What do you envision when you think of a vegan? Do any specific words come to mind? I’ll throw out a few, feel free to disagree: “hipster”, “activist”, “hippy”, “middle class”…”annoying”. This image is out there, publicised, non-controversial and acceptable to routinely spout on TV. Like all groups who attempt to break away from anything previously considered to be social norms, vegans are villainised. They are vigilantes holding ideologies which lie far left of society’s interests but will, ultimately, one day vote Tory. An unbearably high maintenance lifestyle (centring on health, cleansing, spirituality and animal welfare) is the illusion a great deal of people are under.
This is problematic, not only for the image of the movement, but for the ecocide environmentalists are desperately attempting to prevent. Creating an aura of exclusivity around a philosophy which can, realistically, only be elevated above the status of a social statement to become genuinely impactful with mass participation, is entirely counter intuitive. Exclusivity is generated through selectively broadcasting a specific image and consumer choice driving faster deployment of more expensive products. Despite this portrayal, veganism is on the rise, with the Vegan Society’s latest research indicating around 600,000 vegans reside in Great Britain. In light of this, a critical question is then brought to the forefront: what makes someone more susceptible to veganism? As with all things remotely political, social class and wealth are inextricably tied in.
Citizens of the UK are under the illusion that food security has been achieved. In turn, this indignance to greed and overconsumption threatens a vengeful insecurity. Malnutrition is something that is ignored. The general public have not been galvanised by the Environmental Audit Committee’s latest report, which states that undernourishment is “significant and growing in the UK, with levels among the worst in Europe, especially for children”. Shockingly, in a nation viewed as distinctly developed, people’s diets remain depauperate and their nutrition poor. Members of the general public send their children to school on empty stomachs and ideologies clash amongst the politically inclined who argue for reform. These issues are entirely distinct from those surrounding diet choice; they are issues of food insecurity where individuals are stripped of all choice. They should not be confounded with a reluctance to adopt veganism. There is little ground to stand on when insisting that persistent low income (estimated to be approximately 22% of the UK population) prevents a significant chunk of the public from turning their backs on beef. Only 1.6% of the population identify as vegan. Do the remaining 80% of people considered to be financially stable also feel tofu to be an unjustifiably expensive commodity?
Whilst the average middle class shopper might be able to nip into their local Waitrose, it’s a different story for the shopper living in a low income area with 3 hungry (fussy) kids to feed on a budget. Picking up an overpriced vegan ready meal on a busy night is out of the question. Yes, it’s achievable to go vegan on a budget, but people want convenience. They have lives to contend with, personal endeavours to pursue, personal tastes which have already developed. At the end of the day, most people prefer to be left alone to enjoy their 99p cheeseburger in peace and quiet. Planning for a week of vegan meals requires forethought, knowing how to cook in a way your mother or father didn’t (or knowing how to cook at all), adapting your tastes and exiting your comfort zone. As a student this is relatively simple; as a household with a mish-mash of diet preferences, it’s most certainly not. Removing a class divide from a vegan ideology would entail better marketing of vegan options in popular food outlets beyond Holland and Barrett. It would require lower prices of non-threatening vegan foods which don’t take hours to cook and actually taste good (sorry Tesco, your ‘cheese’ is disgusting). Ideally, this would be supplemented by effective education surrounding the food system and the importance of sustainability. I don’t contest that certain groups need to try a whole lot harder than others to cut out meat. I do contest that this is the major driving force preventing radical diet shifts. Paying £2.50 for a pack of Tesco Plant chef Breaded Goujons can really add up when you normally pay only £2.00 for their plain old chicken ones. £2.00 for a kg of lentils on the other hand could make more than enough Dahl to feed a family. At its core, the reluctance to support veganism is rooted in something far more universally entrenched than finances.
