Veganism is sweeping the globe as the biggest trend of this year, but what’s the history behind the world’s most rapidly evolving lifestyle choice? At a glance, it may seem like a fad, but if you scratch the surface, it’s a way of life that has been steadily increasing in popularity for decades. Once viewed as an extreme and restrictive dietary choice, attitudes are rapidly changing – you only have to type #vegan into your Instagram to be bombarded with over 60 million results. To be a dietary vegan, of which there are currently 542,000 in the UK, you have to eradicate animal products from your diet, including eggs, dairy, meat and fish. Many vegans will not wear leather, eat honey, and consume wine , beer, cider and spirits where animal products are used to make them. Lifestyle vegans go the whole hog and do all of the above as well as boycotting cosmetics and clothes that are made using animal products. Someone may choose to ‘go vegan’ for a number of reasons, including climate change, animal welfare or to lose weight. There’s no doubt about it, the health benefits are plentiful, and veganism can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index, as well as reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease! But what percentage of vegans have made the change because it’s ‘cool’? It comes as no surprise that trendy Berlin is the global leader of veganism. Young city dwellers are embracing the lifestyle choice in the UK, with over 88% of our vegans living in urban areas and almost 50% of them being between 15 and 34. So what is it that’s steering our population and brands to adopt plant-based living? With over 1,684,000 vegans on the planet, it’s time to find out…
The history of veganism
Back in the 1980s, veganism was split into two fringe groups; the tie-dye-wearing, yoga-practicing hippies, and the mohawk-gelling, planet-loving punks. Donald Watson founded the Vegan Society in 1944 with his wife Elsie, taking the word ‘vegetarian’ and simply removing the middle letters to create ‘vegan’ (they were going to call it sanivore, vitan, benevore or beaumangeur!) In the 20th century, the few vegans that there were, switched their lifestyles for animal rights and other ethical reasons, but today we see health reasons leading the change, with countless vegan athletes. Plant-based diets are no longer associated with peace symbols and boney bodies – we admire our vegan friends, maybe feeling a little jealous of their glowing skin and healthy weight. Today 70% of the world is making a considerable effort to reduce meat consumption, so what’s driving this enormous statistic? We delved deeper into the undulating world of social media to find out.
The unrelenting influence of social media and popular culture on today’s society has undoubtedly had a huge effect on the rise of veganism. In 2008, if you Googled ‘veganism’, it would have had a popularity score of 17. Just 10 years later, that score has rocketed to 88! Veganuary, which started in 2014 with just 3,300 participants, had an immense 168,000 people take part this year. A number of hard-hitting agricultural and environmental documentaries are partly responsible, like the gruesome ‘Cowspiracy’, which has played a major role in the rise of veganism for millennials. Instagram is possibly the number one platform for veganism, where millions of photos of colourful buddha bowls, green smoothies and decadent vegan curries are at our fingertips. It is only natural that people who have chosen a more nourishing lifestyle should want to share it with the world and as a result, Instagram has become the one stop shop for photos, inspirational stories, recipes and advice on how to be a vegan. Vegan celebrities have also had an impact on the rapidly increasing popularity of plant-based living, with Ellen DeGeneres, Woody Harrelson and Natalie Portman featuring on the list (Natalie Portman has even brought out her own brand of vegan footwear). Miley Cyrus has had the Vegan Society logo inked on her arm and The Carters regularly speak out about their vegan diet. It’s easy to be vegan when you’re famous and have a live-in chef to prepare delicious meals though isn’t it? Well actually, it’s much easier than you might think…
Since 2010, the number of vegan products available on our shelves has increased by over 250%, with China in the lead. Here in the UK, our supermarkets are jumping on the trend, some with whole aisles dedicated to plant-based eating, making it incredibly easy to make the change. In 2017, the meat-free food market was worth £572m, which is expected to rise to £658 by 2021, according to Mintel. After 250 years, even Guinness has become vegan, putting an end to the use of fish bladders in the brewing of Irish Champagne. Almond milk has forced its way into the lives of a huge proportion of the population, expanding 250% in five years, resulting in the global almond milk market being worth over £650m. If you’re thinking about going vegan but can’t let go of cheese and chocolate, you’ll be happy to hear that vegan chocolate is really quite delicious and vegan cheese is so well made that you often can’t tell the difference. By 2024, the vegan cheese market is likely to be worth a ridiculous £3bn. A fan of Ben & Jerry’s? You won’t be surprised to learn that their vegan ice cream is actually really good. Disturbed by the thought of Christmas without Baileys? Go out and get some vegan Baileys!
Vegan restaurants and catering
Eating out for vegans has never been easier, especially in our cities. Having vegan dishes labelled on a menu is a relatively new phenomenon, but one that has evolved so quickly that you’d be surprised to go to a good restaurant and not find at least two vegan options on the menu. At Pizza express, vegans are no longer denied cheese on their pizza, thanks to vegan mozzarella. You can dine to your heart’s content at Pizza Hut, Zizzi and Wagamama, which has a full vegan menu. Nandos, the home of chicken, even has two types of vegan burgers and wraps! You only have to take a walk through a trendy neighbourhood to find filthy vegan junk food and plant-based sushi, and there’s an abundance of vegan food festivals around the UK this summer, like Vegan Nights in Shoreditch. Those that haven’t tried it yet should visit Temple of Seitan in Hackney or Camden to indulge in deep-fried vegan products.
If you’re throwing a party, the chances are that some of your guests are going to be vegan, but you won’t have to compromise on the catering, thanks to a rise in vegan mobile caterers. These chefs are out to prove the vegan eating doesn’t mean rabbit food and can often be decadent and always delicious. FFS! Feral Food Store whip up dirty yet pure vegan dishes, like their famous Korean fried cauliflower balls. The Green Grill are the number one destination for tasty plant-based burgers in the most Instagrammable colours, and What The Pitta make a legendary döner kebab, using spiced soya. Juicy vegan burger restaurant, Vurger, got their business up and running through crowdfunding, where they reached their target of £150k in just over one day.
In an era of total dependence on social media and an unhealthy obsession with body image, what does the harsh reality of agriculture actually have to do with the rise of veganism? Probably much less than it did in Donald and Elsie Watson’s day. An enormous 38% of our land use is taken up by agriculture, as is 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of the world’s fresh water. Of course, the savagery of the egg, dairy and meat industries goes without saying, but does the whole planet have to turn vegan in order to save it? The answer to this is very much disputed and undecided, but if we stopped eating meat, we’d cut our agricultural land use by 76% (3.1 billion hectares).
It’s become quite apparent that plant-based diets are neither a trend or a fad – it’s a lifestyle choice made by those dedicated to a sustainable, ethical and healthy way of living. If you’re planning on joining the 7% of British people and ‘going vegan’, make sure you’re doing it properly and for the right reasons. With over half a million vegan people in the UK today, a number which has increased over 350% in the past 10 years, our vegan industry is only going to get bigger and better. Veganism is no longer niche or associated with lentils and hemp underwear, it’s an accessible lifestyle choice and the word on everybody’s lips.
By Digby Vollrath, CEO and co-founder of catering company Feast It