What does the rise of ‘Plant-Based’ mean for the Vegan Movement?

Five years ago, if you asked someone to paint a picture of the average vegan, they might have described the classic trope of hemp and unseasoned tofu that defined the movement for decades. Times have changed. Now the rise of avocado related hashtags and ‘clean eating’ has fuelled an explosion of plant-based cookbooks and vegan cafes. No longer on the fringes, the idea of cutting out animal products is now mainstream and the numbers are impressive: 542,000 people in Britain currently follow a vegan diet, up from an estimated 150,000 ten years ago1. However, a new stereotype appears to be rooting in the public perception of plant-eaters – and she’s young, Instagramable, and gluten-intolerant.

Looking around the crowds at the recent Scottish Vegan Festival held in Edinburgh, it would be hard to argue that this new cliché is the dominant demographic seen exploring the myriad of stalls selling donuts, artisan cashew cheese, and bbq jackfruit. The visitors represented every age and ethnic group, and the gender split appeared even. Statistically unusual, according to the figures quoted by Alex Lockwood2, speaking at the festival on the topic of men in the vegan movement. Only 37% of vegans in the UK are male and they made up only 10% of those who took part in Veganuary this year. When asked whether the plant-based Instagram trend was beneficial to the growth of the movement, he praised the fashionable interest –

‘One of the things you learn through working in advertising is that people are being hit by messages from different directions and that is probably more useful for them in terms of changing their behaviour. . . If a twenty-year old is seeing a celebrity talking about veganism and their lecturer talking about veganism and they’re seeing it on the BBC iPlayer from Simon Amstell [Carnage], they’re getting that message from a number of places. The more repetition there is, the better it is for the movement.’

There is clear overlap between the vegan lifestyle and the plant-based diet, as everyone has different reasons for initially making the change. The idea that going vegan for the health benefits is a less valid decision than doing so to help animals or the environment risks alienating a large percentage of people coming to the community. It would be divisive to completely disassociate from a trend that has encouraged so many to decrease their consumption of animal products. Yet, arguably the high cost of gluten free and ‘free-from’ foods creates a perception that eating plant-based is for the privileged few.

As with all trends, they inevitably come and go. There is a fear amongst the community that when veganism stops being fashionable, people will regard it as just another fad. Lockwood has a more positive outlook – ‘You know, some people will fizzle out. There’s the famous statistic from the US that there are more lapsed vegetarians than there are vegetarians. It is so clear to me that the numbers are growing around veganism in the last few years through word of mouth. There are more people from different walks of life. . . It seems to me that’s not going to change. Celebrities will get less interested in veganism, sure. But what’s actually growing on the ground seems to be stronger and more solid.’

It is difficult to claim that more people choosing to ditch meat and dairy can be a negative, regardless of the reasons behind their decision. If there is a backlash against plant-based eating in the future, the vegan movement will undoubtedly endure. As long as the enthusiasm displayed by people like the visitors to the festival continues, it will draw others to a lifestyle that is growing to tasty new heights every year.

1 The Vegan Society, https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/key-facts, correct 9/4/17.

2 Alex Lockwood is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Sutherland, associated with the Vegan Society and author of The Pig in Thin Air: An Identification.