The word ‘vegan’ was coined in 1944, after members of the Leicester Vegetarian Society became frustrated with the group’s refusal to consider a ‘non-dairy vegetarian’ section for its newsletter. Its creator, Donald Watson, chose the term to mark “the beginning and end of vegetarian”, replacing the ungainly ‘non-dairy vegetarian’ and other contenders such as ‘benevore’ and ‘beaumangeur’. The Vegan Society was established in November of that year with a mission to spread the principle of ‘the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man’.
Of course, veganism as a concept and lifestyle had existed for millennia by the time the Society was formally established. Adherents of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion with 4-5million followers today, have advocated non-violence to all living beings since at least 1000BCE, with some Jains refusing to eat root vegetables due to the harvesting process killing soil organisms, or covering their mouths at all times to avoid accidentally swallowing insects. Many Hindus and Buddhists adopted veganism over the subsequent centuries, and India remains the country with the lowest meat consumption worldwide, eating over 90% less per capita than the global average.
In the West, as early as 550BCE similar arguments may have been espoused by philosophers including Pythagoras, rumoured to have been a vegan and even to have avoided hunters to distance himself from killing. As in most of Europe, meat consumption for the majority of the UK’s population was historically relatively low due to its expense, but the Agricultural Revolution – coupled later with the Industrial Revolution – meant that meat began to be eaten more regularly. By 2013, British citizens would consume over 100kg of meat and seafood a year each – less than half that of world leaders Hong Kong, but over double the average English citizen in 1700.
However, while global consumption has steadily doubled over the last 50 years (thanks largely to increased demand in Asia), citizens in already wealthy nations – including the UK – have generally been eating less meat and seafood for a number of years.
Surveys have attempted to shed light on the reason for this decline. 31% of all British consumers in 2016 said they had cut back on meat-eating for health reasons, with 25% listing concern for the environment as a factor. However, while traditionally the cause of animal welfare has been seen as the primary motivator for those adopting a vegan diet, research suggests that environmental concerns are now the single largest issue for new vegans. This worry is more than justified, with animal agriculture accounting for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions – more than that of all transport, including planes – and also being a leading cause of land degradation, deforestation, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, air/water/soil pollution, and antibiotic resistance.
Veganism is now the fastest growing lifestyle movement in the UK, with the number of vegans doubling from 2014 to 2016 (150,000 to 276,000) and again by 2018, reaching 600,000 (1.16% of the adult population). Almost half of all UK vegans made the conversion in 2018, a phenomenal rate of change.
The surging popularity of vegan/vegetarian campaigns like ‘Meat-Free Monday’ or ‘Veganuary’ – an annual event which provides support to those who pledge to go vegan for a month – further confirms this trend. 35% of British consumers now say they regularly have meat-free days, and Veganuary organisers report that 250,000 people worldwide took part this year – matching the total number of pledges combined since the event began in 2014 with just 3,300 sign-ups.
Analysis of past participants in Veganuary suggests that over half will attempt to remain vegan after the challenge, no doubt encouraged by participation from a range of celebrities including BBC star Chris Packham, Arsenal footballer Hector Bellerin and Harry Potter actor Evanna Lynch. However, it is the relative ease of adopting a vegan lifestyle which has truly opened the door to many newcomers. No longer confined to the produce section, vegans are benefitting from an explosion in new products aimed specifically at the growing demographic, with more released in the UK in 2018 than in any other country.
2019 looks set to far surpass this record, with a wave of highly publicised launches of new vegan products and ranges throughout January kicked off by Greggs, the largest bakery chain in the UK – its vegan sausage roll, launched in half its 1,850 stores on 3rd January, was so popular it sold out in cities around the country. McDonald’s, the world’s largest single purchaser of beef, followed suit with its first vegan kid’s meal, with Marks and Spencer, Pizza Hut, Aldi, and many others announcing their own new products. As Veganuary’s Head of Campaigns Rich Hardy stated, “I think it has reached critical mass now – vegan living is growing, it’s here to stay, it’s part of the national conversation, and it has credibility”.
That’s not to say that this credibility wasn’t heavily contested by those who consider eating meat to be a necessary part of masculinity and ‘anti-politically correct’ culture. TV personality Piers Morgan fell into the Greggs social media trap, with the brand’s dismissive response reaching a massive audience across Twitter as the reviled Morgan – who has repeatedly labelled vegans, feminists, socialists and others as ‘snowflakes’ – was ridiculed for his outrage over the meatless pastry. Politicians also fuelled the fire, with Shropshire Conservative councillor Steve Charmley demanding that bus company Arriva remove adverts for Veganuary from its vehicles.
However, with half of all British people knowing at least one vegan, and vegan recipes and ideas now ubiquitous on social media (Instagram currently features 73,558,686 posts under #vegan, compared to 21,662,970 for #vegetarian), the idea that vegans are sandal-wearing hippies out of touch with society is well and truly dead.
What is less certain is whether the recent wave of vegan product releases was merely a response to demand, or an attempt to actively induce this demand by drawing attention to a small but growing trend. While no doubt the sums had been done in the Greggs corporate office before development began, Chief Executive Roger Whiteside made no secret of the fact that the success of the vegan sausage roll had taken the company by surprise. Greggs has already begun urgently ramping up production, with Whiteside noting “we didn’t know if it would sell or not…we are pulling out all the stops to get it out there as quickly as possible”.
Dominika Piasecka, spokesperson for The Vegan Society, was less surprised; “Offering vegan options makes clear commercial sense – it opens up the potential market not only to the 600,000 vegans in Britain, but also to two million more vegetarians, the huge number of meat and dairy reducers, the lactose intolerant, followers of certain religious groups, the health-conscious, and those who simply enjoy vegan food”.
Whether this January signifies a lucky break or shrewd business tactics from those in the food industry, it is clear that demand for vegan food is only set to grow. 42% of UK vegans are aged 15-34, and are far more open to proposals for seemingly radical action to tackle climate change, such as the Green Party’s proposal for a ‘meat tax’. This alignment of consumers seeking ethical, healthy food with an industry constantly seeking new avenues for products may well make 2019 – as April Preston, Director of Product Development at Marks and Spencer predicted recently – “the year we’ll see plant-based food go truly mainstream”.