So, no more wishing we could all move to Berlin. According to new research released last week, now it is the UK, and not Germany, where you can find the most, and most exciting, new vegan foods. This is one area, at least, where the debate around Brexit isn’t harming the UK’s reputation abroad.
Data from Mintel, a marketing research company, shows that around one in six (16 percent) of new foods launched in the UK in 2018 were vegan – doubling from eight percent in 2017.
As reported by Plant Based News last Friday, already the beginning of 2019 has seen a number of major food outlets follow suit, with TGI Fridays, Frankie & Bennys, Zizzi, ASK, Pizza Express, and McDonald’s all adding new vegan options to their line-ups.
All of which is incredible news for vegans. And if veganism was only a diet, and if capitalist consumer habits were not destroying the planet through climate breakdown, we could leave it there, give three cheers, and tuck into the new vegan Taco Bell.
But while the focus on ‘consumer’ or ‘corporate veganism’ has brought with it many benefits for those practising vegan lifestyles – such as ease of access to products and less pejorative misconceptions of what being vegan means – if we’re to see a world free from the exploitation of animals, new product launches are far from enough.
After all, since the launch of the new Greggs vegan sausage roll, the sales of its meat sausage rolls has also increased. Let’s not forget the company’s main goal is to make profits, and if that means exploiting animals, then so be it.
As Dr. Richard White of Sheffield University has written, such ‘consumer’ or ‘lifestyle veganism’ is ‘driven by corporate interests, and supported by largely industrial agricultural systems. This certainly brings with it some apparent advantages… But the failure of lifestyle veganism to make a discernible difference to the known (and hidden) repertoires of violence suffering of human and other animals … is deeply problematic’.
And Dan Kidby, of the new Animal Think Tank, writing with Lara Drew, castigates the view that we are all united as vegans under this new consumer project, and that anyone who criticizes the great advances made in the capitalist provision of vegan foods needs to be silenced. This is what they call ‘bullshit unity’ and is as harmful to real animal liberation as the corporations themselves.
A new vegan activism
And yet, my belief is that the rise in vegan product launches in the UK is a good news story – for activism, not capitalism.
I’ve been involved in animal activism now for five short years. That’s long enough, however, to have been part of the huge rise in a wave of activism that prioritises compassion over confrontation, and invitation to dialogue over megaphones shouting out shameful abuse.
Yesterday I stood with fellow activists inside a Cube of Truth in Newcastle city centre, showing footage from inside animal agriculture to offer permission for passersby to watch, and for others from the Anonymous for the Voiceless group to start up conversations with members of the public around the footage of abuse they are witnessing.
Globally there are around 1,000 chapters, and around 100 – so 10 percent of the global total – are in the UK and Ireland. This week, there are 188 events worldwide, with 25 of those (one in seven) taking place in the UK, from Basildon to Wakefield.
And these are the same activists who also keep me company as we stand outside the Linden Foods slaughterhouse (purveyors of ‘meat’ to Marks and Spencer’s, among others) in Burradon, six miles north of Newcastle, as part of the Save Movement, where we bear witness to animals going into slaughter, and capture the footage to share on social media.
Of the 600 global groups, over 60 are based in the UK.
Festivals, Food Giveaways, and more
Over the past four years there has been an exponential rise in the number of vegan festivals, providing activist groups such as Viva!, Animal Aid, Hunt Sabs, and many more, new and direct forms of access to the public to raise the visibility of the plight of animals.
What’s crucially important about these interactions is the permission – by attending a vegan festival and walking up to a stall, the general public are in a place to be far more receptive to the message that the charities have to share.
And this is the crucial element in many other forms of high street outreach using dialogic and compassion based methods of raising awareness. These include Vegan Food Outreach, Animal Equality’s I-Animal Virtual Reality tour, and even groups such as VAST using street theatre to engage audiences and bring them to the message.
None of these are brand new. The Nottingham Veggies, for example, have been doing such outreach for decades.
But cumulatively what has changed in the UK over the past five years is that it is no longer animal activism that people see and hear about so much as it is veganactivism. That isn’t to say that these forms of activism are not for the animals. But rather, their focus is much more clearly visible – and visible to their ‘target market’ of non-vegans – on lifestyle change, rather than empathy for the animals.
I have studied some of these forms of activism over the past five years, and been immersed in this world. And although, unlike Mintel, I do not have the data to back this up (yet) I am 110 percent certain that the success of veganism in the UK could not have happened without the traction that has been made and sustained by these vegan activists.
It is by standing out on the high streets, manning stalls at festivals, providing free food, giving talks, appearing on This Morning, launching vegan community centres, running successful social media, leafleting, and – crucially – doing it all with compassion and a smile, that all these vegan products have the chance to be successful. Veganism would not have caught on here without these activists preparing the foundations.
As HSI UK Forward Food Program Manager, Charlie Huson said in response to the Mintel data: “With consumers’ increased knowledge about animal suffering in the food industry […] it is no wonder that eating meat-free and dairy-free is now firmly mainstream in the UK.”
Citizens not Consumers
And I totally agree. I also agree with Dr. White that ‘corporate veganism’ will not end the exploitation of animals, and with Lara Drew and Daniel Kidby that we need to call out ‘bullshit unity’ where it stands in place of real unity between peoples, and most importantly, between humans and nonhuman animals.
Perhaps recognising that veganism’s rise is as much a victory for vegan activism as it is for consumer capitalism – and hopefully more so – can bring more understanding of the role that grassroots activism plays in behaviour change, even if we talk about that change in terms of consumers.
One way to perhaps bridge that gap is to take up the New Citizenship Project’s challenge of reframing our language to ditch the term consumer, and start calling people – again – citizens. When we do so, we begin to think in more civic, responsible terms about social life.
Which is what vegan activists are doing anyway.
So here’s to the success of the vegan activists in changing the world for animals. It’s not enough – we have further to go – but the changes in our consumer lifestyles, while we still live under capitalism, are at least markers of positive movement.