In the second edition of The Expert Series for this year, RAC Chair, Dr Richard Twine considers Veganuary and what it can tell us about vegan culture.
In January 2020 veganism appears to be everywhere. I walk down my high street (in Lancaster) and a large poster on Greggs bakery tells me that the vegan sausage roll is ‘the nation’s favourite’. A few metres further on Accessorize has laminated its window with a large ‘The Vegan Collection – small changes, big difference’ display featuring a selection of faux leather bags. Even Tesco cafes now offer an all-day vegan breakfast.
Long time vegans (15 years in my case) have a vantage point from which to discern these changes. Activists and/or vegan academics might have further insights. I remember eating vegan pizza in North Carolina in 2007 and walking the streets of New York in 2012 and seeing the word vegan everywhere. That experience is now familiar in small towns and cities in England. I must admit to simultaneously experiencing these changes as both remarkable and banal.
For the last ten years I have given much thought to trying to understand the process of vegan transition. It’s a work in progress: the sociology of veganism. This has included interviewing vegans, surveying and interviewing non-vegan individuals and couples, non-vegan couples and conducting quite a few focus groups with non-vegans of various demographics. This latter research, conducted with colleagues at the Centre for Human-Animal Studies (CfHAS), Edge Hill University, has been funded by The Vegan Society and has sought to better understand how non-vegans understand or ‘construct’ veganism and vegans. In my writings on this I’ve taken an interest in many facets of the issue. For example, what theories of change work best? In lieu of government action on vegan transition, what has it been about the vegan community which has helped to facilitate vegan popularisation? Another question my work has addressed itself critically toward is a general individualism found in ‘behaviour change’ research. In our research on non-vegans we purposively conducted interviews with couples in order to recognise the social and relational context of food habits.
In looking back, we can note that the days of unambiguously negative media coverage of veganism now seem long gone. Although ‘backlash’ media is still present, pro-vegan media increasingly emanates from surprising sources. I think everyone recognises there has been a shift. Understanding quite what that shift is, is a more complicated question. Is it fundamental or superficial? Is it too soon to know? Certainly, the number of self-described vegans in the UK has increased during the past 10 years. However, there is, as yet, little evidence to suggest that the number of vegans has grown to the extent that it is radically re-configuring society, or that this growth represents permanent changes. It’s unclear if it’s flexitarianism that is increasing more than veganism, and what the consequences of that might be.
To me it appears that the following is happening: we are still seeing the early normalisation of plant-based eating. And just that. I think it’s important not to overstate the change that is happening just because it might appear superficially ‘revolutionary’. As veganism travels through our culture the meanings attached to it chop and change. Because the shadow practice of veganism (the large scale killing of millions of animals in the UK alone) is incongruent with peoples’ (including non-vegans) ideas of both self-image and general morality it is not surprising that environmental, health and aesthetic meanings have played larger roles in vegan popularisation than animal ethics meanings. They are easier to digest, but that shapes the sort of ‘veganism’ that gets talked about and socially embedded. What is also becoming apparent is that long frail distinctions between notions of environmental veganism and animal ethics veganism are breaking down. This has been no more apparent than in the recent decimation of animal life during the ongoing bush fires in Australia. The climate crisis is unambiguously an animal rights issue.
So, what inhabits the gap between the early normalisation of plant-based eating and meaningful societal vegan transition? Let’s agree on something which should not be controversial. The world is now witness to a climate and biodiversity crisis which is part of a broader general crisis in our dominant economics. We also know that animal agriculture is closely bound up in all of this. If these crises are to be averted, we need to rapidly adopt practices which embody alternative values in relation to ecosystems and other species. Sometimes the ‘alternative values’ part might be deemed superfluous. For example, advocates of in-vitro meat or hi-tech plant-based meats hope to fast-track societal food transitions implicitly downplaying the need to embrace an alternative set of values. However, I would say that it is exactly an alternative set of values which enacts deep and lasting cultural change and brings us closer to actual vegan transition as opposed to slightly higher levels of plant-based eating. After all, a vegan ethic embraces all uses of animals, not just those used as food. This would also act as a check on our economic systems. If societies no longer separated humanity from the rest of nature and were predisposed against the commodification of animal life it could shape economic and social life accordingly.