When delving into the depths of vegan culture, it’s important to assess where the motives for such a radical diet change might stem from. People live in their own bubbles of like-minded companions which are far less accessible than they might like to think. Research conducted by Ofcom concludes that social media users today are less likely than in 2016 to see views they disagree with online. Those who begin to pay attention to where their food comes from, how it’s made and the environmental impacts of its production are likely to find themselves on a downward spiral deep into the depths of YouTube documentaries. This is a fairly niche topic of interest to jump into out of the blue. Even more so when your top video suggestions are ‘Ryan’s Toys Reviews’ and your traditional British family life revolves around a Sunday roast.
Being influenced by your social and cultural environment is part of being human. Perhaps, then, it’s not shocking to hear that several studies have resolved that “across Western societies, women are twice as likely as men to be vegan or vegetarian”. Considering the marked prevalence of admired female celebrities who publicly adopt a vegan diet (Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Ellen DeGeneres to name a few), this is a given. It’s hard to be taken seriously in your prolific cult of masculinity trading up a bacon sandwich for hummus and crudites (especially whilst Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson endorses chowing down on a dozen eggs a day). Clearly veganism appeals to a specific demographic.
It seems they are in a deadlock, the herbivores and omnivores. They have found themselves in a political war waged through publicity stunts and protesting, supplemented with a healthy dose of social network sparring. Mass media has managed to sculpt a particular perception of veganism, zoning in on a snapshot of the culture. This snapshot captures a minority self-righteous cult of entitled ‘snowflakes’ who like to purchase expensive sustainable fashion on daddy’s credit card. Vegans, instinctively, have sought to fight back. With the popularization of Greta Thunberg, organisations such as Extinction Rebellion being thrust into the limelight and the general growing discomfort surrounding the idea of a climate crisis, the frost towards veganism is starting to thaw.
Alongside this thawing, inaccessible logic trapped within the ice has begun leaking out. This logic is making its way gradually into the theatre of fast-food outlets which are now being forced to play ball. Though perhaps not the best way to conserve biodiversity (considering simultaneous attempts to battle an obesity epidemic), it does alleviate issues associated with food accessibility for vegans. As KFC and McDonald’s pioneer in accessible vegan junk food, Greggs flaunt their instantaneously infamous vegan sausage roll. Though responses have been overwhelmingly positive, these new product lines have proven divisive. With one subtle menu addition, the ‘vegan resistance’ was stubbornly declared by Piers Morgan in a tweet against those ‘PC ravaged clowns’ at Greggs. If vegans are not being publicly thwarted, they’re being passive-aggressively ‘integrated’ into society in the most patronizing of ways. Even at the hands of the more ‘nonpartisan’ BBC, the movement is belittled. Vegans are made into caricatures to be humoured in good faith. ‘The Food Chain’ podcast’s newest release “how to date a vegan” has attempted to render abstaining from animal produce devoid of all deeper meaning, presenting vegans as nothing more than fussy eaters. I greatly anticipate their upcoming release, “how to date a feminist”.
Continually, society fails to recognise that justifications for going vegan extend far beyond the traditional “meat is murder!” sentiment. Personally, I actively contest this emotional aspect; humanity’s critical downfall in many endeavours is an inability to distinguish between routes which are both moral yet pragmatic, and routes which are selfish but satisfying. This is perhaps why the legal system favours revenge over reform or why Starbucks doesn’t really pay its taxes and no one cares. Veganism being inaccessible boils down to a culmination of misinformation, comfort in conformity and personal problems more immediate than the more ultimate problems the planet faces. Though a share of these problems are indisputably financial, deciding that you aren’t going to participate in institutionalised abuse and environmental destruction is not as simple as a random change of heart. People make it pretty damn difficult. You need to make a concerted effort to get informed. You need to know what you believe and have the strength to stand by it. This takes effort, motivation and a willingness to care. Pivotally, it also takes a collection of like-minded peers, some healthy debate and exposure to certain forms of media beyond your Facebook feed and daytime TV.