Martin Stepek is a prominent Scottish businessman who is an advocate of mindfulness. His story is a rather remarkable one, from his Polish father who fled his native country at the time of Stalin and his own upbringing where the family home was open to local homeless people for food. This he says gave him an understanding of compassion which set him on his work. We caught up with him to chat about his life and transition to veganism.
Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and what life was like growing up?
“I grew up in a very ethical household, my grandmother died of starvation, she was sent to the labour camps in the Soviet Union. My Dad nearly died of starvation, I knew about poverty growing up. We had homeless people have dinner with us, once or twice a week in our house, right through my childhood. We had a homeless person live with us for a year and a half just because my Mum and Dad thought poverty was terrible. It was an ethical household which realised that life matters…It was a lovely childhood, we were well off and we were taught that hurting things was wrong, simple as that.”
Do you think this upbringing impacted what you’ve gone on to do later in life?
“I’ve always been intellectually curious. From the age of around fifteen or sixteen when I was still at school, I don’t know how this happens but maybe it’s just in your nature but music wise I started listening to bands like Can and Velvet Underground, this was around 1973 or 1974.”
“Having been brought up a Catholic and sort of dismissing that at the age of twelve or thirteen you’re kind of looking and saying, ‘if not that, then what is true?’. So much of society seemed pretty rubbish back then, this was the era of the Bay City Rollers and the first really manufactured bands and literature was thrillers, the best-selling films were disaster movies and you’re thinking, ‘there must be more to life than this.’”
“Ethics then comes into that and you start asking what is good and what is bad. Having been brought up in a family business I knew that business worked but I also knew it made my Dad wealthy. The employees were treated really well and there was a treatment of care for the 200-300 employees, it was a big business. There was a mutual loyalty and a mutual respect that the bigger businesses like Toshiba, Hotpoint and Panasonic would come to our office and I realised that they weren’t like that at all. That got me interested in the ethics of business and work, I then started thinking, why on earth do animals come into this at all? Why are they involved in commerce?”
So you had an interest in veganism or the ethics of animal rights from a young age?
“For me, my veganism goes back almost before the internet, certainly my interest in it goes back to the 1970’s when I was a student. Back then you had to go to places like John Smith’s which was the big book shop and at the sixth floor they had the American magazines and you might just find a vegan or vegetarian magazine in the dusty part where no one looked.”
“My Dad grew up on a farm and he’d tell us that he had to kill animals for their own food and I thought it’s not like that now. At that time I was pretty talented at football and I was training with Hamilton Accies, so I was really interested in football. Then by the age of seventeen I was going to university and I wondered how my food and drink affected my fitness. I started experimenting by not drinking alcohol then I thought I wonder what would happen if I didn’t eat meat.”
“At first I tried vegetarian so I was still eating dairy because I really liked cheese but I found it made no difference, it didn’t detract from my football or my energy levels. So then I thought I’d try it without the dairy and I found it made no difference at all, so I kind of done an experiment for about a year and found that it made no difference if I ate dairy or not or ate meat or not.”
“Then I lapsed basically, but it stuck with me. I knew there was an ethical issue there and it was to do with commerce as well but I also knew that some people depended on selling animal products to earn their keep and that was therefore an ethical dilemma. If you just shut it all off then hundreds of people are out of business and many more are unemployed, how do you do it? That lived with me at a low level for ten to twenty years.”
“It was only then in my late thirties that I thought I don’t need to live eating meat. By that time, I was married and the kids were still in primary school. I didn’t want to force them to believe anything just because I do it. Christine my wife, was great and Katie, my daughter who is the younger of the two she started thinking she’ll not eat meat as well and she did that for a while. Both my children and my wife are progressively eating less meat and dairy and I think it’s just because I was there doing it. I was never trying to push them on it.”
The vegan community seems to be growing, what’s been your experience of it?
“A big part of the community is this sub-culture of being informal and being relaxed as opposed to being stiff upper lip. There’s a tolerance of other lifestyles and being ethical whether someone is vegan, vegetarian, carnivore there’s still an ethic about it, that’s a community, one where you know you can have conversations about various things and no one is going to turn around and shock you by saying, ‘I hate you for thinking that way.’”
“It was the same at Vegfest, I was doing a talk at it and there was a sense that there were people from different walks of life but you knew the very nature of them being there, everything was friendly. It was great to be in a place like that.”
And what do you see for the future of veganism?
“I think veganism will reach a critical mass because I think all the vegetarians will become vegan and it’ll multiply it by ten. Also, this generation who are currently of school or university age, I think they’ll be 10-20% vegan by the time they’re able to make their own life choices completely.”
Do you have any advice or wisdom you can pass onto our readers who may be vegan or are considering veganism?
“I’m not a reactionary or revolutionary person at heart, I like things to evolve because I think it causes less hurt and you still get there in the long run.”