What sort of questions would have to be asked in order to radically shift societal values? Well, arguably, we are not yet seeing a meaningful critical societal reflection on subjects such as the human sense of entitlement to animal bodies, the taken for granted notion of animals as commodities, the richness of animal subjectivities, the paucity of human empathy toward other animals, the limitations of our dominant construction of masculinity and how it tends to disavow compassion toward animals, and the superiority of human/animal relations based on care and interaction as opposed to violence. What these issues would take us to would be a meaningful challenge to human-animal hierarchy. They are very familiar to the history and philosophy of veganism, of animal ethics writing. A vegan culture as opposed to a meat culture would not just impact our food practices but could engender wholesale changes to our ways of life generally. In short exactly the sort of changes required to make a society more resilient to climate breakdown. What I am also suggesting here is that there is a marked difference between an increased vegan visibility on the high street and an actual vegan culture.
Which brings us to Veganuary. In certain respects, Veganuary has been an impressive success story. Active since 2014, year on year it has achieved substantial increases in numbers of participants from over 170 countries. Veganuary has both benefitted from and fuelled the increased cultural visibility of veganism. In January 2020 it produced its first TV commercial and the Vegan Society became an official partner.
It would not be fair to say it avoids animal ethics messaging, but it understandably steers a careful path in terms of how it represents veganism. It’s very difficult to assess its effectiveness in terms of how many of its participants stay vegan and more accurate research would be helpful in order to determine this. It has managed to achieve commercial take up in terms of significant food outlets and retailers involving themselves in vegan promotion during the month of January. Some supermarkets create specific sections especially for Veganuary and labels foods with ‘try for Veganuary’ stickers. Although ‘vegan/ism’ is now an ever-present term in our large retailers it is of course not veganism as such. None of those deeper questions mentioned above are being asked, none of these issues are being meaningfully troubled, yet. Instead we have the moral relativism of a plant-based section within the meat aisle, or the Greggs vegan steak bake sold alongside the cow version. This is how capitalism presently accommodates veganism, essentially as an additional, often deluxe, choice.
For Veganuary 2018 the organisation published a book called How To Go Vegan: The why, the how, and everything you need to make going vegan easy. It’s an interesting read. Well-written and useful. However, one thing is noticeable. Like much of the tradition of behaviour change philosophy its focus is largely on the individual. This might have limited success especially when it comes to the issue of food as part of a broader veganism. One of the ways in which we enact social life is through our shared food practices. Even those of us who live alone eat socially, those in couples or families even more so. Often, we can’t simply autonomously change what we eat precisely because what we eat is bound up in what those close to us also eat, and with the routinized knowledge, competences and skills around food that generates. I would suggest more attention to this facet of eating. Veganuary could think about producing tailored resources to couples (recognising that veganism is gendered and one side of a couple may have more commitment), to families, to parents. They could also attend to child-grandparent relations and generational differences. But Veganuary should also think about scaling up and produce tailored resources and sign up pledges aimed at workplaces and community groups. It is evident for example that The Vegan Society has in recent years given far more thought to the institutional contexts of veganism, such as campaigning on hospital food and workplace rights for vegans. Maybe the Veganuary-Vegan Society partnership is exactly the opportunity for this discussion.
Moreover, Veganuary could also be one conduit for the deeper reflection on human-animal relations suggested above. It already does this to an extent in its book. Messaging, as I’m sure Veganuary and The Vegan Society realise, is very tricky. In our recent focus groups, it became clear that for non-vegans initial messaging which focuses on animal ethics arguments is the most fraught in terms of likelihood of backfiring. I think this is frustrating for many vegans who want others to ‘see’ and ‘get’ ethical arguments straight away. How, when and whether to convey animal ethics messages remains one of the most difficult issues for promoting a vegan culture and vegan transition as opposed to promoting plant-based eating and flexitarianism.
