for those who do not necessarily identify as ethically vegan, but are starting to incorporate a plant based diet into their lives. The research found that veganism would cut carbon emissions from food production in half, freeing up land for other uses. With almost 80% of the world’s farmland dedicated to rearing animals, figures suggest that a plant-based diet would cut the use of land for agriculture by 76%. Furthermore, the rearing of farm animals is a huge contributor to deforestation, curtailing the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide. With a quarter of global emissions coming from the food industry, half of which results from animal produce, avoiding meat and dairy constitutes one of the most effective ways to reduce one’s environmental impact. 

Sustainable solutions to the global climate emergency cannot come from an individual-centric approach. State and corporate intervention is vital, and desperately required. The laissez-faire approach witnessed so far has proven that the free market is far too slow to create disincentives for firms who contribute most adversely to the climate emergency. The current narrative of expecting consumers to quantify the environmental cost of their decision making, to internalise the negative externality, distracts from the real perpetrators. However, moving towards a plant based diet, whether that be through a flexitarian approach, or in the form of adopting a vegan lifestyle, constitutes the most effective way for individuals to cut down their personal carbon footprint.

It is important to bear in mind that while veganism is on the rise, global meat consumption, too, is rising. In developing countries with traditionally plant heavy diets, demand for animal produce is rapidly increasing and becoming more widely accessible and available. This trend runs parallel in developed economies such as Britain and the US, where, despite figures portraying a positive image of individuals cutting back on their consumption, the demand for animal products is rising rapidly. 

Not all is futile. Many look towards the increasing availability of meat substitutes such as Beyond Meat, for hope. As shares in the sustainable alternative surged 600% in the three months after its IPO in May 2019, optimism around the new vegan economy is still very much present. Beyond Meat represents a growing demand from non-vegans, primarily concerned about the health of the planet, demanding substitutes more akin to the animal product. This market repositioning could provide a fruitful solution to the sustainability crisis.

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