Was 2023 the year veganism ended? If you ask much of the mainstream media, it was. A UK publication recently published an article proclaiming the “vegan bubble” had “finally burst.” Another stated that the “vegan obsession” was “finally over.”
But what spurred these inflammatory – and incorrect – headlines? Plant-based meat.
Over the last year, there have been a number of highly publicized struggles within the alternative meat market. In the summer, Beyond Meat – one of the largest publicly traded plant-based producers- announced that its shares had fallen by 30.5 percent in the second quarter of 2023 (April to June inclusive). Revenue was down by USD $44.9 million from that period the previous year ($147 million to $102.1 million). In the US, sales plummeted by 40 percent.
Vegan meat brand struggles
At around the same time, a UK-based brand named Meatless Farm announced that it was going into administration. Despite the fact that the company had managed to increase sales, it failed to turn an annual profit. Meatless Farm was, thankfully, saved by vegan chicken brand VFC.
The most recent plant-based struggle, and the one that spurred the aforementioned vegan doomsday headlines, was the fall of Heather Mills’ brand VBites. In a statement released earlier this month, she called for “unity in the plant-based sector” amid struggles faced by many vegan brands. She cited a number of reasons for company downfalls, including misinformation from the dairy sector, “corporate greed” in the industry, and Brexit. She has since rescued her company from administration.
Plant-based meat struggles can also be attributed to the tightening of consumer wallets, as plant-based meats average about 20 percent higher prices than conventional meat. Food inflation is hitting hard. Twenty-five percent of consumers in America are on SNAP benefits (social assistance) now and many are forced to opt for cheaper foods.
Plant-based meat’s “ultra-processed” reputation is also contributing. While we are seeing record amounts of money being spent on organic foods and specialty foods, we’re seeing more and more consumers tell us that they’re interested in investing in their health with cleaner labels and less ingredients.
And lastly, for most people, it boils down to taste. We know that the taste for many consumers is, quite frankly, not there. And if the taste is not there, the price premium for plant-based means that it’s going to be a real struggle to get somebody to buy a product that both tastes worse and costs more than the conventional product.
The rise of dairy-free milk
But plant-based meat aside, we’ve seen huge wins in other plant-based sectors. Consumers may not have been filling their baskets with Beyond Burgers as much in recent years, but they’ve been piling them high with plant-based milks.
If there’s one thing we can say about 2023, it’s that it’s been a huge year for the milk alternative market. Earlier this year, we debuted new data from Whipstitch Capital and SPINS that shows plant-based milk is now in up to 44 percent of US households (a 10 percent increase from previous years). We are now reaching the much-anticipated consumer “tipping point” – 50 percent household penetration.
In October of this year, it was predicted that the plant milk market would exceed $17 billion by 2026. By comparison, it was worth $12 billion in 2019. The North American dairy-free milk market alone is thought to be worth more than $6 billion, and the vast majority of people consuming plant-based dairy aren’t vegans. According to stats from 2019, half of Americans buy both dairy and plant milks, proving just how mainstream the dairy-free sector has become. There’s no denying that big dairy is still winning, but the plant-based milk market is disrupting it in ways we could not have foreseen a few years ago.
The dairy industry knows this, and it’s ramped up its war on plant-based milk this year. In May, Aubrey Plaza starred in the hugely controversial dairy-funded “wood milk” advert that poked fun at plant-based milks. She came under fire for her involvement in the ad, in which she stated “only real milk is real.” More recently, Queen Latifah proclaimed that “dairy deniers all over America” are subjecting cow milk drinkers to “milk shaming.”
‘Desperate attempts to stay relevant’
But dairy’s desperate attempts to stay relevant are falling short. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the ethical and environmental costs of milk production. And our population is changing rapidly, with younger, more diverse consumers and a more significant prevalence of lactose intolerance. Millennial and Gen Z consumers are, by far, the most interested consumer in the plant-based space. And this year has also seen plant-based milk campaigns directed towards them.
Towards the start of 2023, in a parody of dairy-funded Got Milk? ads from the 90s, stars like Brooklyn Beckham donned milk mustaches and proclaimed “Because Silk Nextmilk™ is a better stache. Who’s next?” This campaign came from Silk, which is, ironically, a plant-based dairy subsidiary of Danone, one of the world’s largest dairy companies.
A decade ago, it was a struggle to even find soy milk at the grocery store, but now consumers can choose from oat, rice, almond, cashew, and more. The reality is, consumer acceptance and change is a long and hard road. Despite the setbacks being faced by plant-based meat, it’s important to understand that this is just one of many steps on the long-term path to shifting the food system. Despite a tough past few quarters, there are still bright spots on the horizon and many economic indicators are now signaling a better year to come. With 2023 moving into our rearview mirror, I think I speak for all of us when I say I can’t wait to see what 2024 has in store.