It could be countered that increased normalisation of plant-based eating and flexitarianism are necessary steps along a road to a vegan culture and that the deeper narrative that contests human-animal hierarchy is only likely to be bought into after people have gained experience of plant-based eating and had their norms of animal consumption displaced. There may be some truth to this. However, it is far from certain that flexitarianism or meat reduction are an effective or consistent stepping-stone to veganism. It’s also apparent that some demographics and dispositions are entirely ready to embrace vegan critical thinking from the outset.
A further approach that became apparent in 2019 was to bypass an emphasis on either an individualistic or more social narrative of vegan transition and to take a more systemic approach. I am thinking here of the calls for a ‘plant-based food system’ by the Animal Rebellion group last year. Indeed, it could be construed as rather embarrassing that commercial retailers are currently doing far more for plant-based eating than either the government or public institutions such as schools or hospitals. Although if you’re part of a government that believes in ‘market mechanisms’ delivering sustainable transitions then that balance is probably read as ‘correct’.
For groups like Animal Rebellion it’s a very attractive narrative to focus on the systemic and move away from the individual with its sense of individual blaming. After all it really is the much broader and powerful food system with practices of procurement, international trade and governmental subsidies which play a significant role in maintaining an animal-based food system.
Governments could take radical action to decarbonise the food system in the direction of a ‘plant-based food system’. Yet as we saw during the UK general election’s first ever televised climate debate on Channel 4 (This took place on 28th November 2019 and The Conservative Party and Brexit Party failed to attend), even supposedly progressive politicians were loath to touch the subject of meat reduction let alone vegan transition. There is a problem when politicians might not want to be seen to ‘be telling people what to eat’ when policy has in fact been shaping the food system and what we eat for decades.
Groups like Animal Rebellion are correct to put emphasis on the systemic level – not that this negates agitating for change in communities or engaging with individuals. However, I think Animal Rebellion were constrained by their own framing because to make the case for a ‘plant-based food system’ was to unintentionally de-emphasise the deeper questioning of human-animal relations highlighted above. It’s a strange juxtaposition to see retailers using the word ‘vegan’ (albeit in a confused manner) and actual animal advocates refraining from using the V word. That is quite deferential, and I think that is a problem. On the systemic level there may be more mileage in arguing for something like a ‘justice-based food system’ which could be attentive to questions of both human and animal rights.
Moving forward more co-operation between different advocacy groups and further attention to different theories of change and different scales of change are all going to be essential in striving toward a more vegan culture. Enrolling progressive movements which until now have avoided issues of human/animal relations is also key. As ‘veganism’ continues to travel through our decidedly non-vegan culture the question of how to keep a critical questioning of human/animal relations to the fore will remain paramount.
Dr Richard Twine
Co-Director, Centre for Human-Animal Studies (CfHAS), Edge Hill University, UK.
Schuler, K. (2017) How to go Vegan – The why, the how, and everything you need to make going vegan easy London: Hodder & Stoughton/Veganuary.
Twine, R. (2014) 'Vegan Killjoys at the Table - Contesting Happiness and Negotiating Relationships with Food Practices', Societies Vol.4, No.4, pp.623-639. (D/L: https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/4/4/623/html)
Twine, R. (2017) 'A Practice Theory Framework for Understanding Vegan Transition', Animal Studies Journal Vol.6, no.2, pp.192-224. (D/L: https://ro.uow.edu.au/asj/vol6/iss2/12/)
Twine, R. (2018) 'Materially Constituting a Sustainable Food Transition: The Case of Vegan Eating Practice', Sociology Vol.52, no 1, pp.166-181.
Parkinson, C., Twine, R., and N. Griffin (2019) Pathways to Veganism: Exploring Effective Messages in Vegan Transition. Final Report, Edge Hill University. (D/L: https://www.vegansociety.com/sites/default/files/uploads/downloads/Pathw...)