Is the plant-based shift undermining veganism?

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Researcher Network member, Anna Boardman, explores the rise of the phrase "plant-based".

The Plant-Based Shift: Are We Undermining Veganism?

This article is based on themes which arose during the literature review for my forthcoming paper: “The Plant-Based Shift: Supporting or Undermining Veganism? A Content and Framing Analysis of UK Newspaper Coverage of Veganism and Plant-Based Diets.”

The term ‘plant-based’ is everywhere. But why have we moved away from describing products as vegan? And what are the possible effects of such a shift in terminology for the progression of veganism? This article has a look at the rationale for utilising the term plant-based over vegan and identifies some possible problems with the increasing popularity and mainstream application of the term.

The Plant-Based Shift

In the last decade, companies have increasingly framed vegan food as ‘plant-based’, hoping to enable vegan products to reach the mainstream (White, 2018). Since 2011, consumption of plant-based alternative foods (PBAF) in the UK has more than doubled (Alae-Carew et al., 2022). This change has been described as “Big Veganism” (Sexton et al., 2022, p.606), whereby vegan food is being pushed into the mainstream through the availability of high-tech processed protein products that follow a corporate agenda. The acceleration of plant-based popularity has been confounded more recently by the Covid-19 pandemic which highlighted the unsafe practices of the meat industry and its relation to zoonotic outbreaks (Attwood and Hajat, 2020).

In this article, I will discuss several possible benefits and disadvantages of using the term plant-based as a replacement for the term vegan within media and communication.

  1. Avoiding Vegaphobia

Veganism has long been plagued by preconceptions of elitism and militancy (Cole and Morgan, 2011). Previous research cites vegaphobia (Cole and Morgan, 2011) as a significant detriment to the vegan cause, whereby discourses in the media overwhelmingly proliferate negative stereotypes of vegans, with around 75% of news discourses in the UK framed negatively in 2007.

It is possible that by replacing the term vegan with the term plant-based we can avoid these negative connotations, de-stigmatising an animal-free diet, and avoiding detrimental vegaphobia. This could be because plant-based appeals more to health and environmental motivations, which have been shown to be more acceptable to omnivores than ethical motivations typically associated with vegans (Groeve et al., 2022).

  1. Associations with Health and Environment

Plant-based is increasingly being correlated with health and the environmental benefits. Where veganism has been criticised for being unhealthy or lacking in the requisite vitamins, plant-based alternative foods are depicted as healthier than their animal-based alternatives (Sexton et al., 2022). Furthermore, whilst environmentalists have been cited as unwilling to promote veganism for climate change goals (Kemmerer, 2015), according to Capps (2019) environmental organisations are likely to use plant-based labels to promote the reduction of meat consumption.

However, although health reasons have been found to be the primary reason for people taking up vegan diets, they have also been found to be the motivation which has the highest failure rate (Anderson and Milyavskaya, 2021). People that go vegan for ethical motivations stay vegan for significantly longer (Rosenfeld, 2019).

  1. Expanding the Audience

The term ‘plant-based’ can be used to appeal to messages of meat and dairy reduction as well as elimination, making it more attractive for those who are demotivated by the idea of ‘strict’ veganism (Sparkman et al., 2021). It has been argued that reduction frames can reach and impact more people than traditional frames of elimination (Anderson, 2020), appealing to those who wish to reduce their meat and dairy intake without the negative connotations of the vegan identity.

This is a significant section of the population, with self-identification as ‘flexitarian’ and ‘reducitarian’ becoming more popular than ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ (Duckett et al., 2021). Fundamentally, plant-based terminology could reduce the potentially harmful and inaccessible rhetoric surrounding veganism and promote a market-friendly solution, promoting individual choice rather than the radical politics of veganism. 

However, when this has been empirically tested, it has been found that sales of food items marked ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ are 24% higher than sales of food items marked ‘plant-based’ (Rosenfeld et al., 2022). This may be because of inconsistency and confusion over the term plant-based, or it could be because plant-based terminology implies a diet rather than an identity (Giraud, 2021).

  1. Depoliticisation

It has been argued that plant-based framing of vegan food reduces the ideological foundations of veganism to merely a diet. Whilst veganism refers not only to consuming plant-based foods, but also to abstinence from paying for or participating in any activity which exploits animals, human and non-human (The Vegan Society, no date), the term plant-based has looser connotations, generally referring to a diet made up either entirely or mainly of plants (British Nutrition Foundation, 2019).

Lundahl (2020) exemplifies these differences by pointing out common contradictions found within the media, including wearing leather and fur whilst promoting plant-based foods. This reflects the central contradiction between the two terms, demonstrating the possibility of an “emerging boundary between veganism as a moral and political lifestyle, on the one hand, and the plant-based diet, on the other” (Lundahl, 2020, p.257).

Giraud (2021) terms the recent shift of veganism into the mainstream as “plant-based capitalism” (p.129), referring to the way that the plant-based label works to depoliticise veganism and capitalise on health trends and greenwashing techniques. This could lead to ignorance of the necessary ethical arguments for veganism as a moral lifestyle, including reduction of harm caused to both animals and the environment, instead promoting consumption through anthropocentric health reasons (Lundhal, 2020) which are associated with high levels of recidivism (Braun and Carruthers, 2020).

Why is this important?

It is important to consider the meanings that have become attached to the term plant-based in comparison to the term vegan, because it allows us to assess its long-term ability to disrupt the norms of meat-eating, and ultimately support the vegan movement. Whilst the plant-based label is increasingly popular and accessible, a primarily dietary framing could depoliticise the vegan cause. A question arises: is it more important to appeal to the masses, or to maintain a more radical moral stance?

Considering this, my forthcoming paper empirically explores the extent to which the arguments and frames included differ between plant-based discussions and vegan discussions in the UK news media, to find what is included and excluded in each discussion, and whether this is significant for the progression of veganism. 

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.


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